Tuesday, October 06, 2009

Museums and Galleries - is there a difference, and should there be?

Two major exhibits are starting here in Toronto soon - one is Vanity Fair Portraits and the other is the major King Tut exhibit. The Vanity Fair portrait exhibit was in London when I lived there, at the National Portrait Gallery. The King Tut exhibit was also on while I was in London (and I even worked in the front of house section part time), in an exhibition space at the O2 Arena in Greenwich.

I'm surprised at the choice of venues here in Toronto, though.

Vanity Fair Portraits is being held at the Royal Ontario Museum, a mix of cultural and natural history. King Tut is opening soon at the Art Gallery of Ontario, home of a great collection of Canadian art, historic pieces and modern art.

It seems to be a mix-up, right? I would assume the portraits would be right at home hanging in the AGO, while King Tut would slip right into the ROM with its already existing Egyptian content. I understand a lot of large art institutions (for example the Tate Modern and the V&A Museum in London) have enough money and staff to develop excellent interpretive content and educational programs - they aren't just hanging space for pieces of art. And I also understand that much of the content of the King Tut exhibit are gorgeous and indeed artful. But to me, that exhibit has a strong cultural and historic element as well. I know this is an exhibit that's been developed externally and is being brought in lock-stock-and-barrell, but I believe if it were to be situated in the ROM instead there could be a stronger supporting stream of interpretation and education in the hosting institution.

Vanity Fair looks to be a gorgeous exhibition - I missed it in London so i'm definitely looking forward to seeing it. But at the ROM it will seem a little out of place. Again, no doubt a lot of the cultural artefacts on display at the ROM have artistic value - but the portraits would do better in an art-filled environment where their significance could be appreciated more fully.

It was not so long ago that museums and galleries were similar in their lack of interpretation. Content alone was different, and items were put on display with basic labels for identification only, generally. As time has moved on and the museum industry has flourished with regard to producing written exhibition content, interpretation and companion educational programs. These sorts of things are almost written into the process of exhibiting now.

Art galleries still feel different to me. Primarily displaying art with indentifying labels only, there is still very little interpretation on display to accompany pieces of art in art galleries large and small. As I noted above, it seems to be only the larger art galleries with time and resources who develop information past the basic need for most people viewing art.

Having come out of my tertiary education with anthropology and museum studies qualifications under my belt, I gravitate toward the museum world rather than art galleries. I do not doubt that I could enjoy working with objects and pieces of art in a gallery collection - however, I feel there is more cultural relevance and an opportunity to educate about this relevance in a museum.

I could be wrong about the ROM hosting art and the AGO hosting culture - i'd love to be proven wrong! There's an unspoken divide between museums and galleries - we'd be much better off if that gap could be bridged, and both types of institutions could do more to thrust their collections and education about them into the public eye.

And regardless of where they are, at least these exhibitions are touring and have somewhere to be shown.