Reinstalling the DIA — rethinking the museum’s role

Share on Nextdoor

On Nov. 23, the Detroit Institute of Arts reopens its galleries after more than six years of renovations. Visitors will see a complete reinstallation of its world-renowned collections that involves an extensive use of labeling and other educational aids throughout the museum.

Already there are hints of controversy among art world aficionados and museum professionals about the reinstallation. Why the fuss? Because some, especially those with a considerable knowledge of art, believe museums should display works with as little additional information as possible. Labels and other aids, they argue, clutter the galleries and impede art's power to inspire. Others, especially those who question the usefulness of museums for people not well-educated about art, believe museums need to provide as much information as possible. They argue that more extensive labeling and other aids both educate and inspire.

For some, the DIA's changes are a mistake, for others a harbinger of long-overdue change for museums worldwide. The international prominence of the DIA and the thoroughness of its reinstallation have provided fresh ammunition for both sides of this debate.

The DIA's transformation became possible when, in the late 1980s, the museum's leadership decided to renovate and expand. Under director Graham Beal's leadership, the museum seized this rare opportunity to re-imagine the museum in its entirety and, as befits a major institution, it began by asking fundamental questions about the meaning of art today. Yet opening the door to a probing discussion of art's place in contemporary society is bound to unsettle comforting beliefs.

We think of older museums like the DIA as being permanent, unchanging fixtures of the cultural landscape. This impression is no accident. They deliberately linked themselves with the heritage and origins of Western civilization, typically through stylistic evocations of ancient Greek architecture and founders' references to antiquity's enduring values. Looks and talk can be deceiving, however, and museum histories overflow with change.

The DIA, for example, began in 1885 as the Detroit Museum of Art and originally resided near the intersection of what is now Jefferson Avenue and I-375, where it displayed everything from plaster casts of classical statuary to science and local history collections. It was not until William Valentiner, one of museum history's leading figures, arrived in 1921 that the museum began to evolve into the internationally known institution it is today. A German-born and -trained art historian, Valentiner first arrived in America in 1908 to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the recommendation of his mentor — the renowned Wilhelm von Bode, a pioneering museum director then heading a Berlin museum now named for him.

Valentiner left for Germany at the outbreak of World War I and did not return until invited to Detroit, bringing with him extensive knowledge of modern, especially German Expressionist art, Renaissance and Islamic art, and familiarity with the latest trends in museology. He cleared out the DIA's collections to focus on art and dramatically reorganized its galleries, changing them from confused and crowded installations typically arranged by donor, into spacious displays arranged chronologically and by cultural region. His purpose? To educate the average visitor about art history. When the museum changed names, ownership and relocated to its present site in the 1920s, Valentiner imposed his educational vision on the new building by remounting the collections as a tour of the world's art.

Changes in museums are always driven by shifts in their cultural and social circumstances, such as the philosophical insights and political revolutions that transformed Europe beginning in the 1600s. Although the history of museums has been traced to ancient Greece where the word "museum" originated, the earliest groupings of objects resembling museums today were assembled during the Renaissance. Ranging from single rooms arranged by scholars to lavish galleries created for royalty, they contained everything from botanical specimens to coins, from such curiosities as exotic animal skeletons to works of art. During the 1600s, museums evolved from private scholars' studies and playgrounds for the elite to public institutions, eventually seeding formation of the Louvre, a symbol of France's nationalism and public sovereignty, during the French Revolution in 1793. Since then, museums have increasingly been identified with the egalitarian ideal of art as the common heritage of all without regard for a person's ethnicity, wealth or education.

When the public museum idea was imported to these shores, it acquired a distinctly American flavor. Nearly all our museums are private, nonprofit corporations, and their creation required the adaptation of corporate laws so as to build collections and endowments without paying taxes. To escape taxes, museum founders struck a deal with legal authorities. Founders could establish nonprofit trusts provided they guaranteed their museums would serve the public good.

The DIA, like its slightly older peers the Metropolitan Museum of Art (1870), the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (1870) and the Art Institute of Chicago (1879), resulted from a confluence of great wealth pooled by urban leaders such as, in Detroit, newspaper publisher James Scripps and lumber magnate Thomas Palmer, at a time when civic philanthropy began to widen beyond health and welfare to include public education. Education became a high national priority: Schools were built, textbooks were published, and adults flocked to popular lectures. And museums were viewed as new "engines" of culture and education.

From the beginning, however, museum leaders debated the best ways to educate America's ever-changing and restless population. These debates intensified in the 1960s as counter-culture revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic fingered museums as establishment institutions whose rhetoric was out of step with their accomplishments. Visitor studies swept away assumptions about museums' accessibility, particularly for people of color, and their effectiveness as sites for public self-education. Many museums responded by expanding education programs, and some, including the DIA, pioneered novel approaches to object-based teaching. Meanwhile government grant-making agencies and private foundations began increasingly to insist on effective outreach programs as a prerequisite for their support.

