The other day we went to the Montclair Art Museum in Montclair, New Jersey, to spend an afternoon with their excellent docent team, looking carefully at a pretty motley selection of objects.
We spent our time not with the stars of Montclair’s outstanding collection of Native American artifacts but amongst its de-accessioned cast-offs, a mixture of duplicates and broken objects, some of them modern, some made for the tourist market, but every one of them rich with potential for discussion.
So, what kind of discussion do you have around a beaded glove, a broken spearhead or an Inuit carving of a bear? And what use is it to a museum docent, whose role (on one level at least) is to inform the public about the collections of their galleries, to worry about that sort of stuff?
For the Docent, it’s important not just to be able to download information for the Museum visitor – what’s in the picture? Who made it? When, where and why? For that stuff we have labels: the Docent’s role is to engage the visitor with the object in ways that the label can’t.
At Montclair, the docents wear a badge that says, “Let’s talk art”. It’s open and it’s welcoming but in order to do it, the Docent needs not just to have memorized the Museum’s take on their collections, but to have looked hard enough to see the things that aren’t in the official version.
The useful thing about objects orphaned out of display duty often lies precisely in the reasons for their abandonment. So, spending time together digging out the ways that made the objects interesting made for a great afternoon.
The unsightly chip in the edge of a little blackware ceramic dish reveals the coarseness of the clay – and with it something about the processes necessary to making it perfectly smooth by sanding, burnishing and painting with slip.
The missing leg of an Inuit doll shows its stuffing. Is it synthetic or natural, and how does that speak to its age? The face was drawn on with felt pen. So who owned it and what did it once look like? Why was it made with no eyes or mouth? The contrasting edges of a piece of rawhide and the hole where it was stretched as it dried show that it was cut into pieces before they were individually treated and finished to be made into new objects.
The questions these observable moments raise – of ownership and value, physical history, materials and manufacturing processes – turn the objects from redundant remnants into live stories. And it is those stories that will engage museum visitors, from children to their grandparents and from material scientists to financial advisers.
Jim Harris and Senta German