Securing the Shadow: American Folk Art Museum

I should begin by saying that, though exhibit design is a likely career path for me post-ITP, I’m not a fan of visiting museums (that’s weird, I know). I have a hard time staying engaged and focused in art museums in particular, and the Folk Art Museum was no exception.

It was interesting to read about the various symbols used by postmortem portrait artists to denote that a painting’s subject was deceased. It was, to the extent that the exhibit did this, really interesting to ponder the ways death was looked at very differently in early America than it is today. I was fortunate enough to visit the museum on a day and time when they were giving a tour, and learned a bit of information not present in the exhibit pertaining to early Americans’ fear of burying loved ones alive; apparently, it wasn’t unusual for people to be buried with a bell, shotgun, and breathing tube in case they weren’t really dead.

What I missed was additional context, and this lack prevented me from really appreciating the stories embedded within the portraits. I felt like the exhibit only scraped the surface of death in the culture of early America. Several of the overview captions mentioned this culture, but there were only a couple journal entries and other artifacts that gave me a sense of how people really felt. More of that would have been nice. I also got the sense, confirmed more overtly by the tour guide, that the exhibit seeks to start a conversation about death in modern America. In that sense, I felt it failed. At no point during my visit was I really challenged to think about my own thoughts on death, and I didn’t feel like the art itself was presented in a way to do that on its own.

Some art becomes easier to appreciate when displayed on white walls, removed from context. The postmortem portraits here, though, are as much about the culture and context around them than about appreciating the pieces themselves. The Folk Art Museum had an opportunity to break with the traditional gallery presentation and try to transport me to that era and recreate that context. It was a missed opportunity that they did not do this.

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