Over the last few years, owing to the recognition of racial, socioeconomic and gender biases in organizational structures, museums have begun to rethink their purposes and their priorities. Not only have they reconsidered the temporary exhibitions that they mount and the objects that they acquire, but they have also chosen to reexamine how they present their permanent collections in their galleries. This is reflected at the level of the checklist, the installation plan, and the interpretative texts, as well as in the processes through which each of those components is crafted.
This re-visioning is particularly true of collections of Northern European art, which have complicated histories of colonization, the trafficking in enslaved people, and Eurocentrism at their core. No longer tenable are narratives centering the “Golden Age” of Dutch art or celebrations of the collecting histories of founding institutional donors. Rather, new narratives, new modes of working with internal and external stakeholders, and new cultural objectives shape the ways in which collections are being presented in the United States.
CODART asked three members to share their thoughts on recent reinstallation projects to illuminate the ways in which Northern European art is being rethought in museums in the United States.
– Jacquelyn N. Coutré, CODARTfeatures editor
Curatorial Collaboration and Integrating Collections: LACMA’s New Reinstallation
As Assistant Curator of European Painting and Sculpture at LACMA, I have had the pleasure of working on the reinstallation of our permanent collection in the David Geffen Galleries, which will open in 2024. It has been tremendously exciting to work at LACMA at a time when we are undertaking such a transformative project, which will reimagine the campus and pioneer new approaches to permanent collection installations. In the new galleries, art from the museum’s fifteen curatorial departments will be found on one non-hierarchical floor, in installations that will have the ability to periodically rotate. By bringing together all departments on one level in the galleries (fig. 1), art from around the world will share space, and no curatorial department will have its collection off view. The reinstallation of the permanent collection will allow us to trace new historical narratives around the holdings of our collection and vividly illustrate the interconnectedness of cultures across the globe.
In this opportunity to reflect on the reinstallation planning process at LACMA, I will focus on the experience of collaborating with my colleagues across curatorial departments. It has been refreshing to experience the productive possibilities that are opened up when the silos that have traditionally cordoned off curatorial departments from one another are dissolved. Throughout this process, I have been fortunate to work with colleagues who are exceptionally generous in sharing both their collections and their far-ranging expertise.
The planning process for the reinstallation has been overseen by our Exhibitions department, and began in spring 2020, shortly after the curatorial team began working from home due to the pandemic. We were first asked to produce proposals for installations, which we developed in cross-departmental partnerships with one another. These proposals, rooted in the deep historical knowledge of the curators, brought together objects to craft specific narratives with a variety of different approaches. Some are tied to a specific place, stylistic movement, or historical period, while others are cross-temporal, or cross-geographical. Many include diverse media (fig. 2), while others take a focused look at one material or technique. All drew from the strengths of the collection, both visitor favorites and lesser-known gems. As we developed these projects, my colleagues and I found new connections between our fields, which are not as separate from one another as one may think.
Once proposals had been gathered, the Exhibitions department scheduled a series of curatorial meetings to discuss potential organizing principles for the overall layout of the building. I was thrilled that these meetings included and gave weight to the voices of curatorial administrators, curatorial assistants, and assistant curators, as too often junior curatorial staff are sidelined in important discussions. One round of these initial meetings was organized by curatorial level, which allowed groups of assistant curators, for example, to have an open discussion with one another without their supervisors in the virtual room. Once the overarching organizational strategy for the building was established, several additional rounds of meetings further honed the floorplan, section by section. Breakout groups then formed to work further on specific galleries. Across innumerable Zoom screens, my curatorial colleagues and I have worked to whittle down checklists, group objects by themes, and refine our art historical narratives. Although each round of discussion began with a potential layout of the installations produced by the Exhibitions department, this drawing board was always open to suggestions, and continues to be transformed by our collective input.
As a result of this process so far, I have grown a great deal as a curator by diving into areas of art history outside my primary area of specialization. As many recent academic and curatorial projects have demonstrated, medieval and early modern Europe was far from isolated, and was in fact enmeshed in a global network of trade and cultural transmission. While many of our colleagues in non-European fields have long been well-versed in global networks, it is overdue for those with expertise in European art to consider these connections. This is all the more important for my work as a curator in Los Angeles, a city that includes virtually every culture from across the globe.
