WCMA updates prove merely cosmetic

This Thursday, the Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA) held an official re-opening ceremony in great pomp; President Falk, accompanied by Art Department Chair Peter Low and WCMA Director Lisa Corrin, gave a talk regarding the importance of the museum for an educational community such as our own and the changes that have been brought about. A month or so beforehand, WCMA opened its doors to the public after a long winter of repairs and renovations during which it was closed. Without a doubt, there was much to introduce; the layout and design of many parts of the building, the exhibitions that populate it and the museum’s website and blog are all brand-new.
The overhaul of WCMA’s interior is very welcome and quite impressive. After several large window bays were opened up and the electrical fixtures improved, the lighting is much more comfortable and pleasant and the works greatly benefit from these improved conditions. Many of the alterations are minute or hardly noticeable, but the viewing conditions are much more pleasant, and one circulates through the different exhibits much more naturally.
The new website has also undergone several improvements; navigation is more intuitive and useful new features have been added, including a succinct listing of events, a large library of digitalized works and a museum blog. This last item seemed particularly high on the staff’s list of innovations, as it champions WCMA’s cause of becoming more interactive and open to the public (the comment sections remain forlornly empty, but it will no doubt fill up as more time passes). More than anything else, the website is simply prettier and more user-friendly.
This is precisely the impression that the overall renovation and surrounding ceremony give off: The changes are cosmetic and do not revolutionize our experience as viewers. Which is, do not take me wrong, absolutely fine; WCMA is a relatively small museum attached to a similarly sized college, without the means or power of attraction that a larger, more influential institution (such as the Clark) might have. This is no surprise: The museum’s primary mission is not to attract hordes of visitors each year or showcase the latest and greatest of the visual arts, but simply to provide works from notable artists as objects of study and inspiration for the students of the College. The museum, with its comprehensive collection of many varied works, has been performing this function admirably, in addition to constituting a richer cultural background even for undergraduates whose academic pursuits might not include the arts.
Nonetheless, it seems that the administration of WCMA is attempting to present these alterations as groundbreaking or sending the museum in a different direction. The opening event of this Thursday was entitled “Reflections on a Museum” and encouraged us to consider how the works of art and their innovative display “approach the ‘museum’ as subject in different ways …  rais[ing] fascinating questions about the function and meaning of art across time and cultures and the role of museums in shaping our understanding of art.” A shift of this magnitude seems unlikely: To begin with, very little has been added or removed to the collection itself, except for about 50 pieces on loan from the Yale University Art Gallery that sit in the actual “Reflections on a Museum” exhibit. Furthermore, the eight new exhibitions for the most part simply reframe the elements of the pre-existing collection, shuffling some things around or merely changing the display; one possible exception is the “Room for Reflection,” which showcases a single work from a different artist each month, with no contextual information.
In short, the emphatic message put forth by WCMA falls slightly flat. The renovations are undoubtedly a success, vastly improving on the viewing experience of an already interesting and valuable collection. Without a doubt, students should return to the museum, or perhaps visit it for the first time, to enjoy the new viewing spaces and groups of new works; it represents a useful resource that not all liberal arts colleges have at their disposal and deserves to be appreciated. However, these new exhibits contain little earth-shattering revelations or “reflections” advertised by the many talks, posts and descriptions. The works are beautiful, the setting has vastly improved and WCMA can be satisfied.

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