The first time when I stepped on the white stairs towards the National Gallery of Art, I could feel a sense of solemnity surrounded by the neo-classical architectures, where there are numerous well-engraved colossal pillars as the structure. Browsing around at the fountain place, I found the gallery in a symmetric arrangement, with consecutive exhibition rooms on both sides of the fountain.
One of the most striking features of the rotunda is the number of bodies – the general feeling that there is something to be marveled judging solely by the fact our bags were checked and there were so many people coming in and out. Heavy foot traffic has always felt like a good indicator of judging the cultural significance of a space, and the National Gallery certainly met the criteria. Furthermore, it was a diverse group of people coming in and out, which to me signified that this was not a privileged space of dominant narrative aggrandizement, which is something I was wary of going in.
Walking through the hallway, we passed a delicate garden and entered the exhibition room, and finally we saw the House of Representatives, a masterpiece of Samuel Morse. The large-scale painting is placed in the middle of one side of the room, and the other side is the portrait of the family of George Washington. As a visitor, I was immediately attracted by the two large-scale paintings in such a squared room, and they are somewhat in a similar historical context, reflecting their significance in the American history. In almost every exhibition room, there are two couches in the center, providing a resting place for visitors and in the meantime, a perfect seat to enjoy the masterpieces in the room. I sat in the soft couch, staring at the House of Representatives, and I felt like I couldn’t be more comfortable and pleasant to appreciate such a great masterpiece in the gallery.
Moreover, I always wonder how different visitors appreciate the exhibitions. I usually try to explore the inner logic of the exhibition display. Is the paintings categorized by time order, painter or content? What kinds of relationships can be discovered room by room? Therefore, I believe some visitors like me may pay close attention to the specific order of the exhibition. As the visitors move forward room by room, they may find the answers from the styles of the paintings, the annotations or the foreword of the rooms. While others, especially for those general tourists, may find it tiring and boring in this way, and would rather focus on the most well-known masterpieces so that they will save more time to go through the whole gallery. I used to bring my friend, who’s from Baltimore, to this gallery for a visit. She picked up several leaflets with introductions of the most famous paintings in the gallery, quickly looked for the locations of them, and went straightly towards the paintings one by one. It took us around 2 hours to go through the whole east wing of the gallery. The leaflet, as a means of promotion, it will include information of the most famous paintings and painters; as an educational tool, it may provide more detailed information such as introductions of certain masterpieces, purpose of the exhibition, and even monthly highlights of related workshops. In this respect, the leaflets (or booklets) exactly indicate the changing role and function of the galleries and museums, which are developing from private collections to public exhibitions, from a symbol of wealth and social status to a place of conservation, research and education. “Once the museum admitted the public, its exhibition function became predominant. Collecting, conservation and research in the main supported the development of exhibitions.” “Exhibition, education or interpretation – the conveyance of culture – and a commitment or social welfare have grown to be important aims for the museum in the last century” (Alexander 9).
And this highlights the utility of interface as a guiding theoretical framework for museums. The grander sign system of art history and artistic representation is necessarily dynamic and always in flux. Because any art piece is necessarily a product of the continuum of art history, which it reflexively represents, the museum design plays a critical role in culturally placing the art pieces that compose the exhibit. Furthermore, museums are a symbol of an egalitarian political systems as exemplified by the role of the Louvre in the French Revolution. Not only did revolutionary leaders make a point of preserving art pieces from conquests and opening up museums to the general public (previously privileged to the rich), the Louvre was to function as a central museum in a museum system (Alexander 29-30). This marked a sharp turn in the role of art in a democratic society.
What a treasure that move ended up being, as we owe museums in the contemporary age to this turn. One major function of museums is to serve as a refuge or asylum for art pieces, so that art can be preserved and we have can have access to a fuller understanding of art (Buren 191). And a crucial function this is, because ultimately, the sign system of art functions as a network. The continuum of art can only function as a sign system and a narrative if we have a network of art pieces to represent this fuller sign system and narrative. Preserving art and displaying them in museums allows us to fully realize Latour’s definition of network, which is to identify the major actants that are crucial for the sign system to exist (799). Between the history of acquisition of an art piece, the production of a piece, and the presentation of it in a museum, there are several modes of entry into identifying a piece of art into the many networks it belongs to. Furthermore, fundamentally, the choices made in presentation (where the piece is hung, what pieces it is hung next to) fundamentally restructures the tight network it exists in as the actor embodies the network (Latour 800). So the National Gallery, aside from housing and preserving the art in its possession, actively defines the network of art which we as a democratic people must be critical of to ensure the space is properly representative.
Alexander, Edward P. and Mary Alexander, Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums, 2nd ed. Mountain Creek, CA; London, UK: Altamira Press, 2007.
Buren, Daniel. “Function of the Museum.” In Theories of Contemporary Art, ed. by Richard Hertz, 2nd ed., 189–92. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1985.
Latour, Bruno. “Networks, Societies, Spheres: Reflections of an Actor-Network Theorist,” International Journal of Communication 5 (2011), 796–810.