Saturday, June 19, 2010

Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec

It's a weird feeling to walk into a museum and recognize several of the objects on display; not because you're familiar with the work but because the objects are the same as ones in your house. My parent's home is a carefully curated collection of antiques and family heirlooms and does at times feel a bit like a museum. Nonetheless, to walk into the the Musée des maîtres et artisans du Québec and see our living room armoire is slightly bizarre.

The museum's mission is to promote Quebec's cultural heritage, including traditional and contemporary arts and crafts. The museum is located in a 19th century Neo-Gothic church, the interior of which provides a striking backdrop for displays about craft. A large portion of the museum's collection is religious objects. Displaying said objects in a secular way inside a building which would have been the former setting for their spiritual purpose is interesting. We are asked to revere these objects and to understand their purpose and we are asked to do so in a former house of worship. Yet the experience is meant to be aesthetic and educational and not spiritual. The church becomes a temple for the secular ritual of looking at objects but unlike a typical museum where the white walls highlight the art, here the interior competes for attention. What stands out are the intricately carved wooden beams and sculptures and the colourful stained glass windows that echo the work and skill of the objects explicitly on display.

One of my professors at U of T said that if you needed information about an object you should flip it over and have a good look at its bottom. The Musée shows several object's undersides with their seals or maker's marks. The Musée is a lesson in material culture. Displays teach viewers to see, to develop a visual literacy around the objects on display. Display explain how to tell the difference between the work of a master carver and a craftsman (and the value of both) or between an antique and a fake. We learn what now unfamiliar objects would have been used for, which ones are more valuable than others, what materials are used in different time periods, how objects are crafted etc. By including elements of connoisseurship in the exhibits the museum is helping visitors feel less daunted by the objects on the display and also suggests that engaging with material culture on a deeper level is attainable. I appreciate the transparency in the approach to display and in the didactics, as it suits that kind of collection.

It wouldn't be a trip to a Montreal museum without a comment on language. My mom and I were both very impressed with the English text panels in the permanent collection. Not only were they gramatically correct but they were clearly written in English rather than directly translated from French. Refreshing. The temporary exhibition, in honour of Montreal: City of Glass, had such awful English didactics that it would have been better not to include them. Suddenly the words I was reading no longer made sense. The present tense was the only tense employed which just contributed to a confusing mess of sentences. My mom figures that the text was fed into some kind of automatic online text translator, and then created into text panels by someone who has never heard of a language other than French. This is an issue of sloppy curatorial practice. I don't care how small or understaffed a museum is, if text panels are going to go up on the wall, they should be legible.

The museum is free on Wednesdays and fairly inexpensive on other days.

13 down, 19 to go.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Detour: Ottawa

The way that objects are displayed, and the information that accompanies them, can both enhance and detract from a visitor's experience. Having studied museums it can be easy to focus on display, curatorial decisions, and didactics at the expense of the objects. Yet while my museum side wants to focus on the whole, I very much enjoy those moments when an artwork grabs my attention. That moment where I spot something that makes my eyes widen can happen because I recognize the artist but haven't seen that particular work, because I've always wanted to see it in person, or because I appreciate the message the artist is conveying. Those are the nerdy reasons. Sometimes its just because I like it. Like the colours, the shapes, the composition, the subject matter... I have been known to gasp "oooh sheep!" while making a beeline for a canvas full of furry subjects. Okay that actually happens fairly often. But my recent museum experiences have mostly been historical and I've been missing that feeling of seeing something that momentarily takes my breath away. The solution? A trip to Ottawa. This past weekend a friend graciously provided me with a couch to crash on for five days of gallery hopping and general art nerdiness. While I have friends and family in Montreal whom I can convince to accompany me on various museum expeditions, none share my academic or professional interests in quite the same way as Sheena, a Montreal friend currently in Ottawa working on her PhD. So while everyone else in the city was gearing up for Grand Prix weekend and a slew of local festivals, I escaped.

On Friday we toured the largely unremarkable Ottawa Art Gallery (save for an exhibition that highlighted student artwork next to the objects from the collection that inspired them) before heading over to the Carleton University Art Gallery. The CUAG's current exhibition cycle is cause for wonderment, appreciation and exclamation. Frank Shebageget's subtle use of familiar objects in unexpected ways was strikingly beautiful. Diana Thornycroft's large scale photographs of dioramas that place figures into the Group of Seven's iconic landscapes or expose uncomfortable truths in Canadian history were witty, disturbing, intelligent, and unforgettable. Into the Hands of Women: Inuit Uluiit and Qulliit was smart and intriguing and A Leap of Imagination: The Barwick Gift reminded me that I really do enjoy David Milne.

En route to Carleton

On Sunday we saw Pop Life: Art in a Material World, the National Gallery of Canada's big summer show. The show opens with Andy Warhol's critically panned late-career move into the cult of celebrity as a catalyst and influence for subsequent artists. "Like Warhol," the curators tell us "the artists in Pop Life have found that marketing and publicity provide a means of engaging modern life on its own terms, beyond the confines of the studio, the gallery and the museum." To support their thesis the curators recreate Keith Haring's Pop Shop and Damien Hirst's record breaking 2008 auction, they illustrate how artists branded themselves to sell their art, and they displayed how artists cross the boundaries between fine art and commercial output. The show was adapted to a Canadian context and Canada loves a chronological mode of display. In this instance I think it did the curators a disservice as the show's themes became broken up by time periods, which didn't do much for the subject matter. From an academic standpoint I think the show may almost be more interesting as a book (for me the text was the most intriguing element) but it does have worthwhile moments.

Make Your Mark, a blackboard room that visitors can tag in the spirit of Pop Art

Monday I made an exhausted trip to the Canadian Museum of Civilization. Their summer blockbuster The Horse offers a family friendly option for those not wanting to see Jeff Koon's pornographic photos over at the NGC. I found it unremarkable but the simple, straightforward text, hands-on elements, and mix of aesthetic and educational displays will probably be successful. I was there on a Monday and it was packed.

Now I'm home and taking a bit of a break. Although I have 20 Montreal museums still to see, and I'd like to get that done by the end of the summer. Fingers crossed.