WCMA's Reinstallation Project Rethinks Relationships between International Artistic Traditions

In its recent reinstallation project, Reflections on a Museum, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) strips away layers of past art historical thought and museum bias and focus instead on the work of art itself in its historical context. The exhibits juxtapose works of art from different styles, time periods, and cultures, helping the viewer see connections between seemingly opposite artistic traditions and contemplate how a museum’s bias can affect the viewer’s perception of a work of art.

A 20th century African mask, from the Dan people of Liberia, originally used for religious ceremonies. This mask and others like it are featured in "The Object of Art."

The main exhibit, “The Object of Art,” “focuses on what makes an object a work of art and what is the role of the museum in dictating this transformation,” writes the WCMA website’s description of the exhibit. “We strive for less proscription and more possibility in your engagement with the object in the museum.” To do this, the exhibit is as concise as possible on the labels of each work of art, forcing the viewer to wonder what makes the object art and to consider it in light of the works of art that surround it.

The exhibit’s emphasis on the interactions and similarities between works of art helps the viewer look across the boundaries of time and countries that usually organize museum exhibits. “How do practices of museum display—lighting, placement, and information—influence our understanding of objects and the culture they represent?” asks one exhibit label, describing the section on sacred art. For example, African masks used for religious ceremonies are placed directly next to 19th century Qur’ans, and close to a classical-period Greek vase and a 14th century Italian portrait of St. Anthony. The exhibit thus highlights the similarities of the cultures that these sacred objects grew out of and emphasizes their importance as cultural objects rather than abstract artistic forms.

In another example, WCMA curators decided to place 17th century Dutch portraits directly across from modern South African photography. The Dutch portraits, such as Wybrand Simonsz de Geest the Elder’s “Portrait of a Man,” focused on flattering the sitters, all of whom were members of the upper strata of Dutch society.  In contrast, the modern-day photography of Zwelethu Mthethwa portrayed South Africans as they wanted to present themselves, sitting relaxed though stern-faced in front of their every day workplaces and homes. This juxtaposition reminds the viewer that the same people portrayed in the 17th century Dutch portraits were at the same time colonizing South Africa, putting in place an apartheid that would last into the late 20th century.

An Assyrian relief, dating to 880 B.C., featured in "A Collection of Histories"

In a similar vein, the exhibit “A Collection of Histories,” featuring two 9th century B.C. Assyrian reliefs, questions how the context in which an artifact is placed affects a viewer’s experience of a work of art. These two reliefs were excavated by an amateur archaeologist in 1845 in Nimrud, Iraq, then a part of the Ottoman Empire, and were later picked up by Dwight Whitney Marsh,  Class of 1842, a missionary looking for proof of Biblical events in the Nineveh area. Marsh then donated these reliefs to WCMA; they continue to be two of the oldest works of art in the museum.

However, the museum’s view of the reliefs has radically changed over time. “A Collection of Histories” questions whether it was ethical to remove the reliefs from the ancient temple in the first place.  “When an object is removed from its context, does it lose meaning? Does moving an object to a museum add meaning? Is one context or interpretation more valid than another?” the exhibit asks. “By unfolding the layers of history, we can examine the significance of context in shaping meaning and confront an essential question: Who owns the past?”

A third exhibit, “Don’t Fence U.S. In: Crossing Boundaries in American Art,” explores international artistic exchange in 20th century America. While in the 19th century, American artists flocked to Europe for their inspiration and training, New York by the turn of the 20th century had become the world center for modern art. At the same time, American artists were beginning to search for sources of inspiration outside of the Western canon. A paradigm of this cross-cultural exchange is Chilean artist Roberto Matta, whose work “Rain: Mexico, 1941” is featured in the exhibit. Matta received his artistic training in Europe before immigrating to the U.S. He was particularly interested in native Mexican art and in the Zen practice of allowing the artist’s subconscious to take over a work of art; his art is therefore a mix of other themes in the exhibit, such as Japonisme and the 20th-century “Zen-boom,” as well as modern native Mexican art.

The museum reinstallation “mixes artworks of different media from various time periods and places as a reflection of the deepest levels of our value system,” says John Stomberg, Deputy Director of WCMA. “As the college unites individuals from diverse backgrounds, the museum brings together a multiplicity of voices through presenting artworks from around the world and throughout time.”

Click here for WCMA’s press release about Reflections on a Museum.