Sunday, March 17, 2013

Review: New Britain Museum of American Art

We love the New Britain Museum of American Art. We enjoy it so much that we have become members, and we visit there about once a month, sometimes more often. The collection is diverse, and is kept fresh and interesting with rotating exhibits, new acquisitions, and interesting special exhibits. The building itself, particularly the new addition, is a work of art in itself. It’s convenient, parking is easy, and we enjoy the jazz-infused First Friday events, sometimes with friends.


(You knew there was a “but” coming, didn’t you?)

A museum is more than a repository of art: it is a place of learning and discovery.

When we look at a work of art, we have an opportunity to learn about a time, a place, a way of life, an idea.

Now, it’s perfectly fine simply to look at the art without reading all the plaques (the little explanatory signs) that are prepared for our erudition. There is a real pleasure in simply wandering through the galleries, just looking and enjoying, unencumbered by names, dates, history, and interpretations. It’s akin to listening to music without knowing the name of the composer, or the story behind the music. Fine.


When a museum offers plaques, it has an obligation to ensure that every detail on every plaque is correct. Every detail. There must be no errors of fact; no misspellings; no errors of design or typography that will obscure, obfuscate, or distract.

I’m the sort of person who reads the plaques. I read every word and examine the art that is being described, so that I can appreciate what the curator or art historian is sharing in the plaque. I really pay attention. I assume that the curator wants us to read what has been provided for our interest and pleasure.

Being a writer and editor, though, I can’t help but notice errors.

Now, I would expect that in any museum, even a relatively small one like the NBMAA, a few errors will creep in to the plaques, and perhaps into other publications. But at NBMAA, I see errors in a large number of plaques, perhaps as many as twenty percent on each visit, an extraordinarily high error rate. Errors in plaques for works on permanent display are never corrected, and information that accompanies new exhibits is also rife with errors.

Some mistakes are errors of syntax, but poor syntax has become so pervasive in American English that I’m not sure the museum can be held accountable for what has become a societal weakness. Many plaque errors are typos, spelling, and punctuation errors, which should be caught and corrected by a proofreader. But I have come to the conclusion that no one proofreads the plaques at NBMAA.

Other plaque errors are more serious, though, and make me question the authority and expertise of the plaque authors. For example, in the current exhibit of works on paper by Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec (marvelous, and worth seeing), I noticed several significant errors in translations made from French to English. I’m not even fluent in French, but I spotted the errors immediately.

Typography and design issues plague the presentation of written information throughout the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit. Some French titles and phrases are translated to English, while others are not; there seemed to be no consistency underlying this choice. Some plaques gave English-only titles, without mention of the original French title. Others gave only French titles, without translation. In some cases, the titles of magazines and other publications were (correctly) italicized; in other cases, not. These inconsistencies are extremely distracting. I couldn’t help but think that the curators had not formed any plan for how to present the complex textual elements of this exhibit in a consistent, easy-to-understand manner.

On a larger scale, the Toulouse-Lautrec exhibit was difficult to navigate.

One enters the exhibit through a small foyer, which contains one of the largest pieces in the exhibit. Visitors tended, naturally, to want to stop there for a few minutes to look. But the foyer is also the space where a short film about Toulouse-Lautrec (informative, and worth watching) is shown on a continuous loop. A half dozen chairs, a bench, and some folding stools enable about a dozen visitors to sit; these seats occupy nearly all the floor space in the foyer. While we were there, these seats were occupied almost continually, and more people stood around the perimeter of the foyer to watch the film, thus placing themselves directly in front of the art works hung on the foyer walls.

To enter the exhibit proper, one must either walk through the middle of the seats arrayed in front of the film screen – and a path was there, implying that the planners expected that those seated would have to bear a constant stream of people between them and the screen – or one had to walk around the seats, around the perimeter of the foyer, where people were already standing to watch the film, and where still more people were trying to look at the art on the walls, including the aforementioned large work. Two poor choices.

Inside, the exhibit space is initially appealing, with large light rooms and plenty of space to move around. The walls are painted in a deep marine blue, which works well with the works of art, most of which were on light-colored paper. The bare wooden floors are attractive, but more carpeting or more of the nice old oriental rugs would have helped dampen the noise, which was a real problem. (I carry ear-plugs with me to protect my hearing and to shut out distractions, such as noise in art galleries! I was glad to have them with me on this visit.)

On the wall in the largest portion of the exhibit, a silhouette of the Paris skyline floats in dark grey against the white wall. This was a brilliant idea, but why, oh why, did they not illustrate the skyline of 1920s Paris, rather than using a contemporary view, with the skyscrapers from the business district? Why, oh why not show us Montmartre and the Moulin Rouge? What were they thinking?

As I entered the space, I naturally turned to the left to start my perusal, joining a stream of people moving in the same direction. I soon discovered that this was an error, for this exhibit is set up to be viewed counterclockwise, a fact that became clear as I read the plaques one by one. That is, one is supposed to start from the right rather from the left, as most western viewers would expect, and as the visitors to this exhibit demonstrated. But there is no signage to instruct the viewer that this exhibit starts to the right, and most of the viewers, including a guided tour with about a dozen people, went from left to right.

I tried to start over from the actual beginning of the exhibit and move from right to left, reading the plaques and examining the art works in the order established by the curator, but of course I found myself going against the tide, which irritated me and inconvenienced the left-to-right viewers who thought I was going the “wrong way.” I gave up and looked at the exhibit in reverse order, and became more and more irritated as I went. It drove me nuts to look at the individual drawings, and read little bits of information without having context in which to understand them, and then finally get to the start of that section, and read the overall statement which I should have been able to read first! A simple sign stating EXHIBIT BEGINS TO YOUR RIGHT► would have solved all these problems. So simple!

After I had finished looking at the hung works, I wanted to see the film in the foyer. D and I stood and watched for a bit, then when I seat became available, I sat down. A man took an empty seat next to me, but because it was so crowded to his right that I guess he couldn’t see, and he kept moving his chair to the left, toward mine, until he was almost touching me. I moved away, but he leaned right into my space so he could see around the people sitting in front of us. I gave up, stood up, and moved away, giving up my seat, which he quickly took. I found a spot to stand near the side of the foyer, but I had to concentrate very hard to hear the film, which was set to a low volume.

A few minutes later, the guided tour crowded into the foyer. This was just too much. The tour guide’s loud voice overrode the film narrative, and the members of the tour tried to move into space that was occupied by standees. I could follow neither the film or the tour narrative, and I was jostled right and left. I gave up and left the exhibit without seeing the rest of the film, and without having had a chance to see the works hung in that little foyer. Maybe on a later visit I can try again.

These were serious problems that detracted from an otherwise good exhibit.

I wonder if the curator(s) and museum planners ever visit the exhibit when it is crowded with people, to observe how the space is being used? Do they think to attend the exhibit as a lay person, to experience the show as an outsider? Is an exhibit space ever "corrected" if it proves to be inconvenient or uncomfortable, or if it turns out, as in this case, that the exhibit space actually prevents people from seeing all the art that is there to be seen?

It just seemed so obvious to me that this space does not work. I wonder that the people who designed the space can't see it, as well.

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