Many students — from elementary to college age — sometimes appear intimidated upon entering the “grandeur” of our museum (designed by I.M. Pei), and then fall into bewilderment at the array of objects competing for notice in the galleries.
Recognizing this problem, I have developed stories that relate the historical and social forces driving a culture that produced the objects we see. Explaining the geographical and historical background of a given object brings it closer to comprehension — a tiny sculpture, say, from prehistoric times, or a mosaic from Roman Antioch, or a Renaissance painting.
Typically, during a tour of ancient cultures I might present the tiny golden statue in the shape of a bull from the Hattian Culture. What is so special about it? Nothing, except that it is the original sculpture created by a worker in the service of a long-gone prince or princess in Anatolia. It remains unchanged, exactly as the craftsman intended it to be. Over thousands of years, this tiny bull of solid gold has retained its original form, and here it sits, safe in our care.
Alternatively, to provide perspective, I might mention the Gilgamesh, or the Iliad or the Odyssey. Ideally, we would need to know the ancient languages these works were written in to understand the original texts. But, for convenience, we prefer reading these writings in our native language. Preserving the essence of the original work is a difficult and challenging task. Can we be sure that the translated text before us accurately reflects the original work?
Looking at an altar painting created in a 15th-century Cologne workshop, I point out that the Master and his apprentices conceived the idea for the three-panel painting some 500 years ago. It came about almost in the same era of Christopher Columbus’ voyage of discovery. That information alone can help register the painting’s time period in most students’ minds.
Quite a number of Renaissance painters remain unknown. However, in recent decades, a newly developed technique, infrared reflectography, allows us to see behind the colorful surface of a panel painting, revealing its underdrawing. This underdrawing is sometimes considered the “personal handwriting” of an artist and has led to a more accurate categorization of a particular painting. Photos of such “detective” underdrawings are informative and always enhance a tour of Renaissance religious paintings.
Also, interesting stories can come forward in response to the often asked question, “How did this artwork come to be in the museum?” Usually an accompanying caption offers but scant information — the artist, its dates and its provenance. Omitted are the passions of the original collector(s), his or her connection to a particular culture, or to an artist’s/craftman’s work, or its chain of acquisition. Such tales do exist. At my home institution I sometimes have the opportunity to meet a collector and to hear his story or lecture. Details drawn from these accounts do much to enliven and humanize a tour presentation. Determine from your education staff whether weaving an artwork’s history or a donor’s personal story into your presentation is appropriate for the audience. Adding these touches contributes to a wider understanding of the art I present.
Helga Keller, docent, Indiana University Art Museum, Bloomington, Indiana
Keller, Helga. “It Works for Me…Sharing Successful Techniques and Ideas,” The Docent Educator 12.4 (Summer 2003): 17.