Museum 'Closets' That Have Plenty In Store for Visitors

By Blake Gopnik
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, December 31, 2006

The reopening of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, closed for six years for renovation, was one of the major art events of 2006. But the best -- and potentially most influential -- feature of the museum's new home turned out to be tucked away in back. The Luce Foundation Center for American Art (too bad the name's so clunky) is a soaring skylit space where the museum displays more than 3,000 of its possessions, arrayed across three stories of Victorian mezzanines.

In this 20,000-square-foot "open storage" area, works of art crowd against one another in glass cases and drawers, organized by medium and object type. Here a collection of folk carvings. There a drawer of modern jewelry. Over there, a display of fine basketry. And one floor down, the museum's one Rubens, a Madonna and Child left over from the days when this was the U.S. government's only home for art.

In the museum's main galleries, art lovers are force-fed notions of an "American experience." They're shown only the artworks that are supposed to illustrate the grand course of our culture's history. The museum's open storage is a wonderful counterpoint to that. It lets visitors look first, then decide for themselves which are the questions most worth asking of which works of art. (The center's only flaw is that to get any idea of what it is you're seeing, in most cases you have to leave off looking and head to a computer terminal to get titles and names and dates.)

American Art's open storage allows a visitor to glory in the sheer variety of artistic invention that's come from 300 years of American culture, and to come across gems and peculiarities that maybe haven't quite fit into the art-historical mainstream.

Museums everywhere are starting to recognize that their permanent collections need to be brought out from under the shadow of their gala special exhibitions. The temporary shows steal all the attention, and most of a visitor's time, but the heart of a museum will always be the things it acquires and preserves for posterity -- many of which are almost never seen again once they get put away.

How many Washingtonians have admired the Corcoran's collection of classical ceramics, or the dozens of Thomas Eakins photos at the Hirshhorn? A handful of institutions -- the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver, which helped launch the open storage movement, and then others such as the Brooklyn and Metropolitan museums in New York-- have begun to put the contents of their vaults on public view. By installing open storage, American Art has joined them in letting visitors look deep into the museum's heart and admire the riches stored therein. With luck, other local museums may follow suit.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company