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MAM's 'Collaboratory' key for curious collectors

Cabinets, shelves, and collections can be mysterious. They gather books and trinkets, hinting at treasures and knowledge to be discovered. They are something to rummage through, and hold the promise of unknown things. These conjoined sensibilities of knowledge, curiosity, and intellect invariably influence us everyday, and are distilled into a new exhibition at the Milwaukee Art Museum named The Collaboratory.

The gallery housing The Collaboratory is something of a hidden place, tucked away on the first floor behind luminous galleries displaying 17th- and 18th-century art. Its location is so obscure that I had to ask a gallery guard where it was. Winding my way along, I came upon it: a small set of rooms apart from the other exhibition spaces, and with an atmosphere unlike the others.

The Collaboratory at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Kat Minerath.

The Collaboratory at the Milwaukee Art Museum. Photo by Kat Minerath.

The gallery is lined with large display cases of dark wood, rising from floor to ceiling. Its dim lighting and leather benches allude to something like a library, one that would be found on a large country estate where a collector proudly shows all sorts of items gathered from exotic travels and historic locales.

This is very much the intended effect. The gallery text explains the installation was inspired by Englishman Horace Walpole (1717-1797) and his estate called Strawberry Hill, outside of London. Walpole was respected as an art historian, antiquarian, and collector. The exhibition further characterizes him as “a true citizen of The Enlightenment…he focused on what stories the objects had to tell, rather than adhere to tradition and classify them according to a rigid system."

The Collaboratory takes this manner of thinking as inspiration for our own observation, avoiding the traditional categorizations used elsewhere in the museum. The refreshing approach allows for stimulating juxtapositions between objects from different times and places. Things like an 18th-century atlas, a 17th-century Dutch still life painting, Old Master-style portraits, and luxuriously styled household items such as salt cellars and tiny boxes are intermingled, but not haphazardly. There are visual connections that the viewer may puzzle out, and opening semi-secret drawers yields further clues to their connections.

The various pieces in the exhibition are organized in compartments, placed individually or in groups on shelves, but what is most enlivening is how they cross boundaries. Frequent museum visitors may recognize ancient Greek vases or the tiny Egyptian statue of Sekhmet, which has found a new home here. It is something of a revival for these pieces, which were previously placed with other ancient art at the entrance to the main galleries as a brief preface to the full collection.Offering them in a new context inspires distinct and different views.

Beth Lipman (American, b. 1971). Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher), 2007. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

Beth Lipman (American, b. 1971). Laid Table (Still Life with Metal Pitcher), 2007. Photo credit: John R. Glembin.

A spirit of experimentation underlies The Collaboratory, and in honor of that, there is also a room-sized camera obscura in the gallery. The ancient optical device that served as a precursor to photography consists of a small opening that bends light through a lens, projecting an upside-down image of what is outside. Here, you can see the world through technology that remains novel in our own time.

Augmenting the exhibition is a contemporary piece that is among MAM's favorites: Beth Lipman’s monumental glass sculpture called Laid Table. It is like a banquet gone awry; the elaborate vessels and decorations glisten in the light but the details only come out slowly. Many items are broken or in decay. It is dazzling, beautiful, but also faintly eerie as these purposeful notes are revealed. It is a work described as a depiction of transient states, referencing the truth that all things change over time, and eventually come to an end. However, as a piece of The Collaboratory, it becomes about careful perception too, staying in the moment to find details that are not immediately revealed.

The Collaboratory runs through March 2017 in the Richard and Suzanne Pieper Gallery at the Milwaukee Art Museum, 700 N. Art Museum Drive. For additional information on this and other exhibits, as well as admission information, visit mam.org.

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