Pictures At An Exhibition: Reopening the Bowdoin Museum of Art

by Selby Frame

Photos by James Marshall & Michele Stapleton

The Bowdoin College Museum of Art

You have to think Hercules would get a kick out of this: the sight of four men struggling under the weight of a precious marble relief in his likeness, attempting to affix it to the wall of a museum in Brunswick, Maine.

At a certain point, all the men could do was laugh. It had taken these Museum staffers a full week to get to this moment - a week of measuring, re-measuring, plaster-mounting, bracketing, painting, and general head-scratching - and it still came down to four guys hanging on like limpets to a centuries old art treasure.

"People are going to come in here and see that on the wall," says Museum Preparator José Ribas '76 of Fragment of a Relief Depicting a Sleeping Hercules (323 B.C.-1 B.C.), "and they'll think, 'Oh, there's nothing to it.' But just hanging that one piece took I don't want to tell you what. . . it weighs a good 450."

But of course he does want to tell. And it's a good story.

Multiply that story by the 449 other art objects included in the inaugural exhibitions, and you begin to get a glimpse of what it takes to reopen the galleries of the Bowdoin College Museum of Art.

Packing and planning

In the two and a half years since the Museum shut its doors for renovation, all 15,000-plus objects from its collections have been hand-inventoried, packed, and shipped out for storage.

While they slumbered in crates, exhibitions were planned. A huge, consolidated art storage area was carved beneath the Museum. Dozens of storage drawers and cabinets were built - with foam "nests" custom crafted for each object. Mechanized painting-storage racks were installed. For the first time, everything the Museum has ever owned has been entered and described in a searchable database that pinpoints the exact location and history of each object.

By the time the collections began rolling back into town in June 2007 - in a staggered, month-long procession of 12 tractor-trailers - the Bowdoin College Museum of Art was actually ready to receive them.

Putting It All Together

A time-lapse look at the Halford Gallery installation by Bowdoin Museum of Art Assistant Preparator Peter Shellenberger.

(View using Quicktime)

This systematic pre-planning left curators to focus on the real business of a museum: creating exhibitions. But even that was subject to staggering multiples.

There isn't just one exhibition to design and install. There are 11 different shows opening simultaneously, extending throughout the Museum's 14 galleries (now doubled in number).

Mounting all exhibitions in a museum at once is, in the words of Bowdoin trustee emeritus David Becker '70, "a once in a lifetime opportunity to put it all together, a really beautiful thing." He addends this comment with the understatement, "but it would be overwhelming."

Happily enough, says Museum Curator Alison Ferris, it has been exhilarating, exhausting, but fairly smooth. "We planned well in advance," she says. "We're going to be working up to the last day, but there aren't going to be any all-nighters. We're all working hard and steady, which is how it's supposed to go. We really are in good shape."

Getting the galleries right

It's a late July morning and Ferris is weaving among crates, dollies, blankets, plexiglass, pedestals, and lighting fixtures stacked in the new, lower-level lobby. Just beyond, in the Bernard and Barbro Osher Gallery, several paintings rest along the wall, the first of the alumni works to arrive for the boldly modern inaugural exhibition there.

Director Katy Kline, Curator Alison Ferris, and collector and trustee emeritus David Becker '70 confer about placement.

"We wanted to highlight alumni collecting right off because they have been such a strong part of helping us build our collection," says Ferris. "And we started with modern and contemporary because it still surprises people and has an unexpected energy to it. We want to engage people right away with what's happening now."

While the progression from gallery to gallery is not something most museum-goers are particularly conscious of, it's one of many invisible arts that go into museum science.

"When we were looking at the plans, we wanted to have the flow of galleries be a marriage of practicality and an understanding of how people move through space," she says. "One of the things you want to avoid are dead-ends, spaces that just stop.

"Also, whether or not you are conscious of it, the proportions of the rooms and their relationship to one another are very important. The architects were very aware of that. The decision to dig underneath the Museum in order to get the gallery height was huge."

Art history professor Susan Wegner's long-anticipated spring 2008 show, Beauty and Duty: The Art and Business of Renaissance Marriage, will be the first major installation to put these issues to the test. The show features the Museum's 15th century cassone panel, recently attributed to Fra Angelico, and will extend from the Osher to the Halford Galleries downstairs.

Putting It All Together II

A time-lapse look at the hanging of "Fragment of a Relief Depicting a Sleeping Hercules (323 B.C.-1 B.C.)" in the Northend Gallery by Bowdoin Museum of Art Assistant Preparator Peter Shellenberger.

