Modern museums are a part of consumption culture because they offer special aesthetic experiences (Biehl‐Missal and Lehn 235). The satisfaction of a visitor depends on the perceived value of the experience, which is directly connected to the value of the objects displayed in the museum (Bitgood 12; Monti and Keene 6). The attention of the visitors is very important to a museum’s success, especially in the competitive modern-day environment (Bitgood 10; Sturken and Cartwright 62). Several methods can be employed to improve or highlight the value of objects, and in the present paper, the Crocker Art Museum is examined to demonstrate the use of some of these methods (Falk and Dierking 31; Sturken and Cartwright 62-66). In particular, lighting, placement, protection, and description, as well as their combinations, seem to contribute to the creation of value hierarchy of the museum’s objects.
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According to Sturken and Cartwright, “ownership is a key factor in establishing value in art” (62). This statement can be exemplified by the collections and exhibitions of the Crocker Art Museum. The pieces that are owned by the museum have a specific element in their description that specifies how the object was acquired and whether it was added to a particular collection or not. Apart from that, the museum works to display its possessions in the most attractive ways. The lighting and placement of collection and exhibition pieces are typically aimed at either highlighting or increasing the value of an object (Biehl‐Missal and Lehn 250). Naturally, the value depends on the characteristics of an object, including physical (size, materials, shape) and non-physical ones (for example, age or ownership) (Monti and Keene 6). However, certain methods of display, which may be connected to the logic of commodity display, allow museums to improve the value and attractiveness of certain pieces (Biehl‐Missal and Lehn 235). For example, the settings of objects seem to be of importance: The greatest part of the Crocker Art Museum has a rather minimalistic interior design. The main part of the Victorian mansion wing, which displays the paintings, can be used to exemplify this idea. In the wing, the walls are monotonous blue and white; the ceiling does not have any decorations, and the floors are mostly plain as well. Thus, the visitors are not supposed to be distracted by the settings. The lighting in the wing also appears to be especially beneficial for the paintings with bright but plain lamps equally distributing the light between the works. Traditionally viewed as examples of “high culture,” the paintings are meant to be the center of visitors’ attention.
Apart from that, Sturken and Cartwright suggest that “collecting always involves the elements of hierarchy and value judgments” (63). At Crocker Art Museum, the hierarchy is not immediately obvious, and the majority of works appear to be more or less equally displayed. Certain differences in the placement and protection can be explained by the characteristics of objects like size and fragility. Larger pieces tend to be protected by signs indicating that they should not be touched, but they rarely appear under glass. Smaller pieces are more likely to be protected with glass, and some of them have separate cases while others are grouped with several pieces of art. For instance, the Loet Vanderveen Collection contains large wooden ancestor figures created by unknown artists that are grouped together and not placed under glass. Their descriptions offer details on their cultural meaning, style, and other related information. The collection is soon followed by several works that have been gifted to the museum. Among these objects, a medium-sized fiber-and-leather container from Somalia is displayed separately, but a group of smaller, fragile-looking works (“Sowei” by a Mende artist, “Power Figure” by a Kasongo artist, and “Male Figure” by a Luba artist) is placed in one case. All these works, including the container, were created by unknown artists, and most of them have short descriptions; it appears that little is known about them. Still, they are protected better than bigger objects; possibly, it is done because they are easier to harm. From this perspective, the protection of the objects can be regarded as another form of demonstrating and ensuring ownership, thus maintaining the value of the objects.
Temporary and permanent exhibitions and collections do not seem to be crucially different, even though they are distinctly set apart. For example, “JapanAmerica” is marked by special stands and signs, some of which contain the general description of the purpose of the exhibition. It is noteworthy, however, that permanent collections seem to be more likely to be displayed in hallways and various transitional places than temporary exhibitions. An example of such positioning is a sculpture called “Falling Water, Santa Cruz XX,” which was created by Jack Zajac in 1992 and gifted to the museum in 2009. It is placed close to the entrance and the ticket service, which makes it look like a decoration rather than a piece of art on display. The work is provided with a rather detailed description, which suggests paying attention to the way bronze rivulets represent a woman’s figure, and a sign that warns visitors against touching the sculpture. It is not otherwise protected, but the latter aspect can be explained by its large size. The description sign is readable and does not appear to be lacking information when compared to those of other works, but the placement of the sculpture seems to set it apart from other objects.
