Response to Denver Art Museum: DAM!

More from Bhanu Kapil’s class. Last week I visited the Denver Art Museum. Here is my response:

It felt good to be in a city. Tightness uncoiled from my chest when I saw black folks on the streets. I walked down the street. The buildings opened up into canyons.

I asked a man on the street where was the museum. He pointed with his cigarette and told me, It’s next to the library. ? The building looked medieval or like a stage set for Shakespeare.

The entrance was marked with a circle of red pylons arranged in a way that made me think of Stonehenge. But the writing on the red columns told of Native American history with the United States. Among the markings were the letters AIM and a statement of the Wounded Knee massacre in 1973.

The building has seven levels. The top level was not open to the public and the second level was closed for renovation. The other levels organized the collection by culture and/or time:

  • 3rd Level ? American Indian Art Collection
  • 4th Level ? Pre-Colombian & Spanish Colonial Art Collection
  • 5th Level ? Asian Art Collection
  • 6th Level ? European & American Art Collection

I started my visit at the top floor. A plaque just outside the elevator told me that the European & American Art had been arranged by the themes: Places, Objects, Textile Arts, People, British Art, Renaissance, and Design before 1900. I wondered who came up with these themes? What was their intention? The plaque told me the themed organization would free the work form stylistic boundaries ?. There was also a display of several statues with the theme: Women ? to demonstrate the point.

The first room I entered was the Renaissance Room. The paintings were arranged close together and sometimes stacked in two rows. There were also two sculptures and a triptych. All the paintings and sculptures were of white people, usually in Judeo-Christian settings.

Next I entered the People Room. The room also contained paintings exclusively of white people. The art in the People Room lacked religious connotation, except for a sculpture of Europa and the Bull ?. Adjacent to the People Room was the British Room. The collections of both rooms were very similar: non-religious portraits of white people.

The Moore Gallery or Design before 1900 ? was a break from portraits and people. It appeared to be a showroom for expensive furniture. There were sofas, chairs, and tables of elaborate and intricate design. A plaque on the wall told me that the installation ? was innovative in four significant ways ?. There was an eye-catching display of very fine silverware.

The walls of the Textile Room were hung with blankets like dead butterflies pinned to the wall. One blanket looked warm, but none of these blankets kept anyone warm. Instead their function was to provide a snapshot of one moment ? or so read the plaque on the wall.

The Object Room was perhaps my favorite room. It was home to a particular painting that caught my attention: A Little Later ? by Kay Sage 1938. It was a gray painting of stones, wood, and metal objects. The objects were smooth and of various shapes, stacked in a pile. At the center of the pile was an object that resembled a drill bit. I imagined it turning and grinding the other objects for some unclear purpose.

The last room was the Places Room. Here were hung paintings of beaches, towns, ponds, groves, and mountain streams. But there were also paintings of people here, and the first paintings of non-white people I’d encountered in the museum. One was a small portrait of a Native American man by Henry Farny titled: In Holiday Attire ?. Why was this painting part of the Places ? theme and not the People ? theme? Who draws these boundaries? Is the encounter with non-white people synonymous with the tourist experience of mountains, streams, or towns? Is the museum telling me that only white people fit into the category of People?

I left the American & European Art floor on guard against other messages the museum might be sending. The next floor down was home to the Asian Art collection. This collection was arranged geographically by nationality: Tibet/Nepal, India, Japan, China, Korea, etc. There was also a section titled Buddhist Art ? centered among Tibet/Nepal, India, and Japan.

The music of tablas was being piped in to the India section. All the objects there and in surrounding sections were antique and mostly religious. Only as I made my way through Tibet/Nepal and past the Buddhist Art section into the Japan section did I find some modern and non-religious objects, including some wood boxes and small paintings.

The sensation of being an alien, out of time and place that had started on the top floor, had not left me. I stopped at a small window that looked out over the city. Donald Preziosi has said that a museum is a tool that spatializes knowledge. What does it mean that the Asian Art collection is organized in a spatial way that simulates the physical and national organization of the cultures of Asia? How is walking across the 5th floor of the Denver Art Museum like walking across the continent of Asia? How is walking across Asia like walking across downtown Denver?

There was a boy, about ten years old, with his mother. He was taking notes in a notebook and examining one of the displays. What did he learn that day?

All of the plaques and information cards on the Pre-Colombian & Spanish Colonial floor were in Spanish and English. I blinked when I saw this. None of the other floors, none of the signs in other exhibits were bilingual. What was the museum saying?

I read the English side of the plaque, which told me that this floor was divided into two distinct sections: Pre-Colombian and Spanish Colonial. It further explained the encounter ? which happened in 1492.

The space of the Pre-Colombian section was a large room with off-white walls. Glass cases displayed various stone carvings and pottery from all over Central and South America.

At the point where the Pre-Colombian section ends and the Spanish Colonial section begins was a larger than life statue of St. Ferdinand holding a crown. There was also a time line ? hanging on the wall further marking the 1492 encounter with the head of Columbus.

The space of the Spanish Colonial section was divided into different colored rooms representing the different regions of Peru, Mexico, and the US Southwest. The difference was a shock. Not only did the objects and subjects change but the very space changed. The space of the Pre-Colombian section was completely divided and erased.

I stood next to the statue of St. Ferdinand, looking back on the Pre-Colombian section. I turned to look the space of the Spanish Colonial section, which from that vantage were only entrances ways. I was no longer concerned about being a stranger in a strange land. The Denver Art Museum was no place to feel at home. The museum was erasing the world and in its place was writing the fictions that make upmodernity: the phantasms of ethnicity, race, gender, nation, sex, indigeneity, class ? (Brain of the Earth’s Body, Donald Preziosi, p. 103)

The American Indian collection began with a plaque explaining the purpose of the 3rd floor was to tell me why ? people made those objects and the role art played in their lives. There were also blankets on display on this floor, but instead of being hung like paintings they were draped over stands that suggested use. There was also an audio space to demonstrate the importance of the oral tradition ? to these communities.

I listened to songs, speeches, stories, and prayers. I consider myself a storyteller and appreciated the audio space. While I listened I stared at a deerskin and a photograph of a young man standing in a stream.

The art on the 3rd floor was organized similarly to the art of the Asian Art collection: geographically by region and nation. There were sections marked Southern California, Northern California, Pacific North West, Plains, Southwest, and North East. In the center of the floor, behind the elevators, was a section called New Classics ? for modern artists.

When I left the building it was snowing. I walked around to see the new construction. It was different, but I’d seen so many pictures inside the museum that I was not surprised. The structure has the appearance of a modern sculpture, but I wonder how its form will serve its function.

Will the new structure challenge the racist ideas of the old museum? Or will it enable more Eurocentric propaganda? While I was visiting the American Indian collection I could see the remodeling that was being done to the 2nd floor. Two men were installing more Native American art. If the old museum is going to house the Native American collection, what/whose art will the new structure house?

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