(View using Quicktime)

"These are galleries you have to walk through to get upstairs," notes Ferris, "so we'll have to be comfortable with letting the public see us working. It's a common issue for museums; it just requires more problem solving."

"My American show has some of the more iconic works in the collection," notes Ferris, who curated both The American Scene I - with its portraits of James and Sarah Bowdoin by Gilbert Stuart - and the warmly eclectic The Walker Sister and Collecting in Victorian Boston.

"What I most hope is that people will see what a difference it makes to encounter these familiar paintings, in a familiar gallery that is restored to its full beauty. How the space itself makes these paintings sing in ways they didn't before because they didn't have proper lighting and surroundings. Our collection has an incredible life and vibrancy that we weren't able to show to its full benefit before. This building is really doing that for us."

She rounds the corner and mounts the airy staircase leading to the Assyrian Gallery, where a plaster worker's CD player cranks out "Thus Spoke Zarathustra," an unintended pun on the Museum's own space odyssey. He is finishing a complex wall pedestal for the Museum's famed Assyrian relief of King Ashurnasirpal II, recently the subject of a New York Times article.

"We debated about the color for this gallery," she says. Three of its walls are lushly green. The one opposite Ashurnasirpal is pure glass, a Maine Street showcase.

"Because the reliefs are white, we wanted a rich color to make them pop out of the building, so to speak," says Ferris.

There have been a thousand small decisions of color: shades for each wall of each gallery, for the Rotunda, for wall tags and even the vinyl lettering on them. Some galleries are still airily white, but others are breathtakingly colorful.

Choices from the collections

Those decisions were actually the easy part. The far harder work began a couple of years back, as Ferris and Museum Director Katy Kline grappled with exhibition ideas that would showcase the depth and breadth of the collections in the Museum's vibrant new spaces.

Curator Alison Ferris and Director Katy Kline.

They came up with a juicy mix of ancient, American, European, Asian, and modern works, all unified by what Kline describes as an underlying intent to "let the past and present intermingle in surprising ways."

Sometimes that intermingling plays out within a single gallery. In Transformations: Traditional and Contemporary Chinese Art in Dialogue, early 20th century Chinese scrolls are juxtaposed against the witty, hybrid calligraphy of contemporary Chinese artist Xu Bing.

In other instances, gallery layout provides the contrast: Bowdoin archaeology professor Jim Higginbotham's three-gallery exhibition of works from the ancient collection opens in four directions. At one end, it opens onto the lavishly Victorian Walker Sisters in the Shaw Ruddock Gallery. At the other edge, 2nd century A.D. busts of Roman Emperor Antoninus Pius and his wife, Faustina, look past each other into the European splendor of the Bowdoin Gallery (their gaze perhaps reflecting the state of affairs in a multi-millennial marriage?).

"In the past, many of our ancient works have been displayed chronologically, or by culture," reflects Higginbotham, who also is associate curator of ancient art for the Museum. "For this, I wanted to build exhibitions around themes: dreams of immortality, how cultures deal with death, how they express it in art. Over here, it's contests and conflicts, hunt scenes, athletics, gladiatorial."

Before reaching down into a crate to lift a mummy mask, he glances down at a pedometer clipped to his belt buckle. "Hmmm, only three miles today," he muses. "Yesterday I logged four and half miles between here and storage."

A member of the summer art tech crew.

On a per-object basis, Higginbotham's exhibitions clearly take the cake. However, it's not just the volume, but the range of works that challenges him to create display cases that give each object its due.

"We come up with a populated case," he says, lowering the mummy mask onto its stand, "and we move around objects three-dimensionally. We want to put things together that make sense, so viewers can make connections and contrasts, and also create elevations so you can see something in the foreground, then look beyond and discover other things."

In the gallery directly below, David Becker is having challenges of his own. In two dimensions. As curator of Great Graphics: Prints and Drawings 1470-1970, he is charged with the difficult task of selecting just over 50 prints and drawings from among the Museum's 6,000 works on paper.

His difficulty is not one of design, but of exclusion. He has planned the exhibition months in advance and calculated its layout down to the inches between pictures, but once the works begin to get mounted it's clear - something's gotta go.

His "reject" pile reads like an art dealer's wish list: a LaFarge watercolor, a Daumier, a Pisarro.

Bowdoin Museum of Art
Reopening Weekend
October 12-14, 2007

ribbon cutting

Enter the Public

Any hopes that Katy Kline may have held of watching the effect of all the planning and work on the Museum's first visitors were quickly trampled under an exuberant wave of trustees, artists, curators, and well-wishers attending a pre-opening gala.

