July 31, 2012

Museum Musing

Originally published  by SAS Frontiers

By Tracey Quinlan Dougherty

The recent move of the Barnes Foundation’s celebrated art collection from its suburban Philadelphia home to a new Center City campus has been called everything from “a terrible idea” to “a jewel added to Philadelphia’s cultural crown.” History of Art graduate student Alex Kauffman, meanwhile, sees the new location as an opportunity to visit a lost age.

“It’s like stepping into a time machine,” says Kauffman, a Philadelphia-area native who studies museum history and theory. “You’re seeing an earlier mode of how art was viewed and presented and theorized.” That’s because the new galleries almost exactly replicate the old ones in terms of size, orientation and wall finishes, with artwork positioned precisely as it had been in the earlier building. These strictures are the result of a nearly decade-long court battle in which the move’s opponents fought to keep the collection in its original home per the will of founder Albert C. Barnes, M’1892, who personally chose the placement of each piece and stipulated they remain just as he had arranged them.

Barnes amassed the collection between 1912 and his death in 1951 for the purpose of creating not a museum, but an art appreciation school. With 181 works by Renoir and dozens of Picassos, Cézannes and Matisses, it is one of the world’s foremost collections of impressionist, post-impressionist, and early-modern art.

Because Barnes was a proponent of formalism, a late 19th- and early 20th-century theory that focuses solely on the visual aspects of works of art, his collection is arranged into ensembles that highlight commonalities in works’ appearances. Whereas other museums arrange pieces by style or period, Kauffman says Barnes visitors are likely to see a Renoir grouped with such things as a folk art chair and an African mask that echo its form. Kauffman notes many museums once installed their pieces according to form. But, he says, museums have discarded the practice in favor of grouping works in ways that provide visitors with greater contextual clues. Because the new Barnes galleries retain their formalistic approach, Kauffman says, the brand new museum is paradoxically “a great glimpse into the past.”

While Kauffman values the new galleries’ adherence to Barnes’ arrangement, he’s unbothered by their departures from their forebears. Although the original galleries relied largely on natural light, Kauffman favors the new supplemental lighting system because it shows the works equally well in any weather. He also approves of the new resting areas between the rooms, although he admits they slightly alter Barnes’ intended sightlines from one work to another. While the understated main entrance differs from the grand façade of the suburban mansion, Kauffman says he favors how the new building “quietly integrates itself” into the neighborhood instead of asserting “an imposing museum presence.” He also appreciates the way architects incorporated new features such as an exhibition gallery, a cafe and an auditorium in a separate part of the facility. As a whole, it offers a glimpse of the museum experience of the recent past, Kauffman says, though, with iPod audio tours and a web-based reservation system, it doesn’t return one to the 1950s entirely.