Interstitial Exhibitions: Finding New Space in Old Museums

Museums are becoming ever more inventive in their use of space. Over the past two days I have seen two "interstitial exhibitions," collections that use non-traditional museum space. Just opened at the Dumbarton Oaks Museum in Washington DC is "Landscape/Body/Dwelling", a Charles Simonds retrospective. His smaller sculptures are interspersed amongst displays of Roman, Byzantine and Pre-Columbia art. Larger works are nestled amongst bush and branch in the garden. Finding the sculptures is fun, a bit like a treasure hunt.

The juxtaposition works well. Some of Simonds' work is inspired by the very Mayan and Aztec objects of the permanent collection. His dwellings for the little people, fabricated of tiny bricks, echo the intricacies Roman mosaics and Byzantine filigree. In this context, two films from the '70s, one in he is born of the earth of a New Jersey clay pit, and another in which he constructs a tiny dwelling on his naked body, achieve ritual aura. An explanation of the origins of his work is given academic weight at this harvard University museum.

At the Guggenheim Museum in New York, Julieta Aranda, a young artist from Mexico, has painted the walls of a stairwell, bored into a utility panel, and mounted works behind a screening panel. A large clock divides the day in the tenths of the Directoire (the second hand ticking to artist's irregular heartbeat), the stairway graffiti are meditations on time etched in phosphorescent letters that fade before our eyes, the peephole in the panel is a camera obscura through which we watch time flow upwards (and presumably backwards) through an hourglass.

And there will be more! Charles Simonds is the first of a series of contemporary artists to be presented at Dumbarton Oaks. The Julieta Aranda exhibit launches the Intervals Series, sponsored by the Young Collector's Council of the Guggenheim. What a good idea!!! The permanent collection at Dumbarton Oaks is renewed and refreshed. The monolithic space of the Guggenheim is fractured, making room for young artists.

These exhibits remind me of a time in the 1970s when I was a young professor in Boston. Local artists were frustrated by the refusal of the Museum of Fine Arts to exhibit contemporary work. One evening, on free admission night, friends in the Smart Ducky Artists' Collective smuggled their work into the museum under sweaters and skirts They dashed into a very large men's lavatory, hung the work, and declared open the exhibit "I'll be Art in a Moment". A team of us recruited visitors by distributing flyers printed on dual purpose paper. The exhibit was a great success. Soon thereafter Graham Gund donated the magnificent contemporary wing to the MFA. An interstitial exhibit with impact!

At this time of crises for support for artists and museums alike, we need fresh ideas, new affordable ways to enliven exhibits, to show new work, to attract new visitors. Interstitial exhibits meet this need with a light and humorous touch.

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William Haseltine is a former professor at Harvard Medical School, where he researched cancer and HIV/AIDS. He is the founder of Human Genome Sciences, where he served as chairman and CEO, and the president of the William A Haseltine Foundation for Medical Sciences and the Arts. He lives in Washington, D.C.

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