Milwaukee Art Museum – China Exhibit

Posted on July 8, 2011 in Blog Post, Editorial, Exhibitions, Philosophy

China Exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum - and stupid policies.

I was told today, in a rather contrite manner, by a suit-wearing rent-a-cop with a plainly smug expression, that there was no photography in the main exhibit at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Have I mentioned before that I am a devout Libertarian? It would be an understatement to say that I have a problem with authority, especially stupid authority. So, let me share with you some photography:

Last month I decided that to see the Milwaukee Art Museum’s China Exhibits which were being discussed on public radio. After doing some research I learned that the Art Museum has free admission on the first Thursday of every month. I thought that would be a great opportunity. It was a mistake.

You see, I had forgotten that free admission at the museums also means that the place will be absolutely infested with gaggles of loud obnoxious kids and their stern faced, harried chaperons.

This of course had the staff on high alert, lest one of these careless youths might actually touch something in the exhibit.

Worse, the kids tours, where highly energetic staff members indoctrinate groups of young children with the typical gate-keeper art history nonsense that museums are known for. I have a problem with that, and other things.

These statues were in the foyer leading to the main exhibit in the Calatrava wing of the museum. I’m really interested in the characterizations. The facial expressions are truly terrific and the detail is amazing.

It’s a shame the paint is so faded. I wonder what they looked like when they were newly painted.


As is typical, most of these were under security glass, but some were not. I personally think that is unnecessary if you set up the exhibit the right way. Another thing I have a problem with.

I should say first, that I am a conservator. I believe in conserving art for future generations, especially artwork that reaches back thousands of years.

For that reason, I would scorn anyone who would use flash photography in a museum. Pigments, used in paintings and other types of artwork are often light-sensitive, prone to fading when exposed to sunlight and certain types of bright lights. We should endeavor to minimize this for the sake of longevity.

But I am also a devout Libertarian. Which, to me, means if what I’m doing is causing no harm, no one should be able to tell me not to do any damn thing I please.

I truly think that our country has lost any semblance of the concepts of freedom, liberty, and the ability to mind their own business. We are born uninhibited, with the freedom to do anything, and it is our government and social conventions which begin to cut into that – from day one. One of those social conventions is this idea that museums somehow know what is best for patrons and spectators. I would challenge such nonsense.

Philosophical arguments follow, if that bores you, turn back now.

“Museums do not just gather valuable objects but make objects valuable by gathering them.” – Anthropologist Barbara Kirshenblatt-Ginblett

Above is the entrance to the main exhibit, it was the last clear photograph that I was allowed to take before entering this area. What follow are lower resolution images from my cell phone.

Museums serve several functions. First, museums serve as conservators, sheltering works and objects that are historically and culturally significant, from environments which are less conducive to longevity (war zones, climate, urban sprawl, etc.).

Sometimes museums plunder the treasures of a culture or region of cultures under the guise of “protecting the objects from the ravages of time” — case in point: The British Museum’s possession of the Parthenon Statues.

Another function of a museum is to present cultural information and educate the public. This is done in terms of the collection of articles in the exhibit, as well as in the form of labels, accompanying text, audio tours, and other signs that tell the viewer what is significant about the exhibit. In the process of doing this, they also create values and perspective, structuring the meaning that the viewer will take from the exhibition. This is a form of control that affects the public’s appreciation for the matter exhibited (and lack thereof of things not exhibited). In this way, Museums also serve as gate-keepers for the public appreciation of aesthetics.

The problem is that often the viewer abrogates their capacity to appreciate objects for their own merit, to think critically about the value of an object or even lose their own ability to interpret aesthetics (since the majority of modern art turns traditional aesthetics on its head), when they accept the perspective and presentation and agenda of the museum.

This often results in creating a sense of skepticism and doubt in the public, where Art becomes something ponderous and inscrutable, except for the beneficent insight of a highly educated few (curators).

Artist Scott Burdick offers an argument detailing the end result of that process.

I wasn’t able to get a shot of the centerpiece of this show – the elaborate screens. The front of each held a different figure, each more grotesque than the last, the back of these screens were ornately painted with a floral scene, using gold paint. Definitely worth seeing in person, especially when you realize that the front of each screen is not a painting, but a carving out of marble and jade.

I would also like to point out here that most museums are based on a for-profit motive, with regards to the ever present concern of future funding. Following this imperative, we can come to the conclusion that museums are most concerned with things that will most effectively attract the public at large — an agenda which is in fact a form of sensationalism.

The fact of the matter is that there is a world of valuable art and history and culture, which has never been showcased in the exhibit of a museum, simply for economic/marketing reasons.

Further, there is a world of information which cannot be discerned from the antiseptic presentation in a museum exhibit, where the objects are so taken so completely out of context from their original setting. So what are we to take from this?

First, we are presented with a group of objects which may have been:

  • The result of archaeological discoveries (complete or incomplete)
  • The result of painstaking political negotiations with another country’s museum
  • The extent to which this museum could afford to secure for exhibition from another source (which may have required a trade of works in the museum’s collection, or funds)
  • Or the extent of the ability of a curator to convince a collector to donate their collection for public consumption.

None of these motives are for purely noble aesthetic or pedagogical intentions, as underlying each of these is the imperative that the exhibit make money for the museum. This also leads to some rather stupid policies with regards to a museum’s main attractions.

As we all know, one of the ways the museum makes money is through merchandising associated with the exhibit. Why else would most museums place their primary exhibits in a manner that forces the viewer to “exit through the gift shop” wherein lay a variety of novelties, specially published books about the exhibit, and an endless assortment of knick-knacks which are designed to compel the viewer to bring something home with them to remind them of the exhibit.

To further compel people to “buy the book” they put artwork behind glass that has an inherently consistent tendency to place glare on the work, making a proper experience not possible. Now some works have to be under glass (glazed to use the vernacular), such as watercolors and other water-soluable paintings. The humidity and random spittle from a sneeze or cough would be enough risk to justify this, likewise with things that are inherently fragile. But there are a great number of works which are put under glass solely for the sake of preventing viewers from getting a decent photograph.

Worse, the museum puts into place a no photography policy for certain exhibits. And this is where I have a big problem. The museum will make the argument that the images of an exhibit are used to promote the exhibit, and therefore they need to control the way in which the information is presented in order to insure a successful turnout. The museum can take things out of the case and get professionally done photographs with perfect lighting, producing a quality of presentation that no random viewer will ever be able to duplicate.

And this is where the stupidity comes in. There is no way that a low resolution cell phone photograph taken in a dimly lit room with a room full of spectators getting in the way can possibly compete with or threaten the museum’s professional photography. This type of policy is only in place to get you to buy their stuff. Seeing as most of the viewers have already paid the museum an exorbitant amount to enter the exhibit (sans backpacks, sans cell phone ringers, sans food or drink), this is just plain greedy.

So, in summary, the Milwaukee Art Museum and their pencil-necked staff can kiss my ass. I’ll take as many photographs as I choose, and post them until they kick me out of there permanently. I encourage you all to flood the museum en mass and take as many photographs as you can get away with, in protest.

Where’s Banksy when we need him?