Museum of Wonder
The advent of new technology and the pace of modern life have affected how we encounter objects of historical or aesthetic interest-not to mention the amount of time and consideration we're willing to devote to them. Many museums and galleries are revamping their collections to meet the changing demands of today's museumgoers, though not in the manner one might expect. Thankfully we're witnessing more than a blind embrace of digital paraphernalia, but rather a paradigm shift in how museums are restructuring their collections-often looking to the past for inspiration. Museums like London's Victoria and Albert and St. Petersburg's Hermitage are seeking to re-establish the anthropological or archaeological traditions of early collections, vying for a more holistic understanding of the culture to which the artifacts belong.
This approach is evident in the Milwaukee Art Museum's newly reopened, lower-level American Collections Galleries-particularly the Loca Miraculi, or Rooms of Wonder. The series of three interconnected apartments nestled between the American Paintings room and the Hidden Dimensions galleries takes its cue from the 16th- and 17th-century "Cabinets of Curiosities" assembled by the popes, princes and wealthy professionals of their day. As one stands on the threshold of these inviting rooms the contrast between the pastoral harmony of the American Paintings room and the grotto-like antechamber beyond is immediately evident. The striking tableau of a monumental cabinet set within an overgrowth of branches in the center of the room, framed by the temple-like entrance, serves as a clear statement of intent: These rooms pay homage to the anomalous links between nature and artifice that so gripped the imagination of the 16th-century European elite. To complete this impression, Martha Glowacki's graphite-coated animals strut and peck around one corner of the room while a cabinet dripping with geological specimens spills its wares in the other.
The following room is just as ordered and elegant as the former is fecund and impromptu, its oddities carefully tucked away in glass cabinets fitted with drawers that glide open with a satisfying sigh. These cabinets, designed by Jim Dietz, contain samples of English pottery from the 17th and 18th centuries, each grouping outlining the tastes of their day, be it a fixation with the exotic customs of the Orient or the quieter charms of native flora and fauna. The bulbous forms of Posset Pots and Puzzle Jugs point to the voluptuous imaginations of their owners while delicate teapots with tapered spouts uphold the bounds of etiquette.
The drawers reveal odd assortments of objects and artworks (with the jaunty tones of former Milwaukee Art Museum Director David Gordon occasionally chiming forth). Their quirky contents and unpredictable positioning prompt a more active investigation than glowering glass cabinets usually inspire. Most gratifying is the absence of overly instructive cue cards trespassing on our leisurely investigation. The objects are discreetly numbered and one can cross-reference them to the diminutive catalogs accompanying the exhibition-themselves an exercise in playful discretion, with cream- and sand-colored pages providing an informative and absorbing inventory of the collection.
One might argue that, given the pedigreed lineage of this form of display, rekindling the cabinet of curiosity might usher in the sense of elitism they embody. Is this how we go about democratizing art? The adjoining Hidden Dimensions display provides a less reassuring alternative. Clearly this collection of artifacts arranged under headings like Death, Sex, and Myth seeks a more populist, youthful appeal. It's an entertaining but somewhat facetious approach. The antiquated cabinets in the Rooms of Wonder somehow correspond far better with our hyperlinked, Wikipedia understanding of the world. They restore a sense of preciousness to objects we too often overlook. Most importantly, they force us to slow down. There's a lot to be said for surrendering to one's curiosity, and the Rooms of Wonder offer just such an opportunity.
Curator Ethan Lasser gives a gallery talk on the exhibit on Nov. 25 at 1:30 p.m.