A new, long-term exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art questions the concept of home as well as how art lives in museums. "Imagining Home," up through Aug. 1, 2018, was organized by a team that includes traditional curators (experts in charge of the BMA's diverse collections) and museum educators (those focused on the experience of visitors). Although the values of curators and educators sometimes clash, this exhibition successfully combines scholarly integrity with public outreach. Here, interpretation, participation, and inventive media components interact with an impressive group of artifacts.
With work ranging from a plastic shower curtain designed by author Dave Eggers (2011-2012) to a Grecian vessel that's nearly 1,500 years old, "Imagining Home" pulls together artifacts from across the BMA's collection. These works express disparate themes of homelessness and migration as well as safety and stability. Rather than arrange the show around the rooms of a house (kitchen, bathroom, living room, and so on), the curators grouped the pieces around three broader concepts: Facades & Thresholds, Domestic Interiors, and Arrivals & Departures. "Home" is an elusive idea that we are always finding and losing. A gorgeous watercolor still life by Carolyn Brady (1982) depicts fruit, flowers, books, and a radio—sunny evidence of comfort and ease. Confronting us with a starker view of home and its limits, Susan Harbage Page's photograph 'Nest (Hiding Place), Laredo, Texas'* (2012) draws our attention to a dented patch of grass where a person had briefly rested while attempting to cross the U.S./Mexico border.
Visitors who pause in front of Ben Marcin's photograph of a solitary rowhouse, flanked on either side by razed lots (2011), will hear passing traffic and other sounds recorded in West Baltimore. The audio can only be heard when you stand directly in front of the photograph. Some museum purists might object. Why add sound? How do recorded noises of the street enhance the unforgiving stillness of Marcin's image? His silent photograph marks a point in time in a changing neighborhood. Does the artwork itself lack something that must be filled in by media?
Museums are becoming more than objective machines for contemplating whole and perfect artifacts. At Tate Britain in London, the recent exhibition "Sensorium" added dimensions of sound, smell, and taste to works of visual art. Visitors could hear recordings from inside a department store while looking at a 1964 photo collage, and they could eat a piece of chocolate mixed with sea salt and smoky tea while viewing a stark painting of an urban landscape. Museums are not still and static places. Go there and you will hear the voices of other patrons and the rhythm of passing footsteps. Even the lights and the air conditioning make a sound.
Videos installed on tablets throughout "Imagining Home" reveal what happened when the BMA loaned works of art to people around Baltimore. Two households took home Dave Eggers' plastic shower curtain, whose white surface is covered with stark black type: "I like to see you rinse . . . I do not like to hear you sing." A father and son hung the curtain in their bathroom and read its text during the course of daily life. The shower curtain spoke to them, and they talked about it with each other. Two sisters* honored the curtain as a work of art, installing it in various places indoors and out. A family who borrowed a photograph by Alfred Stieglitz had never displayed photography as art before; now their son is actively taking pictures, his mind opened to the camera's potential.
Many of the works on view in "Imagining Home" were first intended to be seen or used at home, such as the Toastmaster toaster (c. 1932) and Eero Saarinen's Tulip armchair, designed in 1956. Marguerite Gérard created her painting of a mother and child in their parlor for the thriving bourgeois art market in the late 18th century. Such paintings of domestic life were themselves a part of domestic life.
Artists often transform the scale of familiar objects to trigger memories and emotions. The top-heavy figure in Laurie Simmons' large photographic print 'Walking House' (1989) has fashion doll legs and a dollhouse head and torso—toy objects have been enlarged to nearly human scale. The BMA's beloved Miniature Rooms are tiny dioramas depicting grand historic interiors. Handcrafted by Eugene Kupjack between 1970 and 1983, several Miniature Rooms have been refurbished with modern LED lights, eliminating the need for noisy cooling fans (and offering visitors an improved auditory experience). Tracey Snelling's 'El Mirador' (2005) is a dollhouse-size model of an urban hotel—the kind people inhabit from week to week. The windows are fitted with small video screens showing clips from movies such as "Paris, Texas" and "Leaving Las Vegas." The piece gives us the impression of peering into people's personal lives through glimpses of media. A series of photographs by Jim Goldberg (1979-1980) juxtaposes shots of people living in a transient hotel in San Francisco with shots of wealthy families in their homes; texts written by hand beneath the photographs make visitors curious about the subjects' emotional lives. "My family is o.k.; I think I'm stupid," reads one legend. "We are a contemporary family," reads another.
In a nearby gallery called the Commons, local artist Marian April Glebes plays with scale in a different way. In 'Three Sheds for Three Sites, Shed II: Museum Shed,' hinged walls compress the elements of a minimal domestic dwelling—a simple kitchen, a closet full of cleaning tools, a flip-down desk, and a shallow shelf stuffed with pillows. Painted white, this life-size dollhouse is fitted with doors that open and close, drawers that slide in and out, and glass jars full of provisions. On weekends, gallery hosts help visitors interact with the piece and perform gestures of daily living. You can sweep the floor, dust the shelves, and work at the little desk. The 'Three Sheds for Three Sites' series (the other two sheds are off-site: one is at The Loading Dock, the other at the artist's home) is a playful but analytic commentary on the elements of conventional domesticity. The surrounding walls display samples of lead paint taken from Glebes' own home and analyzed by an environmental remediation service. Danger lurks at the surface.
"Imagining Home" inaugurates the museum's new Patricia and Mark Joseph Education Center, a refurbished suite of galleries and classrooms that opened on Oct. 25, finalizing the institution's multiple renovations that began in 2010. Located on the ground floor, the Education Center's main gallery has a low ceiling and windowless walls that make it feel a bit like a basement. The installation design of "Imagining Home" could provide a warmer welcome. The opening signage has been pushed off to the side, so visitors have to venture into the room and turn to left to discover the gallery's purpose.
Museums work hard to get people through their doors. When the BMA's central building opened in 1929, the classical facade and wide entrance stairs signified a gracious temple of culture. That ceremonial entranceway went dormant in 1982, when the BMA began rerouting visitors through its modernized, wheelchair-accessible east entrance at the ground level. Although the original doors reopened in 2014, the street-friendly east entrance is still used by roughly half the museum's visitors. Think of it as the kitchen door. You can skip the marble steps and get here quickly from your car, connecting immediately to the restaurant and the shop as well as to "Imagining Home" and the new education center.
None of the new spaces are just for kids. There is plenty to see and do here for families and young visitors, but rich encounters with art and ideas are available to everyone. "Imagining Home" was organized by Gamynne Guillottte, BMA's director of interpretation and public engagement, with Oliver Shell, associate curator of European painting and sculpture, together with a team of curators, educators, and designers. This diverse crew—devoted to both the history of things and the future of museums—has learned to play well together.
*An earlier version of this story erroneously identified these people as a lesbian couple, but they are, in fact, sisters. The title for Susan Harbage Page's photo was also previously misidentified in this story as 'Nesting (Hiding Place) Laredo, Texas.' City Paper regrets the errors.