“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

“Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection”: An Inaccessible Highlights Reel

by Emily Peikin

Last weekend, I visited the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden for Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course. Our assignment for the week asked us to critically examine how art museums convey the significance and value of their permanent collections to visitors. Since our readings for the week discussed two examples of collectors’ museums—the Frick Collection and the Freer—the Hirshhorn Museum served as a good case study. Although the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden is part of the Smithsonian Institution, it originated as the collection of Joseph Hirshhorn. A block of informational wall text outside of the entrance to the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection,” which presents a small but impressive sampling of the institution’s holdings, informs visitors that Hirshhorn “was a passionate and knowledgeable collector” who “amassed art by some of the greatest figures of modernism, from Auguste Rodin to Willem de Kooning.” Visitors subsequently learn that the collection includes works that “are considered masterpieces by art historians.” This ensures that even if they lack knowledge of modern and contemporary art, they will feel obligated to be impressed by what they see. This introductory information primes visitors to view the art they are about to encounter in a positive light by invoking the discerning eye of an individual collector and the approval of an unnamed body of experts. Furthermore, its verbosity contrasts with the sparse wall labels displayed next to individual works. It is also important to note that there is no audio guide for this exhibition, which would have made its contents more understandable to the general public.

When one enters the galleries of this exhibition, the first major display is a selection of works by Willem de Kooning and Alberto Giacometti. This gallery presents narratives of individual greatness, including the greatness of Hirshhorn as a collector and the greatness of de Kooning and Giacometti as artists. In addition, the works throughout the galleries of this exhibition are all spaced far apart from one another, and many of the sculptures are displayed on pedestals or within glass vitrines. This emphasizes their individual significance and presents them as objects worthy of contemplation. Most of the wall labels in the galleries contain little descriptive information. Instead, they include the artist’s name, his or her nationality, his or her years of birth and death, the title of the work, the year(s) of its creation, the medium, and the work’s origin, which is often listed as “Gift of Joseph H. Hirshhorn.” There are one or two works within each gallery that have extensive wall text, but their selection seems completely arbitrary. This series of galleries combines works that Hirshhorn himself acquired with ones that the museum has recently added to its collection, and this juxtaposition suggests that the museum continues to pursue Hirshhorn’s original vision.

One architectural element that encourages visitors to consider the importance of the collection is the shape of the building itself. The galleries on each floor connect to form a large ring, which forces visitors to circumambulate in an almost devotional manner. This is a striking example of scholar Carol Duncan’s model of the museum as a ritual space and site of secular devotion. This configuration also engenders feelings of suspense and excitement; the visitor is unable to see the contents of the next gallery due to the fact that it is not immediately ahead of him or her, nor is it framed by a doorway. Ultimately, the exhibition “Masterworks from the Hirshhorn Collection” presents a uniquely temporary arrangement of a mere sliver of the museum’s holdings. An exhibition like “Masterworks” is thereby far from representative of the institution’s holdings as a whole, but instead presents a shiny and sanitized “highlights reel” of sorts. However, the overall lack of informational materials arguably renders this exhibition incomprehensible to individuals with little background in art history.



Alberto Giacometti, Dog, 1951


Commercial Culture in the Museum

As part of Dr. Bellow’s Museums and Society course this semester, students are asked to write a short weekly response paper in which they think critically about the musuem as a physical space, a cultural institution, and as a political, economic, and social entity. Below, first year MA student Samantha Rhodes shares her analysis of commercial culture in the National Gallery of Art and the Louvre:

The National Gallery has been the sight of many joyful and encouraging visits, however, one aspect has always been a little unsettling. The location of the Museum Cafe, also known as the Garden Cafe, within the middle of the museum is an interesting, yet somewhat problematic feature. Leanne McTavish’s essay “Shopping in the Museum? Consumer spaces and the Redefinition of the Louvre”, which analyzes the relation between the Louvre museum and the underground shopping mall Carrousel de Louvre, gave me some tools to analyze my previous experience at the National Gallery. As she points out the Carrousel de Louvre is located on the lower level of the museum under the galleries. By noting the lower level and separation, McTavish analyzes the tension between ideal attendees associated with the exhibitions, and the other attendees, who are associated with the more physical pleasures of consumerism. Essentially her argument assumes a class distinction and ideal viewership between the two areas located within the Louvre. After reading McTavish’s analysis, I began critically thinking about not only the Garden Cafe located in the NGA, but the Cascade Cafe, which is a glorified title for a general food court. Although I do not have much of an issue with food spaces within a museum, there is a question of the differences between the Garden Cafe and the general food court. I would argue that there are social distinctions between the two spaces. The Garden Cafe is located on the Western side of the museum and is tucked in the middle of exhibits. A viewer who enters through the 7th Street side of the building must also pass the cafe on the way to the East Wing and the general food court. The prices of the Garden Cafe run high, with entrees being above 20 dollars. While in the food court prices are more economical. Not only do the soaring prices denote a difference, but the location of the Garden Cafe amidst, not separated from, the rest of the museum recalls similar questions found in the McTavish article.

The Carrousel du Louvre (the food court and shopping center) was separated from the rest of the museum on a lower level, thus signifying the status of the structure in comparison to a more “civilized” culture located in the exhibitions on the upper levels. The National Gallery has made this observation even more obvious. The Garden Cafe not only caters to more elite individuals, but it is also located close in proximity to the exhibits. Thus one can have a pleasant, expensive meal while also being encouraged by the general splendor of the NGA. The Cascade Cafe, or the food court, was built for a mass amount of people, thus the architecture is not as grand, nor are the reproductions of pantings that feature food products. These paintings were situated on simple columns, and their quality is less than ideal, thus adding even more of an inferior air when compared to the pristine Garden Cafe. McTavish makes an argument that there is tension between two museum ideals, one that is meant to attract a more diverse public, and one that worries that this public will consist of people that museum officials have long sought to exclude. (184) Although the argument does not directly translate to my observation, I do believe the tension between the two cafes exist, and I believe this tension is noted by numerous guests to the museum. Even upon my first visit to the NGA, I was disturbed by the location of the Garden Cafe, it was as if the visitors having lunch were themselves a spectacle, an ideal to live up to. Until that ideal is fulfilled, I must go to a lower level where food is more affordable and the exhibits are far away. The intriguing tension between consumer and exhibition space proved an interesting analysis inspired by McTavish’s example from the Louvre in Paris.


First year MA student, Samantha Rhodes, poses in front of Frederic Church’s Niagara.