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They’re Watching Us

No, not the NSA. I mean, yes, sure, the NSA iswatching us — reading our email, listening to our phone calls, tracking our driving routes — but we knew that already.

Think about the last time you wandered around a museum. Did you notice anything odd? Did you feel watched? Well, in case you did, you’re right.

Today’s Wall Street Journal had a great article by Isaac Arnsdorf reporting on the fact that “More museums are paying to send stealth observers through their galleries.” Arnsdorf goes on to explain:

Based on what they see, the museums may rearrange art or rewrite the exhibit notes. Their efforts reflect the broader change in the mission of museums: It’s no longer enough to hang artfully curated works. Museum exhibits are expected to be interactive and engaging. As well, many foundations and donors are requiring proof that their funding is well-spent, and the studies provide data to show a rise in traffic or exhibit engagement.

Arnsdorf focuses on the Detroit Institute of Arts, where “Mr. Sikora watches where visitors stop, whether they talk or read, how much time they spend. He records his observations in a handheld computer, often viewing his subjects through the display cases or tiptoeing behind them to stay out of their line of sight. ‘Teenage daughter was with, but did not interact, sat on bench, then left,’ read his notes of one visit. . . .
It’s tedious work. In Detroit, Mr. Sikora’s recent morning of work led to the discovery that the average time visitors spent in a gallery was 2 minutes and 56 seconds. Out of six visitors, four stopped at Georges Seurat’s pointillist seascape, ‘View of Le Crotoy from Upstream,’ making it the gallery’s most popular art work. Three read the work’s label.”

If you go to the article online, you’ll find an accompanying video about observations at San Francisco’s Exploratorium and a pretty lively set of comments.

While at the Detroit Institute of Arts (in person or online), be sure to visit Diego Rivera’s astonishing Detroit Industry murals, which fill the Garden Court. The Wall Street Journal had a piece on the murals just this past Saturday as the latest in their weekly series on masterpieces of the arts.

The once-palm-filled Garden Court at the Detroit Institute of Arts is now bare of anything but the Rivera murals, and some viewers have expressed regret at this loss of atmospheric effect. Yet the intensity of the paintings is so overwhelming that one wonders about an earlier era’s sense of display. The massive north and south walls include three tiers of images and a complex iconography that would have spoken volumes to people at the time. They would probably have recognized some of the people whose portraits are included, and some percentage of the locals would have been able to read the industrial processes depicted. One is here reminded of Raphael’s Vatican Palace frescoes, in which historical and mythical personages are depicted for viewers who were expected to be familiar with the images. There are other rich allusions to Renaissance art, such as the lower-level panels in grisaille, suggestive of Mantegna’s altarpiece predellas.

Be sure to see the WSJ’s accompanying slideshow. And again, check out the lively comments.

By the way, take a closer look at the characters in the murals. I think they’re watching us.

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Categories: Art
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