Last month, I headed to Detroit for the American Association for State and Local History‘s annual meeting. It’s always an inspiring few days, but sometimes that inspiration comes from rather surprising places.
As a general rule, I don’t love art museums. As someone who doesn’t know much about art, I want to learn about art when I visit an art museum. But so many art museums stick with a very basic label formula–artist, title, medium, date. I’m always left wanting to know more. Maybe I should just stand there and let the art wash over me, but that’s just not how my brain works.
But I knew I wanted to visit the Detroit Institute of Art. They’ve been through hell and back, and if nothing else, I wanted to support them. Plus, I do enjoy Diego Rivera.
Jenn and I were completely blown away. It is a massive institution. The collection is incredible. But even more amazing–I learned about art!
Everywhere we turned, there was an interesting tidbit on a label. An invitation to look more closely, ask questions, all those things that I want to do in a museum. There were simple, low tech interactives. Decorative arts were mixed with fine art. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed myself so much in an art museum.
And then we wandered into the Great Hall. And the Diego Rivera murals. It was breathtaking. Sometimes I wonder what it would be like to work in a truly “fancy” museum–I think I would be less likely to get away with jeans.
It also is worth mentioning that every staff member we encountered was absolutely delightful. Security guards asked us great questions and shared their favorite piece in a gallery. Volunteers seamlessly directed us through galleries, pointing out certain pieces and sharing great stories. We had so many great conversations about art during our visit–which is exactly what is supposed to happen at a museum! From the labels to these interactions, it’s clear that the DIA is working to make their enormous institution more personal and more accessible for all.
One of my former staff members now works at the DIA, and we met for lunch. I started raving to her about how wonderful our experience had been and she explained that every single label in that museum is written by a team–a curator and an member of the interpretation staff. Just by the nature of the positions, there’s also usually some sort of generational divide as well. So, all those labels had been discussed and fought over by multiple people. That push and pull between curatorial and education garners some pretty powerful results.
At a small institution, it’s a lot easier to work on teams. If you need another set of eyes, you have to go outside of your department–because you’re a department of one! That’s such a harder thing to do at a large institution. If nothing else, it inspired me to make sure we continued to work on exhibits as a team at DHV. If the DIA can do it, we can do it too!