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Whenever a prominent museum hosts a special exhibit destined to be a blockbuster — one featuring Monet, Picasso, Grant Wood, Egyptian mummies, or any other theme occupying the broadest stratum of cultural literacy — there is invariably one work that comes to represent the event. That work is the image that appears on posters, banners, billboards, tote bags, key rings, refrigerator magnets, coffee cups and all manner of gift shop commemorative tchotchke. And it's the one piece people don't leave the museum without seeing.

In 1988, when Paris' impressionist mecca the Musee d'Orsay hosted the wildly successful "Van Gogh in Paris," the literal face of the exhibit was a self-portrait of the artist, peering grimly past the frame from under the brim of an incongruously sunny straw hat. The Parisian public was inclined to faire la queue for blocks to see the work. Detroiters, you guessed it, that work was sent across the Atlantic for the event from its home: the Detroit Institute of Arts.

They say that prophets are never honored in their own country; and the same can be said of seminal paintings in their museum's hometown. The self portrait, which has the distinction of being the first Van Gogh ever to enter a public American museum, is one of the DIA's best known works. It has, along with many of the museum's modern European paintings (Renoir's Seated Bather, Degas' Portrait of a Woman, Bouguereau's The Nut Gatherers), enjoyed great popularity. But Detroiters aren't lining up around the block à la Parisienne to see it. Not yet, anyway.

This marked difference in the work's reception is something David Penney, the DIA's vice president of exhibitions and collections strategies, uses to illustrate the thinking behind the DIA's radical reorganization of its permanent collection. This reorganization, which Penney calls a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity "to rebuild from the ground up," was made possible by massive remediation work that required the DIA to remove and reinstall all of its collections. It could be considered a brilliant silver lining to a renovation and expansion project lasting 6 1/2 years and costing $158 million.

Penney, who is also curator of Native American art, says that a big reason Paris museum-goers were so excited about the Van Gogh's visit was because of the unique amenities and arrangements of a special exhibit.

"The museum world is dominated by special exhibits," Penney says. "We're constantly trying to find big, expensive exhibitions, complete with audio tours, narratives — all organized around an idea. We see a big contrast between the way visitors experience art in special exhibitions and the way they experience art during every day visits. Our thinking was, let's use all the concepts we know are effective" and apply them to the permanent collection.

The DIA used teams of curatorial, education, conservation, marketing and development staff to plan the reinstallation, as well as art scholars and experts in visitor research. One such expert was Beverly Serrell, whose Chicago-based organization provides conceptual planning, label writing, and evaluation services for museum exhibitions all over the world. The DIA adapted for its reinstallation process an exhibition development concept Serrell calls "the big idea."

"Her feeling was that we should be able to say what the idea of an exhibit is in a single declarative sentence, and that the idea should be bounded architecturally," says Penney.

This approach to arranging art thematically or interpretatively is a significant departure from the tact taken by most museums, which typically arrange items by style or time period. An example of DIA's approach is in the African Art gallery, which devotes an entire room to art and artifacts related to the life stages of birth, puberty, marriage and death. Another is the "Cosmos" section of the Native American art gallery, which explores how American Indians envisioned their universe. Within this section, the DIA has grouped warrior shields and drums all bearing representations of the Thunderbird, a predominant image among Great Lakes and Plains tribes that personified thunderstorms, the most powerful manifestation of nature in those regions. Nearby, the visitor can see how the intricate geometric designs of Native American textiles from the regions are in fact cosmological references to animals of spiritual significance.

According to Penney, the reinstallation process was also informed by extensive data on visitor behavior and traffic patterns. Time and tracking studies on the former Flemish art gallery, for example, found that 50% of visitors looked at Bruegel the Elder's The Wedding Dance, but that 59% of all visitors stayed in the gallery for no more than three minutes. Where visitor interest was small, the DIA found that a key culprit was the labels, which according to Penney were relatively hidden with text that was too long and too crowded.

In addition, the DIA drew from nearly 18 months of discussion with people of varied backgrounds, ages, interests and familiarity with museums. Their feedback was used to develop new interpretive tools and interactive resources for the reinstallation, including touch-screens, concise and clear wall labels, a multi-media tour of Diego Rivera's Detroit Murals, and "digital books" — which allow visitors to scroll through pages of The Egyptian Book of the Dead, the Christian Book of Hours, and Artistic Houses. Throughout the museum, visitors can see a life-size silhouette projection of a Greek slave mixing and serving wine, footage of an African in ceremonial garb and mask dancing on an oversized video screen, and a five-minute video, projected on a dining table, of servants serving a three-course meal at an 18th-century dinner party (the serving pieces they use are display in the same room).

Meanwhile, kids will be regaled by audio tours, "Please Touch" labels allowing them to feel art-comprising materials, "Eye Spy" panels yielding clues to help them identify works of art in the galleries, and self-guided "Yikes!" tours to make works with potentially frightening subject matter, such as Fuseli's The Nightmare, less ominous.
The debate over the tact the DIA has taken in some ways recalls the debate among Roman Catholics over the vernacular Mass. Just as detractors call it a concession to those who lack the sophistication and schooling necessary to understand the Latin rite, critics of the DIA's new display say it "dumbs down" art for the uneducated masses and creates exhibit aids that distract the viewer from the works that accompany them.

"A lot of people we interviewed said they felt they wouldn't enjoy a museum unless they were already experts," says Penney, adding that the DIA wants the public to come, have fun, and build their baseline knowledge of art.

But with an annual operating budget of $30 million, making art accessible to the public is as much a strategy of self-preservation as it is a fulfillment of the museum's mission of education. DIA Chief Curator George Keyes, who is also curator of European art, says the new approach will help place the museum "at the heart and core of the value system of civic life."

"You can save from the past, but you can't live in the past," says Keyes. "A museum requires an enormous amount of investment and there has to be a payback. We need to make ourselves relevant or people will no longer support us."

The DIA reopens to the public Nov. 23. The museum will be open 32 hours straight from 10 a.m. on Nov. 23 to 6 p.m. on Nov. 24, with family events, music, dance, yoga, fencing, poetry and more. Art After Hours kicks in from 10 p.m. to 4 a.m. with DJ’s, coney dogs and sliders. More info is at www.dia.org.


An Interactive Table Showing the Artwork in Actual Daily Use

Van Gogh's Self Portrait

David Penney in the New Native American Galleries

The Grand Tour of Italy Galleries

African Art in the Expanded African Art Galleries

All Photographs Copyright Dave Krieger
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