BEHIND THE SCENES AT THE MUSEUM
FOR A NEW SHOW ON PHOTOGRAPHER NICHOLAS MORANT, BANFF’S WHYTE MUSEUM IS COMMITTING PUBLIC ACTS OF ARCHIVING
BY: Jill Sawyer
Venturing into the Rummel Room at the far end of the Whyte Museum of the Canadian Rockies in Banff, visitors might think the gallery had forgotten to put a few things away. Stacked in one corner, a clutch of eight-foot light stands, in another, a pile of long, slightly dusty suitcases. One wall is lined with a typical artifact storage case, a tall bureau faced with shallow, felt-lined drawers. Next to that, a young staffer sits at her desk, working on a computer, as if this corner of the gallery has been transformed into an office.
In a sense, it has. Or more accurately, it’s been transformed into an archival workspace, where artifacts are researched, catalogued, and conserved. Work that normally happens either deep in the back rooms of most galleries and museums, or offsite away from the public eye, forms the substance of this new show at the Whyte — Behind the Scenes with Nick Morant, which will be on through the fall.
In an age where everything is out in the open, people are increasingly hungry for insider info. They want to see how everything works, and the museum world is starting to become more interested in this concept, finding ways to bring visitors a more hands-on, interactive, content-rich, behind-the-scenes experience. For curators and gallery directors, it’s a creative challenge, but one that promises to carry the museum-going experience into the future.
For the Whyte’s Executive Director and Chief Curator, Michale Lang, the concept for this new show started with a visit to The Rooms in St. John’s in 2009. Wandering through that gallery, she came across what in gallery parlance is called an “open storage exhibition” — the collected artifacts of a local St. John’s family with a long history in the area, left untouched for visitors to see in their pre-museum-quality state. “There was a conservator on site, and I picked her brain about how it all worked,” Lang says.
In the three years since, she’s been thinking about ways to bring this idea to the Whyte, finally settling on the Morant collection, which is large enough to make the enterprise worthwhile, and is filled with quirky, interesting objects that tell the story of a talented, creative man.
Nicholas Morant (1910 - 1999) was best-known as one of the Canadian Pacific Railway’s foremost photographers. Hardy and up for almost anything, he travelled the country looking for great shots, archiving the history and scenic beauty of the rail lines, with a short period during World War II when he worked for the Wartime Information Branch, photographing supply manufacturing. One particular beauty spot in Banff National Park, a bend in the Bow River where the rail line hugs the shore, was a frequent subject, and is still unofficially known as “Morant’s Curve”. When he died in 1999, Morant bequeathed more than 500 objects, both personal and professional, and more than 20 artworks from his home and studio in Banff to the Whyte.
Though the collection was accessioned in 2006, the Whyte didn’t have the time or resources to sort through it and start cataloguing. This exhibition gave them a good start. Hiring a couple of young archival assistants, and bringing in a conservator from Calgary once a week, Lang and her staff were able to bring the public into the multi-faceted world of documentation, research, and conserving. “It also allows us to get some work done,” Lang says of the ‘two birds / one stone’ aspect of putting the process on display.
Though there was a huge amount of work leading up to the exhibition (just culling the many multiples of familiar objects in the collection took several dust-filled months), the public response has been gratifying. “People will come in and immediately start asking questions,” Lang says. She’s also heard from several people who knew Morant who have stories to share, and because the exhibition space is staffed constantly with an archival assistant, the Museum gets instant feedback on the show, letting them know which of the artifacts are most intriguing (information stored up for a possible comprehensive exhibition on Morant in the future).
“I think it’s always interesting to put art in context with objects and artifacts,” Lang says. “This might be a work in progress for three or four years, but then once the work is done, we’ll be able to do a real kick-ass exhibition of Nick Morant’s work in context.”
Museums and galleries are looking more and more for opportunities to engage the public in new ways, from costumed characters roaming the exhibition halls, to meticulously prepared demonstrations of the conservator’s art — the Frick Collection in New York has a small exhibition this summer on a research project into Giovanni Bellini’s gorgeous 1475 oil painting St. Francis in the Desert. It’s a long way from the days of packing everything away behind glass and encouraging people to view from a distance.
For Lang, perhaps the most valuable aspect of open storage is the interaction with the public, the immediacy of visitors’ feedback as they get up close to with Morant’s most personal effects. “This puts a face on the whole behind-the-scenes aspect of bringing artifacts into a collection,” she says.
She’s already thinking ahead to other collections that would lend themselves to open storage. The Whyte’s extensive collection of First Nations art and artifacts springs to mind — objects that the public just doesn’t get a chance to see, because there is never enough room to display them. “It would be great to show people the wealth of that.”
GRAND HOTEL: TWITTER-ASSISTED CURATING AT THE VANCOUVER ART GALLERY
The Vancouver Art Gallery is trying something new this year — posting a comprehensive online presence for a show that won’t open until 2013. “We’re opening up the research process to the public sphere,” co-curator Bruce Grenville says about Grand Hotel. The site, a first for the gallery, allows the public to follow the research and curatorial process leading up to the show opening, to interact with curators, and give input and feedback as it’s all coming together.
For Grenville, blogging about the process allows curators to use more casual language than would normally be used in a formal gallery context, and provides the public with a sense of immediacy to the research. It will also get the VAG a head-start on content for the accompanying publication.
Grand Hotel examines the history, design and social construction of hotels. “Everyone has a hotel story,” Grenville says. “They’re part of people’s lives.” The show compiles stories of travel, architecture, and culture in a global context.
Though the United States continues to set the trend in hotel innovation, Grenville says unique hotels can be found around the globe — citing the Michelberger Hotel in Berlin, transformed from a factory space situated on former communist land. It’s a guest experience, he says, “that can only happen in Berlin.”
The show’s website will be continuously updated as the exhibition develops, and include floor plans and design sketches, guest contributions, research papers, photographs, and personal musings from the curators. Particularly keen followers of the process can get updates right away, via Twitter.
The final few weeks before the show will be especially engaging for blog-followers, Grenville says. “People like to know, ‘how does it get to that point when everything comes together?’” By 2013, wired-up fans will know it all. Follow the process at www.grandhotelexhibition.org