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Exhibition Log #1- KHM Vienna - During the Night

Albrecht Dürer - During the Night

Whenever I used to think about what curators do (which didn't happen very often), I couldn't really come up with enough things to fill a working day. In my mind, the list of work included looking at art, buying some of it, letting other people hang up paintings, show important people round their exhibition, and ... have a cup of tea? This didn't seem right, but since I also didn't (and still don't) know what librarians do all day and why there are so many of them to check out books for visitors, I decided not to dwell on that topic. 
Many years later, I discovered Andrew Graham-Dixon. I developed a little crush, and I started to watch everything I could find on the interwebs. Among those videos was a documentary - A Night At The Rijksmuseum, about the reopening of the museum in the Dutch capital to the public in 2013. 
Andrew Graham-Dixon was very excited about it (as was I, more art to look at!), and he provided interesting "Behind the Scenes" information, about museum scientists and painting restoration among them. (By that point, I had learned that the public going to exhibitions is part of the funding for the science going on behind closed doors, so I was looking forward to that.) But as well as looking at logistical, organisational and architectural nightmares and developments, he also took a look at how the exhibition was set up. And that was where I finally began to understand what it is that a curator does.

The Rijksmuseum has a collection of around 1 million (MILLION!) objects documenting art and history ranging from the years 1200-2000. Of that treasure, only around 8.000 pieces are on display in the public exhibition. That is less than one percent!!! How could anyone decide what to show? 

Andrew Graham-Dixon, getting excited about...
a painting documenting Dutch seafare
In his documentary, Andrew Graham-Dixon explained the museum's mission "to tell the story of the Dutch past, to bring Holland to life". He starts off by saying that the museum used to be organized by types of things (drawings, sculpture, ceramics, and so on), and then documents the re-imagination, going through some of the rooms and explaining the ideas behind them, The museum now follows a chronological approach, and the objects shown are picked especially for their part in telling a story - the importance of Rembrandt's Night Watch, Hollands relationship with the Spanish, its history of commerce. 

Now that he has explained things to me, I can see them too. I can look at exhibition catalogues and recognize the structure that has been built into it, and once I know a theme, I can try to follow it in my mind. It requires a lot of thought and openness, and while it is definitely worth it, it is also tremendously difficult. 

But a couple of months ago, I was lucky enough to visit an exhibition that took a completely different approach. The Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien had decided to invite artists to pick objects from the museum's vast collections and curate their own exhibitions, and for their second show, they had invited British porcelain artist and author, Edmund de Waal.

Edmund de Waal's finished piece for the exhibition
Picture by
In his introduction for the exhibition, he writes about the lack of a starting point until he came across a sketch-like painting by Albrecht Dürer, detailing a nightmare. He built his show around that. The exhibition, entitled "During the Night", is set in a completely dark room and shines light on some carefully picked objects, complete with thoughts of the artist on why he decided to include them in this collection. The exhibition ends with a piece by Edmund de Waal himself, showing how he has interpreted the thoughts and images that came to him during the curation of the show.
It is intensely personal, and something to get lost in, in the dark of the exhibition room. But it is also a very interesting interpretation of the topic, and a rare look into the mind of the person who decided on this collection. And this is what going through an exhibition feels like to me now - seeing into the mind of the curator, and viewing the art as they view it, experiencing it in the context and the story they feel is appropriate or interesting or a good starting point for a deeper exploration.

This is something I wish I had learned sooner, because I have seen many exhibitions before, and skipped 'uninteresting' rooms or given up halfway through. And there is something to say for going somewhere "just to look at art". Because the art is incredible. But there is also something to be said for experiencing an exhibition the way it was intended to - for living the story the way it was written.

I am glad I can do both ways now.

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