Museum Work, April Update

Image: A contemporary building of brick and glass with the words “Barry Art Museum” installed on it.

I haven’t said much about my museum work since Motion/Emotion opened in February. Mainly that’s because I took a break to refocus on my dissertation research and finish the JDP workshops I’d been developing. Nevertheless, I’m still involved with the Barry Art Museum, so today we’ll take a look at what I’ll be doing.

Right now the biggest project I’m helping out with is reorganizing the doll gallery. Located on the second floor and across the hall from the rotating gallery, this space houses the dolls (and automata before they were moved for Motion/Emotion). When it first opened it was organized along a chronological timeline, but over the last couple of years, it’s developed a more amorphous quality with a variety of themes or ideas competing for attention. My role is to help the Museum decide which focus it’d like to concentrate on, whether it’s geographical or a thematic idea such as the role of technology or gender on the development of dolls, and help them carry out that vision. Right now we’ve been having discussions on whether to approach the dolls as art objects, historical artifacts, collectors’ items, or something else. I’ve also been spending time on the museum’s website creating personal collections that organize the dolls into different groups so that I can see what kinds of patterns emerge. In the future, I’ll visit the Museum to learn more about the dolls through the object files and extensive doll library.

One of the objectives of the reorganization is to create a small yet clearly-defined temporary exhibition space within the gallery, a space that’s distinct but still in conversation with the permanent gallery. Given the doll collection’s predominantly Eurocentric focus, the Barry sees this as a space to diversify what’s on view through rotating exhibitions highlighting different cultures or regions. Indeed, the gallery is already doing this through its exhibition Hirata Gōyō: The Birth of the Japanese Art Doll, which is occupying the space where the automata lived before they moved to Motion/Emotion. Yet this show was largely a response to the practical need of filling empty exhibition space. In reorganizing the doll gallery, the Museum wants to be more intentional about the temporary exhibition space, making it a more permanent feature of the doll gallery.

Once the gallery is reorganized and the temporary exhibition space is clearly delineated, the Barry is also interested in having me work on exhibitions there. These will be much smaller in scale than Motion/Emotion since they’ll be situated within a permanent exhibition space, but I’m fine with that. Motion/Emotion was a great show to work on, but it also demanded a lot of emotional and mental bandwidth, and I can’t sustain that on a regular basis while writing a dissertation. These exhibitions will keep me involved with the museum while letting me prioritize the dissertation and my other commitments to William & Mary. Additionally, since my scholarly work focuses on questions of exhibitions, space, and outreach, staying involved with the Barry Art Museum and its activities on a limited, part-time basis offers a practical space for applying what I’m been thinking about on a theoretical level.

These projects will also keep me comfortable with learning new things and expanding on my collaborative curatorial practice. I’ll be honest, I’m not a doll expert, and for the finer points of collecting and connoisseurship, I’ll definitely be relying on the museum’s network of experts. Yet that lack of expertise is also one of the reasons why the Barry wanted me to stay involved. After all, not all of its visitors are collectors or experts, and we want to make sure that the collection appeals to them as well. Having a non-collector brings a different perspective to the table, one that, in my case at least, is less interested in the collectible qualities of individual dolls and more interested in how these dolls engage social, cultural, or art history.

So that’s what I’ll be up to for the immediate future. I feel very fortunate getting to stay involved in museum work while still having plenty of time for my dissertation and other obligations. To be sure, this all keeps me busy, but in a way that lets me explore all my different interests.

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