I am very much looking forward to the next steps in our planning process, which will include reviewing our checklists with conservators and designers to see how our installations will feel in the galleries, continuing our intensive research on the collection, and working collaboratively to develop what I hope will be an inclusive and forward-thinking approach to in-gallery interpretative content. I am also excited to see how what has been thus far a largely curatorial collaboration will transform into one involving other departments through LACMA’s storytelling process. In this process, colleagues from departments across the museum will meet to collectively craft and hone the narrative of each installation. By developing each project this way, we include the indispensable expertise of our colleagues in Education, Publications, Registration, Web and Digital Media, Art Preparation and Installation, and more. As we reconsider our approaches to this and future iterations of the permanent collection installation, I intend to think about curating with communities in Los Angeles. I want to continue to consider and reconsider how we can bring the people of Los Angeles into the galleries, and draw connections between historical European art and local communities in the present.
Permanent collection installations benefit a great deal from the scope and diversity of the expertise contributed to their conception and development. I hope more museums will move towards this kind of approach not only for their permanent collection reinstallations, but as a day-to-day working practice. Too often curatorial silos are not only structural divisions, but are also accompanied by a sense of competitiveness, possessiveness, and opacity. The facilitation of open, transparent collaborations between curatorial departments does not only produce more dynamic installations, but it can allow for a more inclusive and welcoming working environment.
Reimagining the People’s Collection: A New Vision for the North Carolina Museum of Art
Since 2019, curators at the NCMA have been planning a reinstallation of the Museum’s two buildings, scheduled to open to the public in October 2022.
For this project, the curatorial team is reimagining an installation that was put in place twelve years ago with the opening of the Museum’s West Building. The original installation was based on traditional categories of geography and chronology that, as with many museums, have privileged a primarily white, cisgender/male perspective. We seek to tell the truth about the construction of these categories and to evaluate our role in this system. We acknowledge the need to seek new perspectives and narratives that better reflect the reality of our 21st century global society and help tell our collective stories.
The reinstallation will offer insights into specific periods, geographies, and artistic careers, celebrating the histories found in our collection. It will, furthermore, introduce new insights into these histories by offering broader, cross-cultural dialogues that highlight the interconnectivity of art and material culture throughout time. Through our collaborative vision, we seek to interrupt preconceptions, making the histories of our museum and collection transparent and providing a more dynamic, multicultural, and interdisciplinary experience of the arts.
Our approach challenges the often-strict borders between genres, time periods, and media by integrating rotating cross-collection, thematic spaces within the more traditional chronological and geographic displays. The reimagined collection will provide visitors with more opportunities to reflect upon concepts like gender, race, identity, history, and culture. To help us achieve these goals, we worked collaboratively with 11 consultants from around the world, who offered new and diverse perspectives on the reinstallation plans.
The NCMA’s European collection is quite small for a museum of our size: just over 500 objects. This is largely because we historically have not collected works on paper, and the collection consists mostly of paintings. The European collection spans several centuries, from about 1150 through the early 1900s. Its strengths are in medieval and early modern art from the Italian peninsula as well as Dutch and Flemish art from the seventeenth century.
European art is one of the largest collecting areas of the NCMA, beginning in the early 1950s with numerous acquisitions using funds from the State of North Carolina. More than half of the seventeenth-century Dutch and Flemish collections were acquired before the NCMA opened to the public in 1956. Most of these initial acquisitions were vetted by Wilhelm R. Valentiner, who became the NCMA’s first director in 1955. This first group of acquisitions presented a survey of European painting, which was then expanded dramatically by a large gift of art from the Samuel H. Kress Foundation in 1960.
The European galleries have not been comprehensively reinstalled since the opening of the NCMA’s West Building in 2010. We are now seeking to enliven and expand the traditional narratives that have been told in these galleries.
Interpretation will be more diverse and help to make our collection and spaces more accessible and welcoming than ever. This will include bilingual labeling, digital labels, contributions from outside writers, consistent mapping with some maps animated to tell historical narratives, accessible interactives related to works in the collection, and interactives themed to gallery spaces. Some of these accessible interactives are currently being piloted in a temporary exhibition, “PARTICIPATE: Activate the Senses,” in which visitors are welcomed to hear, smell, touch, and otherwise experience NCMA objects (fig. 3).
