Thinking past the museum gallery white box


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Museums, says art historian Carol Duncan, “are rituals of display of power and wealth.”

Although they are often seen as public institutions, most art museums started out as showcases for the collections of wealthy founders and donors. Eli Broad’s push to build his personal museum is only the latest example; J. Paul Getty and Henry E. Huntington were so invested in their museum legacies that they chose to be buried on the grounds of the Getty Villa and the Huntington Gardens, respectively. Although there are no titans of industry interred on the campus of the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, its buildings memorialize their names: Ahmanson, Hammer, Broad.

The curator’s job, says Duncan, is to give artworks meanings that transcend the mere display of affluence. In the past, this has meant presenting art objects as paragons of aesthetic achievement, but there has been much discussion in recent years about how museums can make their holdings more accessible and relevant to the general public, not just those with an art history education.


Now in the midst of a major redesign of its galleries for European art, LACMA is rethinking the display of its permanent collection, which spans the 12th through early 20th centuries. For the most part, curator J. Patrice Marandel is sticking to the traditional art historical narrative, organizing works by time period and national school. But he has made some interesting changes, mixing objects from different time periods and places and restyling the walls and lighting in more historically accurate fashion. These seemingly modest efforts reflect larger curatorial trends that emphasize not just aesthetic contemplation but a more complex understanding of the past.

To read the complete story in the Arts & Books section, click here.

-- Sharon Mizota