Michael C. Carlos Museum: African Gallery

I went to a preview of the remodeled African gallery at the Carlos this evening and I have to say that it is a big step backward from what they had before. Stylistically, they went with a 50’s modernist/futurist design, with the walls on one side painted purple and gray on the opposite. It’s a design scheme that came back into fashion several years back but is already on its way out and will look extremely dated in a few years.

From the base of the walls, platforms with curved edges come out to keep people away from the pieces so that they don’t have to put them under glass. This also has the effect of reducing the space to a very narrow galley, with no room for 360˚ displays. Remember folks: this is African art. Yeah, a lot of 2D art comes from the continent, but the bulk of what they display in this sort of gallery are 3D and a whole lot of it has interesting stuff on all sides. It also makes it a lot more awkward to skip around to different pieces when its crowded: there’s only one natural path through the gallery now.

They have angular, wooden pedestals with iPads set into them with a frame. They’re very attractive and will have detailed information about each piece, including the normal stuff you’d normally see on labels on the walls but also conservation info and the like. This would be great, if it weren’t for the fact that they’ve decided not to use any other form of labeling. They have one display for each section, meaning that all of the information for a half dozen pieces or so will be in one tiny place where only two or three people can look at it and only one can control what is seen. Sadly, this is a fairly neglected gallery and doesn’t get large crowds, but now it will only take one small family going through all of the information for a section to prevent others from learning about a piece that might catch their eye. They won’t even be able to find out the basic name/description and place of origin of a piece so that they can look it up later if someone else is monopolizing the display. And, of course, the iPads will end up having problems. I’m sure that they have spares that they can swap in very easily, but I imagine that the people who will be doing such things work weekdays, not when it’s crowded on a weekend. Yeah, bad idea.

The whole thing looks temporary to me, like it’s a passing exhibition. Worse, though, is that it fits in no way at all with the design of the rest of the museum. They managed to make the very distinctive Americas galleries look like they actually belong in the building but they really failed with this one. I suspect that it won’t be terribly many years before they regret the design and I worry that they won’t have any money at that time to improve it. At least it’ll be an easy matter to put labels on those horrid platforms that they have when they realize that it’s probably a good idea for people to be able to quickly see what an item is and its geography of origin. I’m not saying that it’s a disaster, but it’s definitely a shame.

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