Looking behind the scenes, or museums presenting their own activity

Ask a curator!

On 1 September last year a one-day forum was held on Twitter. The project Ask a Curator involved staff of 250 museums, galleries and arts organisations from twenty-three countries answering questions. Most people wanted to know what role curators play in organising exhibitions and handling collections. Identifying forgeries and mistaken attributions, and excluding them from exhibitions is important and perhaps the most exciting element. It also turns out at exhibitions that there is no provenance which can absolutely guarantee that a work of art is original. Copies made at the time often put experts in a difficult situation. Masterpiece or copy? An exhibition at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna showed how varied information can be gained from the thorough examination of a work beyond the question of it being original, and how that can be understandably and spectacularly presented. A display of impressionist paintings at the Albertina focussed on time-bound perceptions, as well as on painting techniques and approaches characteristic of individual artists. Visitors could learn what makes a work genuine. Enlarged details under a microscope, X-ray and infra-red images, composition techniques, colour theory, paints, brushes, canvasses and other accessories helped to identify the characteristic features of Impressionism. The exhibition also raised a question which is rarely brought up: how original is the original? Apart from the passing of time restoration also interferes with the colours and composition of a painting such that the result may be different from the original. What is the aim with such exhibitions? The presentation of background scientific work is primarily targeted at the general public (though it also contains a message for funding bodies, sponsors and patron) and is an important part of the ‘open museum’ concept whereby visitors can learn about a major field of a museum’s activity. Showcasing scientific activity is a means that can be utilized in several ways, with the primary aim of increasing the number of visitors. Besides museums sharing interesting and important information about a work of art with visitors, it also creates an opportunity for repeated presentation attracting even more interest. The Wallraf-Richartz Museum in Cologne pointed at yet another opportunity. With a clever concept curators introduced visitors to the hidden secrets of a style and professional techniques, creating such a successful exhibition that it resulted in a far higher number of visitors than the exhibited works in themselves would have promised. The presentation of research results sometimes represents not only the means but is also the aim itself. A wide-ranging introduction of art historic research may surround the presentation of a suddenly surfacing significant work of art. The presentation of research results is popular either as an independent exhibition or when focusing on just one work. The majority of visitors get a thrill from being able to look into the secrets of a profession and discover what’s ‘behind the scenes’ in connection with a work of art.