In spite of a Nor'easter that drenched the Quad Friday, the Museum welcomed over 400 visitors that night - including architect Jorge Silvetti. Before the weekend was over, a total of 3,000 visitors crossed the threshold, including Director of the Maine Arts Commission Alden C. Wilson and Maine Governor John Baldacci, who assisted President Mills in the ribbon cutting on Sunday (above).

Like a radiant bride stationing herself in a never-ending receiving line, Kline prepared to greet her guests. "I'm so anxious to welcome them and take them through and hear them say ooh! and ah!," says Kline, "but I kind of have to stay here for a while. I want to say hello to people as they come in."

The first to arrive is artist Susan Hartnett, whose own charcoal drawing, Sept. 13, 1998 II, is among those hanging in the alumni collection, keeping company with Warhol, Rauschenberg, and Lichtenstein. "What, has no one else come through that door?" she says, realizing she has preceded the wave of people and umbrellas descending to the lobby. "The first. Well, here I am. I drove five hours in the rain."

Close on her heels are Bob Hoehn '74 and his wife, Karen, who have flown in from San Diego for the reopening. "We've loaned a couple of works of art, some Old Master prints..." he says, looking expectantly toward David Becker's exhibition of prints and drawings. He puts on his glasses and scans a wall, soon finding one of his own, Martin Schongauer's (1448-1491) engraving, Tribulations of St. Anthony.

"Oh, it's perfect," says his wife, smiling. She squeezes his arm.

Their intimate view of the familiar and new is fleeting. Soon the Museum roars with the sound of voices. Paintings become land in a frothing sea of people. The wall of windows weaves lacy rain.

Jim Higginbotham is wedged in a mass of people, grinning. "It's great to see people in here," he shouts. "For months it was just a few of us echoing through the galleries."

Upstairs on Friday, one hidden pocket of quietude prevails. In the Bowdoin Gallery, a lone figure sits on a bench gazing up at the salon wall: Museum friend Howard Wilson seems rapt at Katy Kline's careful construction there. "It's just so captivating," he says, his eyes scaling the wall of art. "The detail, the color." Although she's not there to witness, it seems that Katy will get her wish.

"Wait! Leave the Pisarro!" says Becker, as José Ribas almost picks it up for return to storage. Their voices echo in the half-empty gallery as if they were underwater.

"This wall over here . . . the Kline is fabulous," Becker says, stepping back. "I don't know how to put these two together though. When we just had the Kline and Picasso, it looked quite good. This could work," he says, cocking his head. "We may put that in the corner . . . "

And so it goes.

Final preparations

In his 25 years as Museum preparator, Ribas has helped hang many dozens of shows. While curators and art works may revolve, he says the process is essentially the same.

Museum Preparator Jose Ribas '76.

"You bring the work in the room, lay it out, sit with it, and you think about it. That's the curator's part. Some people seek our guidance, others have strong ideas. Still, it's always a matter of creating a rhythm or space for the object. So that everything holds its own, so that everything breathes."

There have been a couple of notable exceptions, says Ribas, like a 1970s installation of one ton of potatoes by some New York artists in an upper gallery. "They did rot by the end of the summer," he chuckles, "so we had to haul them out."

Katy Kline insists that, planning or not, an exhibition never really gels until you have actual objects in hand. "People sometimes say to me, well, you could just get digital images and you have a CAD program and you've got the gallery there and you just put things in." She gives a knowing smile. "You absolutely don't know what's going to happen until it's in THAT space, next to the thing next to it, with the angles of approach."

Take her European exhibition, Seeing and Believing: 600 Years in Europe. Not until most of the paintings were propped along the floor of the Bowdoin Gallery did inspiration strike.

"It was clear there were way too many paintings if we were going to stick with the spare, contemporary style of hanging," she says.

"And then we remembered the exhibition style in 1894, when the Museum opened. Things were hung literally floor to ceiling. It occurred to me that we could include more works this way and it would reference earlier moments in the Museum's history, as well as the evolution of installation design. I asked José, 'Can we do this?' And he said, 'Sure.' "

David Becker '70

That "sure" involved a full day of hanging art, much of it hoisted high above the gallery on the Museum's Genie Lift. "It's a little shaky up there," remembers Ribas, laughing nervously. "You're trying to hold the art piece, trying to keep your balance, and you're hoping that you made the right measurements."

The result is nothing short of stunning: a sumptuously colorful wall of figurative works, topped by two Rococo panels by 19th century French artist Charles-Joseph Natoire, depicting both the triumph and vanquishing of l'amour.

"I just hope it takes people's breath away," says Kline, gazing up at the wall.