Monday, July 26, 2010

Museum Review: LACMA

One of my favorite summer activities is visiting museums. (I like to do so during the rest of the year, but the academic schedule limits the time available to do so.)

As some of you know, my dissertation research explored the design of museum exhibits. More recently, I’ve done some consulting for museums—developing a three-year plan for exhibits and educational programs for one, and online learning programs for another.

Over the next several days, I’ll be posting entries about some of the museums I visited and share what I found interesting about them. Note that my reviews tend to primarily focus on the ability to learn from an exhibition, as opposed to other characteristics, such as the quality of the objects or the scholarship evident. The first is the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.

Los Angeles County Museum of Art (better known as LACMA)
Los Angeles, California
Recommendation: 3 stars (out of 5)

For those unfamiliar with the museum, this is the largest encyclopedic art museum in the western US, and is in the middle of a huge transformation, which involves linking all of its current buildings in a more comprehensible way (they were built one-by-one and no one seemed to have thought about a way of making the parts interact well as a whole, kind of like Lenox Mall in Atlanta before its 1995 remodeling). The transformation also involves building new pavilions to house different parts of its collection, like the widely reviewed Broad pavilion.

I visited on a Friday evening. To attract visitors that night, the museum offers “pay what you wish” tickets, free jazz, and the option to purchase cocktails and food. It certainly attracted me and my partner, as well as thousands of other people. The place was wall-to-wall people. It seemed that the majority of them stayed outside to hear the free jazz.

To be honest, I was less than impressed with the collection. On the one hand, the museum has tons of space and the largest collection in the West. So I expected to feel overwhelmed by the size of the collection. I wasn’t. For example, art represented in the Latin American art collection really seemed to stop at the northern border of South America. I saw no art of the Inca, Mochico, Sican, and other cultures of Peru, and similar culture in Columbia and Ecaudor. (They might have been there, I just didn’t see them. I certainly would have noticed the impressive gold produced by these people.)

The galleries themselves were eye-catching. The wood paneling throughout the exhibit was among the most spectacular I’ve seen for a gallery, comparable to the Asian galleries in Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts. But that collection overwhelms the visitor with its depth. This collection didn’t.

Similarly, the American decorative arts collection seemed a bit shallow. One might expect that the collection of objects from colonial and early federal periods in the US might be light, as this was from the East, the collection of California decorative arts seemed a bit limited.

Part of the problem might be that the museum is still undergoing its transformation, and perhaps many important pieces are missing. But the galleries I visited were supposed to have been remodeled already.

Similarly, the wayfinding in the museum was poor. On the one hand, the museum is still under reconstruction, so investing in permanent signage isn’t a great idea. But as long as the museum is open, visitors have a right to know where to buy tickets and be advised that, before entering a gallery, tickets are needed (especially important in an open campus setup like the LACMA).

Similarly, with an open campus setup, visitors need to see a map of the campus at the entrance, just as shopping malls provide at their major entrances and universities provide at theirs.

Last, printed material should be up to date. For example, the printed maps and the available signage all indicated that the textile exhibit was open. Only the website and a “closed for reinstallation” sign at the entry to the exhibit advised otherwise.

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