The information that is provided for the sculpture appears to exemplify another point suggested by Sturken and Cartwright. The authors discuss the way power can be enacted “without force or explicit directives, but rather through more passive techniques such as education, the cultivation of taste, and the cultivation of daily routines” (Sturken and Cartwright 66). Indeed, the description of the “Falling Water” sculpture contains a direct statement of what should be looked for, which can be regarded as an attempt to promote the intended, encoded meaning or its dominant, hegemonic reading and prevent viewers from decoding the work differently. This description section is called “LOOK FOR” and seems to use imperative mood; it is provided for other pieces of art, but it is not added to the descriptions of artifacts. Thus, the educational element of decoding control seems to be present in the descriptions of the objects of the Crocker Art Museum.
In general, the descriptions of similar objects are performed in similar ways. For paintings and sculptures, they typically include the information on authors, titles, materials, origin, and acquisition as well as discussions of topics and suggestions on how to look at the objects. For artifacts, descriptions contain information on authors, titles, origin, materials, and acquisition as well as reports on the history of the objects or related events. For instance, the Ancestral Plaque by an unknown Abelam artist is placed in its cultural context: Its description explains its purpose, which is to honor and record the names of influential ancestors. The style of the carvings is also provided with cultural and ideological commentary: It is stated that the carvings are used to honor the spirits of ancestors and that the imagery of the work (hornbills) must represent a clan since clans of Abelam tend to choose birds as their totems. Other artifacts have less information provided. For instance, the descriptions of Asmat spears have only the information concerning the materials, origin, and acquisition. While it is possible that less is shown about such artifacts because less is known about them, this discrepancy may also signal lower value or hierarchy status or less intent to control decoding.
Biehl‐Missal and Lehn demonstrate that not every museum has mastered the logic of consumerist-targeting display (253). Similarly, Monti and Keene point out that the exhibitions of modern museums are influenced by multiple factors, some of which are not correlated with value creation or enhancement, including aspects like the opinion of the curator or practical considerations (8). In fact, the latter may explain several observed patterns, including the use of glass cases for more fragile objects and the lack of those for big objects, which are less likely to be in danger of being stolen and would need larger cases. Similarly, the decoration of hallways with owned objects seems to be convenient because sculptures like “Falling Water” have an aesthetic value, which contributes to the atmosphere of the museum. Moreover, the discussion of what is not shown by the museum is bound to be based on assumptions rather than facts. Therefore, one cannot state that the exhibitions of the Crocker Art Museum are representative of the principles that are discussed by Sturken and Cartwright. Still, the current paper suggests that certain patterns can be found in the museum’s methods of placement, lighting, and information management. These patterns may be the result of the considerations that are similar to Sturken and Cartwright’s opinions on collecting and display, which results in a type of a hierarchy of the museum’s objects that supports their value.
Biehl‐Missal, Brigitte, and Dirk Lehn. “Aesthetics and Atmosphere in Museums: A Critical Marketing Perspective.” The International Handbooks of Museum Studies, edited by Ruth Phillips, John Wiley & Sons, 2015, pp. 235-258.
Bitgood, Stephen. Attention and Value. Routledge, 2016.
Falk, John, and Lynn Dierking. The Museum Experience Revisited. Routledge, 2016.
Monti, Francesca, and Suzanne Keene. Museums and Silent Objects. Routledge, 2016.
Sturken, Marita, and Lisa Cartwright. Practices of Looking. 2nd ed., Oxford University Press, 2009.