‘Accession Number’ showcases the curatorial process

The first thing I noticed about Accession Number is its enormity: The exhibition contains more than 300 works of art. Spanning the entire first floor gallery space of Williams College Museum of Art (WCMA), Accession Number proves to be the museum’s largest exhibition to date and, perhaps, its most provocative.

On view since last Friday, Accession Number is an exhibition of all the works of art acquired by WCMA between early 1960 and the end of 1962, arranged in order by each work’s accession number – a code assigned to an artwork that indicates the year and when within the year it was acquired. Damaged, lost or stolen artworks from the time period are represented in the gallery space by a blank square on the wall where the work would have been.

The result of these decisions is a dense field of artwork displayed in a patchwork fashion, in which ancient Song Dynasty vases sit across from landscape portraits from the 18th century. To accommodate the sheer quantity of items on display, the walls of the gallery, packed with unique works, showcase the art salon-style rather than with the individual and particular care, as would be typical of a curated exhibition. It is an exhibition that could almost be read as luxurious and ostentatious if it were not for the many empty spaces representing missing works of art. Instead, it becomes a visual history of the management of all the art obtained within two years of collection.

Accession Number is provocative in its transparency. The exhibition is what you would call an “un-curated” show, indiscriminately displaying every single work in no intentional arrangement but rather the order in which each was accessioned. To make the experience less disorienting and more navigable, the museum provides what it calls a humble “brochure” – a 57-page booklet thoroughly equipped with the accession number and description of almost every single work on display in the gallery, along with maps to indicate where every work can be found within the gallery. In the introduction, Director of WCMA, Christina Olsen explains the goals of the exhibition: “Collections expand and contract of course, but they are also dramatically reinterpreted by curation and changing tastes. Many of these works of art have not been shown in decades because they’ve fallen out of fashion, or don’t fit the museum’s changing ideas about itself, or because faculty no longer teach with them. Accession Number is an opportunity to bring them together once again.”

The tremendous effort given to the brochure inspires respect but also unsettles: Why does Accession Number have to make use of such a pamphlet in order to explain its conceptual gravity? Shouldn’t any well-designed exhibition make limited use of such an external tool? What gets revealed in the process, however, is the collection history of the museum. The brochure, thus, transforms itself into a crucial component of the showcase’s experience, its explication and its deconstruction. It asks, what exactly goes into making an exhibition? What type of information does it specifically provide? How does a museum decide which works of art to show and why?

The choice to do away with a highly-orchestrated viewing experience intimately reduces the gaps between the audience and curator and between the audience and exhibition. Without any type of design to lead into developing specific understandings of the works, Accession Number transfers curatorial privileges to the audience instead; in an adjacent installation, the museum offers iPads on which viewers can choose to curate their own exhibitions from the works on display – not just a fun gimmick but a testimony to the rawness of the exhibition as well as a necessary response to one of the problems created by the structure of the project. The perfunctory information provided by the brochure seems to be the only effort made to explain each artwork. Removed from any explicating context, the works of art on display maintain their individual mystique at the cost of a deeper level of understanding.

Through the integration of a “re-curating” device, Accession Number allows viewers to generate new contexts of their own to place the works in, thereby participating in the creation of meaning. In a sense, Accession Number resembles an installation rather than an exhibition – by reinventing the museum experience into an experience of the museum, Accession Number ends up being an art show that reveals more about the show than about the art.

‘Accession Number’ catalogs and showcases each of the works of art collected by WCMA between early 1960 and the end of 1962. June Han/Photo Editor