Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Interview: Lynda Hartigan of Peabody Essex

Lynda Roscoe Hartigan, became the Peabody Essex Museum’s chief curator in 2003, just before the Salem museum opened its expansion and renovation five years ago this June. An expert on Joseph Cornell and folk art, among other things, she arrived from the Smithsonian to play a key role in the curatorial revitalization of the Peabody Essex (as I wrote about here). Part of that, since last year, has included Hartigan and Peabody Essex director Dan Monroe traveling to museums around the world to actively cultivate partnerships that they hope will help lead to significant loans for Peabody Essex exhibitions. I interviewed her at the museum on July 16. Below are excerpts:
  • “We live in a global world, far more so than any other point in history, at least particularly in how this country sees itself in the world. The legacy of the museum and the extent and diversity of its collection, the global reach of the collection and the ideas that that really enables us to deal with, is what has emboldened us, frankly, to really be much more actively engaged in the concept of global dialogue. And it’s also one of the reasons why dealing with contemporary art for this museum is extraordinarily important going forward, because the contemporary art scene has gone far more global than it has ever been.”

  • “Inherently we see ourselves as an environment in which we can offer experiences. And I think that sometimes people can look at a museum environment and think that it’s solely intended to be instructive or educational. All of that is important to us, but nonetheless, dare I say, we want people to have fun, to have their minds sort of activated in a much more direct way. Because obviously within the history of the museum there is this concept of the temple of learning. And our museum is straight off the street. So there’s direct entry into our museum environment. And that was a very deliberate design ploy on the part of the director and the building committee in concert with the architect. I think you enter our museum really quickly and understand that you’re starting off on an adventure. I mean we don’t stand at the door telling anyone you’re starting on an adventure. But from the feedback that we get from our public, the visitors, there’s definitely something about what we’ve done overall with the layout and the path that gives people the sense that they are being invited to explore.

  • Exhibition “design is one way, a very important way, of really being able to deliver on that invitation to participate. Design is a very emotional kind of thing and I’m not sure a lot of people associate museums with emotion unless you’ve had some kind of epiphany in front of a painting. But emotion is very important as a means for people to learn. And there’s more and more cognitive research that’s being done about how significant it is for people to be able to access things through an emotional response. It’s one of the most important ways people remember things, or form opinions about things.”

  • Before the renovation and expansion: “Things were much more crowded, a little dimmer, things were sort of mixed together in a much more ethnographic way. And there were very deliberate strategic discussions here about getting the museum to open up. Part of the interpretative strategy would be to create more space around objects, even as you’re trying to pose conversations, as opposed to cacophony because you have too many things in the midst of each other.”

  • “We’re at an evolutionary turning point, again based on what I would call the grand experiment of this interaction of the old and the new or the historical and the new. Recognizing that people respond to that as a dynamic. I think it’s the combinatory approach that we take that is different from what many strictly contemporary art focused institutions do, even in terms of how they interpret the art. It’s about the context in which the art is made.”

  • "'Artifact’ is not a word that figures into our vocabulary. We’re dealing with art objects. ‘Artifact’ takes us into the realm of being a history or technology museum. And many things that might have been a functional object at a particular moment in time have indeed been redefined as art objects. And we’re very much part of that conversation.”

  • “We believe in the power of art writ large. And inevitably because we’re human beings, we are the classifying creature on the planet, so, yes, those kind of distinctions have been made, will continue to be made. But there’s just as much been a movement, really since the 1920s, to question why you create that hierarchy. It’s a very Western canon approach to art history. But there is also a movement afoot, there are art departments in different universities either in this country or elsewhere that are called the department of world art. Principally oriented towards really debunking the hierarchy. Yes [we’re part of that]. Not to say we’re not making evaluations and analyzing and all that sort of thing.”

  • “There’s a very deliberate duality in much of what we’re trying to do. We are saying, ‘Culture is part of art, art is part of culture.’ It’s not an equation per se, but it’s a conversation.”

  • Building loan shows: “It really is about the interpersonal networking and basically how people work their relationships and how they are respected for their scholarship or their creative thinking. For example, as we hire a curator of contemporary art, I’ll be hiring someone who’s got a long track record of doing great exhibitions. And that’s bankable, in really direct terms, in that that person represents a known quantity for the quality of the shows. The assumption that I’m making and that others out there would be making is that if that’s what that person has been able to do in the past then coming here and actually building an exciting new program of contemporary art means that person would be doing that same level of quality here. If not greater” – Hartigan laughs – “based on my motivational capabilities.”

  • “I fully expect our curators to be hungry for good ideas and opportunities.”


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