“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.