A dose of wonder from DC’s museums

Have you been following the tag #5womenartists on social media? The National Museum of Women in the Arts has been running a challenge over instagram et al. to raise awareness of female artists during the month of March, and there have been a lot of neat posts from other museums as well as individuals (including artists themselves). I recommend checking it out if you have time.

When I was in DC at the end of last month for Museums Advocacy Day, I had a little free time, and naturally used it to tour museums (and the Library of Congress, because  librarian’s daughter).

Renwick Gallery (of the Smithsonian American Art Museum): Wonder exhibition review

The Wonder exhibit was a piece of colorful communal paradise on a rainy Sunday. Though I was operating on about four hours of sleep, I was completely enthralled with the show and went through it about 1.5 times because there were several installations I needed to spend just a bit more time with.

Each gallery in the recently restored Renwick was home to one installation, and my favorite thing about this tactic was how thoroughly it changed your experience of the museum from room to room. Patrick Dougherty’s Shindig Stickwork installation made for a mischievous, rambunctious audience experience, as people ducked in and around the swirling stick sculptures, peeking through windows and twirling between them in much the same kind of movement as the twigs themselves. Janet Echelman’s tsunami-inspired net sculpture and its corresponding rug was a much quieter experience, encouraging people to linger as the lights and shadows shifted, to lie down on the floor and just observe. Gabriel Dawe’s Plexus A1 was especially effective in its brilliance against the gray rain hitting the windows behind it; I did pity the guard stationed there who had to keep warning people not to get too close, because that rainbow of thread was as appealing a spider’s web as I’ve ever seen. It was hard to believe it wasn’t itself glowing, just excellent lighting. I admit I was less enthralled than many of the people I saw that day with the room entirely decorated with dead insects, and the sculpture out of tires, while texturally appealing, smelled distinctly of burned rubber and I couldn’t figure out if I was looking at a post-industrial dragon hide or a rejected piece of scenery from Mad Max: Fury Road. That said, the sheer variety of installations on view meant there was something for everyone.

I also found myself taking pictures of a bunch of the labels; not something I usually do unless I’m trying to remember an artist’s name, but the interpretation panels generally and the ‘wonder’ themed quotes they picked were exceptional. I love the idea of defining wonder as ‘a suprise of the soul.’

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National Museum of Women in the Arts review

Firstly, major kudos to the visitor services team. The woman on duty at the front desk actually left her post to give me an extra suggestion and a gallery activity to take along, when I was partway into the galleries. Big points for being helpful and friendly! Said gallery activity was pretty interesting, too; I regretted that I was on my own and had no one with whom to discuss the questions posed for the various highlighted objects.

I had no idea this museum was as big as it is; I did a shamefully poor job on the top floor as I needed to catch my plane back to Boston. I will definitely need to go back. There were works by artists I recognized, and of course dozens upon dozens of works and artists that were new to me. It was a very good day for learning things, and for appreciating the breadth of the collection, from painting to photography to reinterpretations of materials and techniques in craft and design. The Pathmakers exhibit was much more interesting than I expected, in fact (though as with many design shows I found myself wondering for some pieces about where the function had gotten lost along the way to the form).

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The museum has works of art created by women (and often featuring women) since the Renaissance. One of the things which most impressed me, as I suspect the balance was a fine one, was the tone in which the interpretation was presented. Labels, theme panels, etc. did not shy away from talking about the fact that women’s art was traditionally underrepresented in the Western canon, nor that women’s art was often influenced by the materials and roles generally assigned to them, nor that sometimes (especially in the 20th century) women’s art was directly related to political statements about women’s rights. However, these came across as statements of fact without seeming loaded, accusatory, or otherwise negatively charged. In a world that is increasingly emotionally and politically volatile, it was delightful, even restorative, to be somewhere that recognized, remedied, and celebrated instead. It was a great way to end my trip to DC.

Next week I’ll be hitting up historic houses and possibly the Wadsworth Atheneum in Connecticut, so stay tuned for some history-themed posts in the near future!

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