It’s not about just putting ‘stuff’ on show

Recently the New Zealand Taxpayer’s Union criticised Councils, museums and art galleries for not showing more of their art collections. When they gathered their statistics, MTG had 3.3% of the Hawke’s Bay Museums Trust art collection on display, which in the Union’s view was far too low. Of course the percentage fluctuates as we refresh our exhibitions (it is currently over 11%, largely due to the ‘Out of the Box’ exhibition), but regardless, this is a great opportunity to discuss how collections are accessed and displayed.

If you’ve visited the museum recently and seen the exhibition ‘Out of the Box,’ you’ll know what a floor-to-ceiling wall of paintings looks like (and if you haven’t, cut-out this column for free entry this weekend). While this exhibition is very popular, and one we’re proud of, I’d challenge you to imagine every wall of the museum looking that way, and how overwhelming it would be.

As with everything, there are different views from our audiences about styles of display they like. While most are enjoying the density of art in ‘Out of the Box,’ for some people even just one gallery of that is too much. One particular visitor’s feedback was that the gallery was overly crammed and they couldn’t focus on any one work. For this reason we have different styles of display throughout the building to appeal to a range of preferences.

Furthermore, ‘Out of the Box’ shows approximately 10% of the art collection, so we’d need nine more galleries of the same size to show all the artworks at once – not to mention the social history objects and taonga Maori. Rather than having enormous institutions with static displays, we share what we hold through rotating works on display, letting different items get their ‘moment in the sun’.

Simply displaying our collection is not the purpose of the museum: our role is to tell stories of Hawke’s Bay, sometimes intertwined with stories on a national or international scale. One current exhibition with a strong regional focus, ‘What We Make of It: Hawke’s Bay Sculpture’, features two pieces from the art collection along with works borrowed directly from artists.

This very relevant exhibition would feel incomplete if told solely through our own collection. Meanwhile the hugely popular Lalique exhibition was made up entirely from a private loan, again illustrating what a shame it would be to limit ourselves to only what we hold in the collection.

There’s also the responsibility of stewardship: if all the objects were permanently displayed, they’d deteriorate over time with the constant exposure to light. But the key point is that our job is not just to put ‘stuff’ on display, but rather to create considered exhibitions that tell compelling stories. One of our more recent exhibitions ‘A Glimpse of India’ provided an opportunity to bring items out from the collection which haven’t been seen for some time, in order to tell stories of India, it’s history, and people.

And what about those objects that are currently in storage? They don’t just sit gathering dust – they are accessed by researchers, borrowed by other institutions, visited by family members connected to the item or the donor, and they form the foundation for the development of our future displays and exhibitions.

It’s understandable to think we should just put everything on display, but ultimately that would be short-sighted and irresponsible. It would also be sad to go back to museums where everything was crammed on display and just sat there never changing (which is where dust gathers – not in storage). There’d be nothing new to come and see, no fresh displays, ideas or challenges. But again, balance is required: it is comforting to have some ‘favourites’ to visit and revisit (such as the earthquake exhibition), along with a series of temporary displays. As always, we’re interested to hear from our visitors and appreciate those who give us feedback.

CHANGING DISPLAYS: A Glimpse of India showcases objects from the collection

CHANGING DISPLAYS: A Glimpse of India showcases objects from the collection

Laura Vodanovich – Director, MTG Hawke’s Bay

Published in Hawke’s Bay Today Saturday 21 January 2017

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