Why is the Hirshhorn Museum displaying Jean Dubuffet’s ‘The Soul of Morvan,” a gnarled little man made of grape wood and vines mounted on a slag and tar base, but not the same artist’s “Butterfly-Wing Figure,” a collage made from, yes, butterfly wings and considered by some to be one of the collection’s most charming items?
Why isn’t Johannes Vermeer’s tiny but dazzling “The Girl With the Red Hat” on view now at the National Gallery of Art?
Walking across the National Mall, you’re tempted to think that architects and legendary collectors shaped Washington’s museums, and they did. But curators, who make the thousands of this-but-not-that judgments, who pluck one work from the storage vaults and send another away, shape them even more.
Together, the city’s curators have something like 140 million things to choose from but no more than 1 percent of these are on view. Most of the rest are in exile, awaiting a chance to return.
Light sensitivity keeps many things in the closet. Works on paper — watercolors, drawings, etchings, photographs, maps, documents — deteriorate. At the Corcoran Gallery, for example, the rule is that a photograph on display for six months must go back in storage for six years. The museum, like many others, has a space devoted to photographs, but the pictures are constantly changed.
The story’s the same with Franklin’s clothes; light has already faded them from the original plum to a husky brown. The suit can be shown only for a few months at a time, so when it goes back into storage, curators rotate in another garment from the same period.
Curators don’t have a lot of wiggle room in choosing how long such objects can be displayed.
When it comes to the most famous works, curators don’t have much leeway either. People who go to the Phillips Collection expect to see Jean Renoir’s “Luncheon of the Boating Party,” which shows rosy-cheeked revelers at a café on the Seine. One of the most famous pictures in Washington, it never goes into storage. The same goes for the Wright Brothers airplane, the Hope Diamond and the National Gallery of Art’s jewel-like paintings by Vermeer. (The National Gallery occasionally loans its Vermeers to other museums, which is why “The Girl With the Red Hat” isn’t up.)
And some items almost never get out of storage. The Freer and Sackler Galleries, which hold the Smithsonian’s collection of Asian art, own lots of pottery shards. They’re invaluable for scholars, but not much to look at.
Between “Luncheon of the Boating Party” and the rarely seen shards is a vast array of objects in the middle — items worth showing off but not musts. That’s where curators earn their keep.