As one of the current generation of museum directors who came of age in the 1960s, Graham Beal is well aware of the pressures on museums to align their actions with their rhetoric. Tempered by work in institutions as diverse as the Jocelyn Museum in Omaha, Neb., and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, Beal knows from personal experience how the best-run institutions can fail to effectively interpret their collections to the general public. He also immersed himself in the DIA's history, which has included increasingly frequent financial crises in recent years. Heavily dependent on government funding almost from its founding, the DIA became a barometer of Detroit's and Michigan's periodic financial travails. It nearly closed during the Depression, closed for three weeks in 1975, and operated with closed galleries and shortened hours in the early 1980s and 1990s. Even today, the DIA is open only five days a week, though its peers are open at least six and sometimes seven days a week.

Museums need a complex array of revenues to operate: endowment income, grants, admission fees, gift-shop and food-service income, annual membership dues and annual gifts. Of these, grants, annual gifts and membership dues provide the major sources of income for most museums. But to obtain those grants, gifts and membership dues, museums must show they play a crucial role in a community's cultural life, periodically provide attractive exhibitions that attract new members, and — most important of all — offer a continuing flow of benefits and services that cause people to renew and increase their memberships.

As a DIA visitor survey showed in the early 1980s, a relatively small number of people account for a large number of visits. Why? They come back again and again. As other surveys in this country and Europe showed, the people who returned to museums again and again — the ones most likely to become and remain members — are those who find their visits most satisfying. Crucial to recruitment and retention of new members is the quality of their visits as learning experiences.

Unsurprisingly then, when Beal contemplated the DIA's reinstallation options, he concluded that educational effectiveness should lead all other considerations. The DIA, with the backing of its trustees, convened teams of curators, educators and visiting scholars to develop thematic treatments for the collections. And they tested their approaches with visitor panels selected by an independent firm to represent a broad cross-section of the Detroit metropolitan-area population, including those who never or rarely visited museums. The results of these efforts are significant but, depending on one's familiarity with museum practices, they can appear quite startling or fairly subtle.

For the most part, the collections are installed where they were located before the renovations. The American holdings are to the left of the Woodward Avenue entrance, European painting and sculpture to right, and so on. On the other hand, African-American art now has a suite of galleries on the main floor, and the space for African and Native American art has been expanded. There are changes in the arrangement of individual works, but for those familiar with the museum, the most visible change is in the labeling.

The permanent collection has been installed as a series of mini-special exhibitions, each organized around a "big idea." There are more than 80 of them, such as "The Grand Tour of Italy" in the European galleries or the "Power and Influence of Masks" in the African galleries. These thematic treatments are signaled with wall-mounted panels and reinforced by the use of pedestal-mounted booklets, video projections and touch-screen displays. Throughout the galleries, "Eye Spy" flip cards invite children to search out details, playfully broadening the content to engage families with youngsters. Older visitors will welcome the placement of labels at eye level, printed on white cards in large, easy-to-read type.

There is no question the DIA has successfully integrated its educational goals with its responsibility to show its greatest objects. Where the use of organizing themes does not accommodate collection strengths, the museum presents "collection segments" — installations that heighten distinctive holdings — as is the case with a gallery devoted to Rembrandt, his students and his imitators. The extraordinary depth of the DIA's collections also affords delightful juxtapositions, such as a pairing in the modern art galleries of Michael Wohlgemut's "A Young Man," painted in 1486, with Otto Dix's "Self Portrait" of 1912 that reveals Dix's reference to a 500-year-old motif and his poignant identification with tradition in the face of an unrelenting, threatening modernism.

The DIA has so skillfully adapted the display conventions of traveling exhibitions that for those accustomed to blockbuster shows, this set-up will feel quite familiar. But for those who seek a pure, unencumbered aesthetic experience, the reinstallation may feel intrusive and overbearing. Ultimately, however, the true measure of the new installation's effectiveness will be the extent to which the DIA can broaden its base of loyal supporters as measured in grants, attendance and increased and renewing memberships.

At a time when past sources of cultural philanthropy are aging and dying off, family fortunes are being dissipated with each successive generation, and large foundations are focusing increasingly on health and welfare concerns, all museums are struggling to find new sources of support. For most, like the DIA, their best hope is to cultivate new donors. The DIA hopes that a youngster coming to the museum for the first time will find the experience beguiling and memorable, want to return again and again to learn more, and, as a financially secure adult, provide the support necessary to keep the museum accessible for subsequent generations. The DIA's financial situation, while more precarious than that of most museums, provides a cautionary tale relevant to many institutions. Museum professionals throughout the world are closely following responses to the DIA's reinstallations. They all realize that without cultivating future audiences, museums — despite their outward appearances of permanence —will face a profoundly uncertain future.

Jeffrey Abt is associate professor in the department of art and art history at Wayne State University and author of A Museum on the Verge: A Socioeconomic History of the Detroit Institute of Arts, 1882-2000. Send comments to [email protected]
Scroll to read more Arts Stories & Interviews articles


Join Detroit Metro Times Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.