Key loans from both local and important international collections will also help us to tell stories that are not present in our collection. In addition, interchanges between contemporary and historic works will be positioned throughout both museum buildings. This program, first launched in 2019-20, helps to bring out narratives that have been suppressed or erased from traditional histories of European art. One such pairing, on view for part of 2020, introduced the Dutch galleries to NCMA visitors in a more radical way (fig. 4). This installation, juxtaposing a seascape by Ludolf Backhuysen and a sculpture by the British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare of a headless woman wearing distinctive Dutch wax cloth, was intentionally jarring and prompted questions about the effects of Dutch maritime pride and prowess. These types of pairings will continue in the reinstallation, bringing the relevance of historic objects even more firmly into the present day.
The broad narratives that I am planning for my areas of responsibility within the European collection (Dutch, Flemish, British, and French art from about 1550-1900) include a reimagining of our seventeenth-century Flemish Kunstkamer gallery, new narratives in Dutch and Flemish painting, the legacy of the Grand Tour and collecting in the eighteenth century, and how the Salon/Academy structure in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries shaped art making and built in systems of exclusion that the art establishment is still dealing with today. For example, of more than 500 objects in the NCMA’s European collection, all are by white artists and only two were made by women.
The galleries of Dutch art had been installed in a series of spaces that explicated the development of genres and the flowering of painting and the market in the “Golden Age” of the seventeenth-century Netherlands. While these important narratives will remain to some degree in the reinstallation, Dutch and Flemish art will be combined going forward, and visitors will be introduced at the outset to the conflict between these two territories and the effects that the Dutch Revolt had on not just art making, but also the Dutch economy and European colonization. Recontextualizing the Dutch and Flemish collections as art made largely in the time of conflict and violence, visitors will be prompted to question whose Golden Age this time really was. In this approach, I know that I am aligned with colleagues at many other museums and collections both in North America and Europe, who are re-envisioning familiar works through new, more truthful lenses.
New Ways of Seeing Collections of Dutch and Flemish Art
In November 2021, the MFA opened new galleries dedicated to Dutch and Flemish works of art from the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries. The galleries feature objects from the landmark 2017 promised gift of paintings by Rose-Marie and Eijk van Otterloo and Susan and Matthew Weatherbie integrated with the MFA’s historical collection, as well as numerous new acquisitions.
The suite of seven galleries brings together paintings by many of the greatest Dutch and Flemish artists, along with decorative arts and works on paper, to explore the rich visual culture of urban societies that thrived in a new commercial environment. Our galleries speak to the evolution of style and pictorial language, but also highlight the historical context in which the works were made. We define the seventeenth century as a period of change in which the Dutch Republic and Flanders emerged as proto-capitalist societies that relied on international trade and finance rather than agriculture and land ownership.
We aimed to present new narratives by highlighting both the creative achievement of the period as well as the human costs attendant upon global trade. To do so, we have employed the latest scholarship. Above all, we engaged an interdisciplinary group of scholars to advise the curators on the installation plans and interpretation, including reviewing labels and wall texts. The goal has been to provide visitors with an accurate and informed picture of the art and culture of the era and to demonstrate how issues of the seventeenth century have continued resonance today.
Rogier van der Weyden’s Saint Luke Drawing the Virgin introduces the entire suite and provides a conceptual starting point for a gallery titled “Dutch Specialties.” Many of the genres Dutch artists became famous for exploring in the seventeenth century were initially elements in sacred paintings by Van der Weyden and his contemporaries. Thus the gallery features scenes of artists at work, flower still lifes, architectural painting, head studies and portraits, and painstaking depictions of textures. In this room we are also proud to present works by female artists, including Maria Schalcken, Rachel Ruysch, and Judith Leyster. These pictures are complemented by superb decorative arts in silver (including the first Dutch Judaica at the MFA), ceramics, and a selection of medals.
