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Mining The Museum


A remake of a rococo magenta curtain with bare breasted nymphs stitched into the folds to replace the earlier faded one. Gray marble relief sculpture of a young woman’s head turned seductively, revealing a chipped earlobe- from what centuries old indignity we can only imagine. Mislabeled objects of dubious provenance quietly evading a contentious history of pilfering. The efflorescence of some curator’s erudition is seen in the pairing of disparate works. And still. And still there are deep traces of humanity in the things themselves and the makers of those things. Artists and their subjects speak to us, test our focus and peak our imagination. Our curiosity ascends. Our empathy deepens.

The line between art and life is a boundary made ambiguous, blurred, and rendered fluid by these very human artworks and artifacts themselves. They are not so much frozen in place but talking to us across time. Art has a power to give us transformative experiences about ourselves, give us solace, and move us to tears. And if art is an expression of life then those artworks that have survived from the past and now reside in museums of the present can create conversations with the past… a source of human creativity and understanding.  But the institution of the museum itself often puts up its own barriers that make that conversation difficult to have. This is why many young people find museums - with their rules, their velvet roped barricades, their security cams and alarms - rather somber, staid, and elitist places set apart from daily life. To some, museums are lost in the past, filled with problematic artifacts that represent the materialism and consumerism of the upper classes, and the legacies of colonialism and racism in the objects that they coveted, collected or outright stole. To others, museums can introduce us to the visual expression of an idea; exquisite forms and precious mark-making that have survived from centuries past. But it often takes hard work to look at all this magnificent artwork through the drudgery of long lines, overcrowded galleries and blatant commercialism in the marketing of the art through reductive gift shop items. Hordes of tourists flock to the grand museums because they are checking things off a list. I watch the spectacle of spectatorship as hundreds of people move in and out of grand spaces, without so much as a glance; they are forever traipsing through gallery after gallery, streaming past a magnificent painting or artifact to try and find the more iconic, famous work of art.

These photographs are the result of spending a lot of time in museums.  I can be shamelessly aesthetic in my experience of a museum, often following the natural light, reading text panels in a highly selective way, and being torn between the conflicting instincts to photograph and be a scholar of art history. I meander into the rooms that are less populated. My camera lingers over the surface of an obscure painting or attempts to make a new image of just a fragment of a work rather than document the entire work. The beautiful old house museum spaces are works of art in and of themselves with an amalgam of natural window light and woeful track lighting. But together the natural and the artificial can express a luminous humanity.

Mary Ann McQuillan

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