Friday, July 30, 2010

Stop 1: Museums of Canada

Since posting a round of  museum  reviews last summer, a few people have asked for more.  Before I could do so, I had to visit some new museums.

One of the highlights of the sabbatical was the opportunity to visit museums in Peru, Turkey, France, Germany, and Spain.  But I start with ones closer to home:  in  my Canadian backyard.
In this review:

  • Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto).  
  • Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec (which featured the Barbie exhibit mentioned in my tweet about this posting)
  • Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) 
  • Textile Museum of Canada   

Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto) (  I visited on a Wednesday evening (when the museum is open late and admission is free), with a private group that had our own private docent tour.  As a result, my experience in this museum was different than a typical visit, when I visit on my own, and choose the galleries and objects I prefer to see, as well which galleries and objects I explore in-depth.  As a tradeoff, I benefitted from the selections and insights of a museum staffer, who is far better informed than I am.

Like the nearby Royal Ontario Museum, this one was recently expanded with a major addition by a star architect.  Frank Gehry, the architect of this expansion, is a native Torontonian and that was mentioned several times in the docent talk.

The docent talk highlighted the modern collection, which has its requisite examples of American modern painters, but also a number of works by Canadians.  Frankly, I was more impressed by the gallery of the Group of Seven, Canada’s most famous painters, and an looming open space behind it that acts as a hallway between galleries, a gallery for exhibiting massive pieces, like the wood carvings from the West Coast of Canada, and a resting and contemplation space.  I’ve never seen a space quite like it in a museum and spent most of my time in it with my jaw dropped.

I can honestly say I enjoyed the visit but can’t say I really have much of a sense of this museum, which is the largest in Canada and one of the most significant of its type in North America.  I’ll need a return visit.

Musee National des Beaux Arts du Quebec (Quebec City) (  My partner and I made the day trip to Quebec to see a pair of temporary exhibits at the museum: a just-opened exhibit on the haute couture of Paris and London, and an about-to-be closed exhibit on design in Quebec.

Although, as I would learn on my travels, the Europeans often showcase the “applied arts” of clothing design, product design, and furniture design (among others) in their own museums.  But North American typically include them as a sidekick to paintings in encyclopedic art museums (ones like the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston.  Although on permanent display, these exhibitions often feel like footnotes to the paintings, both in terms of their locations (usually in secondary locations in the museum) and in terms of the emphasis they receive in the promotion of their museums.  (At least, it seems that way to me.)

In recent years, however, some museums have highlighted applied arts collections.  The Metropolitan has been a leader in this area, with well-publicized exhibitions of designer dresses.  The Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts, too, has highlighted the applied arts, both with a blockbuster exhibition of the work of Yves St.-Laurent and to promote its then-newly acquired collection of streamlined art.

But these exhibitions are still more the exception than the rule, so the opportunity to see two special exhibitions of applied arts at once was a unique opportunity for someone interested in design.

The exhibition, Golden Age of Couture: Paris and London, 1947-57, prepared in conjunction with the Victoria and Albert Museum of London, highlighted the golden age of couture following World War II.  Although the clothing was the highlight (and did not disappoint), the well-described exhibition also provided insights into the broader context in which the designers worked.  The exhibition opened by describing the influence of the economic and emotional tolls of the war on the post-war period, and how those translated into fashion.  A significant part of the display explained how the couture industry worked, and another explained both the design and creation process of couture fashions (including the role of small businesses that specialize in items like feathers and beads).  

Coincidentally, one of the museum’s curators had a Barbie collection and, in conjunction with this exhibition, the museum had put together a brief (three- or four-week) temporary exhibition of the collection.  I had read about this in advance and thought the idea was silly.

I was too dismissive.

The exhibition was impressive on three levels.  First, I didn’t think that much of Barbie (admittedly influenced by feminist friends who declared, in vain, that their daughter’s rooms were Barbie-free zones).  Second, the design of the exhibition made effective use of an admittedly unusual space. One wing of the Musee National des Beaux Arts once served as a prison, and the six “cases” of the exhibition were displayed in the six prison cells.  Although the spaces are a bit narrow and dark, they served as perfect backdrops for the cases, each of which depicted a scene with several Barbies from a given time period wearing typical dress.  The third way in which the exhibit impressed was the way in which Barbie’s fashions so closely paralleled those on display in the Haute Couture exhibition. (The excellent labels accompanying the exhibition helped heighten those links.)  In fact, the coincidence seemed kind of eerie.  Perhaps those parallels inspired the curator to propose this temporary exhibition.

