By Cathryn Keller
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, October 7, 2007
The Post asked four respected Washington curators about the exhibitions they've dreamed of doing but have never been able to stage.
Acting director, Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History
My dream exhibition would be one that would draw from many different disciplines in the natural world, and help people understand how scientists know what we know.
For example, we have many different collections and explanatory facts about them -- how we know the geological age of a rock or fossil, how we identify mammals or butterflies -- yet a person has to go through the museum and understand in a piecemeal fashion.
Scientists know by what they can measure and infer. If I could build a large hall where visitors could do 30-second experiments, it would create the excitement scientists have to ask questions, synthesize and integrate key facts and use the information to put together a larger story. This is important because people in general -- scientists as well -- have different ways to distinguish between what we know from evidence and what we believe, and to consider the reconciliation of evidence and belief.
One advantage that we didn't have even five years ago that's new today is our ability to use electronic graphics. So it's not a matter of a lab experiment, but we could simulate a lab experiment so a visitor could go away understanding experimental technique. Visitors would see and print out the results.
My dream hall would have scientists in it. It would be interactive. People would ask questions, scientists would explain. Visitors could grasp the excitement of scientific curiosity, problem-solving, discovery, understanding -- a wonderful reward!
Why do you think this hasn't been done yet?
Clearly, it's expensive to construct these experiments. There's scientific complexity, drawing from lots of different disciplines, e.g. if you look at the age of fossils -- geology, stratigraphy (how to age rocks), human physiology, anatomy -- it would require bringing together many different disciplines.
And it's conceptually difficult: How do we make science understandable to non-scientists?
Senior curator of sculpture, National Gallery of Art
You won't be surprised to hear that my chief priority if I were planning an exhibition in D.C., the U.S. or U.K. would be to bring something completely new, to introduce people to something about which they know nothing at all. At the top of my list is Italian painting of the 19th century. The most striking example is Francesco Hayez (1791-1882), the leading historical painter and portrait painter in the first half of the 19th century. His painting was compared with that of Ingres, the great French portrait painter, yet very few people know his work. The last room in the Pinacoteca di Brera in Milan is stunning, one of the best-designed rooms in any museum anywhere.
In this exhibition, I would include Hayez portraits of the nobility of Lombardy. The women are soulful, the men seem possessed by some sort of inner excitement you can sense. I would also include his historical paintings. There's a very famous picture of a desolate woman, an allegory for what Italy suffered under Austrian domination. There are large history paintings, and paintings of seduction and betrayal. Another famous work is "The Kiss" (1859), an illustration of Romeo and Juliet, with extraordinary representation of her satin dress. The paintings are exquisitely detailed, costumed, theatrical. They remind one of the great bel canto operas of the period, by Bellini, Rossini and so on. They are expressive as well as very beautiful.
His art is central to much of what happened in the 19th century.
What prevents the organization of a Hayez exhibition?
Increasingly, people tend to put on exhibitions which they know will be a success. Exhibitions are very expensive. You have to get loans from private collections, and you have to borrow things from abroad. It's a tremendous expense. The problem with the exhibitions I am talking about, exhibitions which are trying to reevaluate something, trying to draw attention to something which has been ignored, is that they could remain obscure and unvisited, so it could only therefore be done successfully in a major institution. People would then say, "Oh, he must be a major artist because the exhibition is in a major institution." Major institutions would be more easily able to find the sponsorship, the support, which would be a precondition for putting such an exhibition on.
Director, Textile Museum
One of my exhibitions is an exhibition actually scheduled at the Textile Museum for spring of 2009. This is a show we're calling "Hippie Chic" (as a working title). It's an unusual show for us, a fashion show. It's a good look at the street wear of the 1960s. To our knowledge no one has ever focused on this. It has interesting points of relevance that we will extend. For example, we'll look at ethnographic materials brought home from the ashrams, Africa and the Peace Corps, by Americans who lived overseas and got hooked. And at the other end, we will look at the high-fashion response in the early 1970s; for example, Yves Saint Laurent began doing things influenced by hippie chic. This was an important moment when high fashion changed, linked to the street and the street was influenced by high fashion rather than the other way around.
Director of curatorial affairs, Corcoran Gallery of Art
I have a lot of shows in my mind that I've always wanted to do. One is the history of photography through images of children. I've always been interested in how you can present the history of photography in a way that takes people away from the stereotypical, almost iconic images everyone already knows. And I'm also very interested in how children in our culture are viewed. This is a way to work on both. There is amazing work you can show, from Lewis Carroll in Victorian England to Lewis Hine's photographs that helped change child labor laws in the early years of the 20th century. A lot of history is wrapped up in this idea.
There are phenomenal pictures of children created throughout the whole history of photography. The earliest were postmortem images made when children died. This was a way to remember, which is still what photography is about in the digital age. Children were seen in a certain way by the great 19th-century English photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, and very differently in the U.S. in the 1960s. I would create a script for the exhibition bringing in many of the great photographers, from the Victorians to Robert Frank, Weegee and Walker Evans from the mid-20th century, to contemporary artists like Sally Mann, Jim Goldberg and Wendy Ewald. I would like the show to bring us in through images we know today. We would see a lot of contemporary work; contemporary artists are really interested in these issues, though contemporary images are often highly manipulated, not necessarily documentary.
Some contemporary artists look at how children in our culture are abused and thrown away. One of my inspirations for this is "Raised by Wolves," an exhibition I did at the Corcoran with Jim Goldberg's photographs of runaway teenagers living on the streets in California. And when you look not only at photographs by famous artists but also at archives and focus in on children, you can learn a lot about how we imagine ourselves.
I'm interested in building in a component of this exhibition that could allow children to make their own images, to image themselves. The amazing photographer Wendy Ewald gives cameras to kids. She teaches children as young as 5 or 6 to see their own lives by making images of their own world and their dreams.
When can we see this exhibition? What prevents you from organizing it?
It's a serious exhibition. Childhood is something everyone has a stake in; it's part of everyone's world. The problem with an exhibition like this is you need to be able to draw enough of an audience, to make it like a best-selling novel. The hard thing would be to express the ideas in order to get the necessary support to promote it well enough, so people know about it. But if we have the budget and all the resources we need, then it shouldn't be a problem!