Friday, July 16, 2010

Museum Review: Da Vinci Traveling Exhibition

Da Vinci Exhibition
Traveling, private exhibition.
Viewed in Montreal, Quebec
Recommendation: 1 star (out of 5)

After closing its cinema, and interested in providing a non-retail attraction in the complex to not only generate revenue but also important foot traffic to its upper levels, the management of Montreal’s Eaton Centre converted its top floors into exhibition space. It leases the space to private companies, who produce traveling, blockbuster exhibits that, under other circumstances, would have been displayed in the special exhibitions galleries of museums.

And when they present these exhibitions, producers generally charge more than they would charge for similar exhibitions at museums—and don’t have to share the revenue for them.

Wanting to see how the Eaton Centre handled a privately mounted exhibition but being too cheap to pay the $25 or $30 entry fee for the Titanic exhibition, I decided to see a less expensive exhibition on Leonardo Da Vinci. (Since then, both exhibits have departed. The Titanic exhibition is now on view in a gallery in Times Square owned by the Discovery Channel.)

And I sincerely wanted to learn more about Leonardo Da Vinci, someone who has always interested me because of his diverse talents in, and influences on, art and technology. Until now, though, I apparently wasn’t sufficiently interested to invest much time in this learning.

But I wanted to find out, so I checked it out. Although the promotional materials warned that the machines in the exhibition were constructed from his models (and, therefore, not built by DaVinci, nor from his time), at $13 admission (the reduced afternoon rate), my expectations were still high.

Too high.

This exhibition was a disappointment. Everything in it was a replica, including the artwork, thus violating one of the first rules of museums: the centerpiece is the object and what makes the object special is that it’s the “real thing,” the one that the master himself touched and created. The crux of this exhibit, of course, was its ability to digitally reproduce the paintings, but the significance of this was lost on me, other than it was cheaper than transporting and securing the real ones. There are other advantages to the digital reproduction, but I only learned about those from exhibits at other museums. This one sure did not explain.

The exhibition could have recovered with stronger labeling, but it lacked that, too. In fact, the exhibit’s designers seemed to have no sense of the visitor experience. Visitors were thrust into a gallery of paintings. All were replicas (I think they were digitally produced), some were replicas of copies. Although the paintings subjects and techniques were thoroughly documented, as were some of the tidbits emerging from conservation (such as sections painted over), the gallery thrust visitors into the paintings without putting them into perspective or relating them to the inventions, which were the primary promotional item for the exhibition.

A background on DaVinci’s life is presented about one-third of the way through the exhibition, in a hall with a timeline presenting the highlights of DaVinci’s life and relating them to current events of his time. This was helpful, but a narrative that put DaVinci and his plethora of talents into context would have been helpful, too.

Next were the inventions, which were ostensibly grouped by use—such as flying machines, military equipment and so forth. These groupings had nominal labeling, but I would have appreciated more information about why he proposed most of these inventions, and which ones were actually built and tested and which ones remained solely proposals on paper. (I guess a true DaVinci scholar would know, but I’m not one, nor were the majority of people visiting the exhibition.)

One of the biggest disappointments of the exhibit was the “Do not touch” signs on many of the models. One of the benefits of using models is that visitors can use them. The producers ignored yet another principle of effective exhibit design.

Although I started this experience hoping that I would have an excellent opportunity to learn about DaVinci and see how private producers adapt museum exhibition techniques, I left feeling disappointed on an intellectual level and an elevated respect for museum exhibition designers.

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