The Barbie exhibition was a sidetrip on the way to the exhibition on design in Quebec, which highlighted all types of design—industrial, furniture, transportation, domestics, graphic, and even information design.  The exhibition was organized by period rather than by type of design.  On the one hand, this organization displays several impressive objects, some of which will be familiar, and gives  visitors a sense of dominant approaches (if any) in a given period.  But given the breadth of types of design covered, it felt a bit like flipping channels with a remote.  The period descriptions were brief and provided only the slimmest of insights into what drove design of a given period, and visitors would have to trace developments within any given type of design on their own.  Furthermore, exhibitions in other museums in the region that hard-core visitors (like me) might have visited have suggested that broad social influences often affected design in particular periods, as the Montreal Voit Grand exhibition at the Canadian Centre for Architecture, which explored how an expansive mood influenced the city in the 1960s.

But I was delighted that the exhibition featured examples of book and pamphlet design (design that’s usually overlooked in other places).  The exhibition also impressed upon me the extent of design work in Quebec, and the worthiness of this topic for future exhibitions, or even a museum of its own.

Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) (Toronto) (  One of the three major museums in Toronto (the other being the Art Gallery of Ontario and the Science Centre of Ontario), this one features an eclectic collection.  To be honest, the collection really defies description.  In Europe, the collections of arts of Oceania and Africa would be described as ethnographic, but that doesn’t explain the extensive collection of Asian art or decorative arts of Europe, including an extensive collection of armor.  Part of the collection might be described as natural history, but how does the textiles collection fit in.  Perhaps this eclectic nature is what makes museum one of the most unique in the world.

Adding to its unique nature is its building: an historic (by North American standards) mansion-like building, to which Daniel Leibeskind added a huge NAME THE THING.  The occasion of the addition prompted the museum to rearrange and re-interpret its permanent exhibitions, and strengthen its program of temporary, blockbuster exhibitions.

Even with visits on two consecutive visits, I barely scratched the surface of the collections in the museum.  One week, I spent the majority of my time visiting the temporary exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls and taking a quick stroll through the natural history galleries; the next week, I spent the majority of my time visiting the European decorative arts collection.

Like most blockbuster exhibits, the Dead Sea Scrolls one was well-documented, sumptuously displayed, built around breath-taking objects, and chockablock with people.  Oh, and it concluded with a large temporary gift shop to purchase a memento of the experience.  What pleasantly surprised me about this exhibition was its successful efforts to put the creation of the Dead Sea Scrolls into their historical context.

The natural history exhibits primarily relied on displays of habitats and had a strong focus on current thinking in ecology.  Although the display was impressive and the labels heart-felt, I wasn’t 100 percent sure that this exhibition was exploring territory that is better covered by the Field Museum in Chicago and the recently remodeled Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa.

In contrast, the displays of decorative arts is somewhat unique in Canada.  Although the Montreal Musee des Beaux Arts contains a collection of decorative arts, it displays each piece individually, out of context.  In contrast, the Royal Ontario Museum displays much of its decorative arts in room-like settings, so people get a sense of the use and historical context of the object.  Neither approach is right or wrong; each merely provides visitors to experience the object differently.

The one exception was a temporary exhibition on Wedgewood, which explored the history of Wedgewood china, from its beginnings to today.  Objects were displayed in groupings and by period, but not in context.  This approach lets viewers appreciate the beauty of the objects, and the labels described their manufacture.

The eclecticism of the museum is one of its strengths; its layout is not.  Although—to some extent—a museum like this should let visitors wander and discover new things, but for those who are visiting to see something particular, that something particular should be easily accessible.

That’s not the case of the ROM.  Its Crystal has more floors than the main building, and sometimes. Access is by a single, slow elevator.  (Atlanta’s High Museum had a similar transportation problem before its addition.  Apparently, some architects only see their buildings as works of art, and forget that people actually have to use and traverse them.)  I could raise other concerns but, suffice it to say, my feeling is that, when museums pay 9 figures for an addition, they shouldn’t have to build yet another addition so people can figure their way through it, as will be necessary with this museum.  

Textile Museum of Canada (Toronto) (  On the one hand, this tiny museum, tucked on an upper level of a non-descript building on a side street near University Avenue in Toronto, isn’t the easiest to find.  On the other hand, it’s worth the effort.

The museum collects, studies, and exhibits both fabric and the clothing made from it.  It seems to collect from all of the world, although the textiles of Asia seemed to be most prominently displayed when I visited.  Excellent labels provide a context for the manufacture and use of the textiles, and describe the significance and unique characteristics of individual objects on display.  One part of the permanent exhibition, fibrespace, explains the basic technical qualities of fabric and its manufacture (and even has looms that visitors can use to experience this, although they were not available the evening I visited).

The one limitation of the museum is its size; it’s tiny.  Although the low ceilings and narrow aisles between cases support the low-light atmosphere necessary for displaying textiles, they also make the space feel crowded and hamper efforts to highlight the sumptuousness of the fabrics on display.

Summing Up: Future posts on this blog will explore some of the themes in this posting, themes that have particular interest to information, instructional, and experience designers:

  • Designing public spaces for the humans who actually have to get through them
  • The need for a design museum in Quebec
  • Structuring access to the permanent exhibitions in museums

Next post:  The Museums of Lima, Peru

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