A nearby gallery displays a cycle of paintings depicting The Five Senses by Michaelina Wautier, a female artist from Brussels who has only been rediscovered in the past few years. This space connects the suite with the existing display of Flemish pictures, including important examples by Peter Paul Rubens, Anthony van Dyck, Frans Francken, and Jacob Jordaens.
The adjacent gallery houses rotating exhibitions organized by the Center for Netherlandish Art (CNA) in collaboration with academic partners. The first installation explores how artists created “brands” to stand out in the crowded marketplace. One wall shows paintings by two still-life painters with distinctive approaches while the opposite wall encourages visitors to identify works by various landscape painters through clues to the characteristic styles of each artist. Video displays present data visualizations of the sheer volume of paintings produced in this era. These projects were created in collaboration with the Experience Design Lab and the Co-Lab for Data Impact at Northeastern University in Boston.
The Global Commerce gallery addresses global trading networks that connected the Dutch Republic and Flanders to Asia, Africa, and the Americas. The paintings in this room feature an array of global commodities — shells from the Indian Ocean, porcelain from Asia, and sugar from the Americas — as well as marine paintings that advertise Dutch commercial expansion. The gallery also presents three volumes of Joan Blaeu’s Atlas Maior which distributed new geographical knowledge to local audiences.
A central theme is the darker history of international trade, highlighted with a special emphasis on sugar. Sugar, a main ingredient of the delicacies depicted in many paintings, was produced in Brazil by enslaved laborers from Africa. The gallery’s juxtaposition of still lifes, a landscape by Frans Post, and a map of Brazil highlights the connections between sugar consumption, plantation labor, and slavery (fig. 5). A video featuring Mary Hicks (University of Chicago) and Antien Knaap begins with a visual exploration of an impressive still life by Osias Beert and shows that the painting implies much about the wider world.
The large gallery on the west side of the Evans wing is divided into two spaces. The north section showcases many of the large-scale Dutch and Flemish highlights in the MFA’s collection, primarily portraits, history paintings, and architectural paintings, including works by Rembrandt, Rubens, and Van Dyck (fig. 6). The integration of paintings from these two schools allows for new dialogues among them.
The center of the room displays a period model of the Valkenisse Dutch East India or VOC ship. Built in 1717, the Valkenisse made over twenty voyages from the Dutch Republic to Batavia (present-day Jakarta, Indonesia). The interpretation addresses the make-up of the crew, the cargo, the duration of the voyage, and the harsh realities of life on board the ship. But the ship model also makes a bigger point: the VOC created unimaginable wealth for merchants and investors that ultimately stimulated the production of grand paintings.
The south section of the gallery evokes a seventeenth-century domestic interior of an upper-class house in Amsterdam. We show that by this time, global products had become an intrinsic part of the Dutch home. While not a true “period room,” the dense hang of the paintings and furnishings is in keeping with seventeenth-century inventories which reveal that most Dutch burghers crammed their walls with paintings and objects.
With this new installation, we at the MFA hope that more connections between the past and the present can be made by our visitors.
The new installations were organized by Frederick Ilchman, Mrs. Russell W. Baker Curator of Paintings and Chair, Art of Europe; Antien Knaap, Assistant Curator of Paintings; Courtney Harris, Assistant Curator of European Decorative Arts and Sculpture; Christopher Atkins, Van Otterloo–Weatherbie Director of the Center for Netherlandish Art; Benjamin Weiss, Leonard A. Lauder Senior Curator of Visual Culture; Keith Crippen, Director of Design; Catherine Roehr-Johnson, Senior Interpretive Planner, and Jordan Cromwell, Samuel H. Kress Fellow for Interpretation. Consultation with an Advisory Group informed the interpretation of the galleries. The group’s participants were Pepijn Brandon, Assistant Professor of History, Free University of Amsterdam; Mary Hicks, Assistant Professor of History, University of Chicago; Jessie Park, Nina and Lee Griggs Assistant Curator of European Art, Yale University Art Gallery; Nasser Rabbat, Aga Khan Professor of Islamic Architecture, MIT; and Michael Zell, Associate Professor of Art History, Boston University.
On Tuesday 22 March 2022 CODART organizes an online focus meeting in cooperation with the Center for Netherlandish Art at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston about their new galleries of Dutch and Flemish art. Find more information about the program and registration here.