Not the DIA way

When the University of Michigan Museum of Art (UMMA) reopens renovated and expanded in 2009, visitors will discover many changes. The $34.5 million project will add 53,000 square feet of floor area, nearly doubling the museum's footprint. At the same time, the crisp limestone and glass addition, by principal architect Brad Cloepfil of Allied Works Architecture in Portland, Ore., will harmoniously complement the original beaux-arts building, constructed in 1910 as Alumni Memorial Hall.

Changes promise to be most striking inside. As with the Detroit Institute of Arts, accessibility is a central concern. But UMMA Director James Steward takes exception to some of the approaches at the DIA and other museums trying to survive by broadening their bases of support.

The sharpest critics of the DIA reinstallation think it reduces the intellectual challenges of the art to the level of infotainment. Steward agrees with that criticism, believing that this brand of "accessibility" can discourage visitors from returning to the museum often.

"If they [audiences] leave the museum simply reinforced in the good feelings they had about themselves when coming in" — he says during a phone interview — "are you actually helping them to learn? Are you challenging them to rethink their preconceived ideas about what the world is?"

Steward says his main objection to the DIA reinstallation is the replacement of traditional art terminology with "big ideas" expressed in conventional language. DIA Director Graham Beal takes pointed issue with Steward's view. "We have not thrown away art history," he asserts. "What we have done is to put art history in the background, and to remove what for most people is a veil rather than a bridge to the art itself."

Nevertheless, Steward senses a loss. UMMA will keep traditional art history in the foreground in a bid to educate viewers. "We're going to help you to get the experience you need so that you can own the experience yourself," he says.

Artworks will be presented in a more-or-less traditional, chronological, culturally specific way. While labels will avoid alienating jargon, art historical vocabulary will appear. "We're going to use a term if we feel its use is important to being able to grapple with a specific artist, a specific movement, a specific moment," Steward says.

"Its insistence on brevity," is another of Steward's quarrels with the DIA reinstallation, which restricts all descriptive labels to 150 words. Beal and others at the DIA say focus groups and surveys show that nonspecialist visitors have short attention spans. But Steward argues that abbreviation can be counterproductive.

"If you set up objects or reading material in a way that says, 'Here's a dead end, you can't go any further, there's no more information to be found,' I think there is a risk of accidentally reinforcing the very message you're trying to counteract, which is that experiencing art is not going to be deeply enriching and that it isn't for me," he says.

UMMA plans to have lengthier labels for individual objects, and the labels will be juxtaposed to say more than one or two summary panels in a room. Steward believes the UMMA approach will encourage visitors to connect dots, creating a fluid experience that encourages visitors to think for themselves. "Our approach is going to be one of questioning, as much as information delivery," Steward says.

Toward that end, he plans to employ many low-tech devices. He applauds the DIA's interactive maps, interpretive panels and "Eye Spy" games for kids as means of addressing disparate visitors simultaneously. However, at the UMMA, flip-books and cube games are deliberately designed to encourage multiple ways of looking at art objects.

There'll also be high-tech devices at UMMA, for instance a "DialogTable." The size and shape of an oval dining room table, the electronic device will display words and images, moving and still, from UMMA's and from other museums' collections. The purpose is twofold: building community by overcoming the isolating aspects of learning tools, such as hand-held audio guides, and encouraging users to make connections between cultures present and past.

UMMA's audience isn't limited to university students, although they are a crucial part of it. Like the DIA, UMMA — located on State Street, a busy commercial artery through the central campus — has multiple audiences.

Steward fears that the DIA's reinstallation keeps visitors, students in particular, from penetrating more deeply than the tools allow. "Really digging in and understanding and fully embracing the value of the visual arts is at the end of the day a reasonably complicated enterprise," he says.

He also fears what some have called the Disneyfication of museums into purveyors of mere entertainment and distraction: "I think if we go down that path we run the risk of making museums strangely irrelevant because they suddenly become like everyday life. And isn't part of the point of museums that they're different from everyday life?"

Roger Green is a freelance writer. Send comments to [email protected]
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