Gold Standards

The Walters Art Gallery opens itself, and its latest show, to criticism in order to help museums across the country learn what makes a winning exhibit.


Was everybody thin in those days?

Where did they get the gold?

Did everyone have a horse?

A funny thing happens when you send three museum experts to a museum with instructions to comment upon what they see: They come up with at least a few questions that any of us could have asked.

To some extent, that's the point.

For the past 11 years, the American Association of Museums has asked a panel of professionals to visit an exhibition and critique it. The experts then report their findings at the association's annual convention. The goal is not to embarrass the host institution -- in this case, the Walters Art Gallery -- but to stimulate discussion among professionals about what makes a museum exhibition successful.

Ever been to a museum exhibition that you really loved? What did you love about it?

Ever been to a show that left you cold? Why?

These are the questions the panelists pondered.

This year, panel members included an exhibition designer, a foundation administrator and an academic. All have extensive experience working in museums and developing exhibitions.

In the last several weeks, each visited "Gold of the Nomads: Scythian Treasures from Ancient Ukraine," on view at the Walters through May 28. Their assignment was to pretend to be typical museumgoers, then apply their professional expertise to analyze what worked and what didn't.

Though the Walters Art Gallery agreed to take part in the exercise -- a gutsy move for any institution -- none of its staff members knew when these "typical visitors" were arriving or provided them with special services or information.

The show was curated by Ellen Reeder, who left the Walters early this year to become deputy director of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, and Gerry D. Scott III, curator of ancient art at the San Antonio Museum of Art. Neither were on hand to field inquiries at the convention. (Nor was Walters director Gary Vikan. But when asked about the panel later, he responded: "I welcome the discussion. It means they take us seriously.")

The event began with a slide show about the exhibit presented by Betsy Gordon, traveling exhibitions coordinator at the Walters. The most comprehensive exhibition ever assembled of Scythian treasures, "Gold of the Nomads" includes gold jewelry, pots, helmets, daggers and headwear that once belonged to the Scythians, a fierce nomadic people who lived for 400 years beginning in the seventh century B.C. in what is now known as Ukraine.

Much of the art reflects the interplay of two cultures: that of the Scythians, who became rich from trading grain and honey, and of the Greeks, who purchased Scythian goods and provided the know-how and, in many cases, the artistry to create extraordinary gold objects.

Three days ago, the experts presented their reports to an audience of other museum professionals. Their comments provide insight into how museum folk "see" museums. And they reveal how individuals, even those within the museum profession, bring to the viewing experience intensely personal likes, dislikes, biases, beliefs and expectations. Here's what they said:

Approaching like a rookie

For Jay Rounds, there are two kinds of museum shows: those that attempt to wow the museum visitor with the sheer beauty of the objects on display and those that attempt to tell a story of a people, place or time by using information, photos and videos to place the objects in context.

Most exhibitions fall into one category or the other, he said.

But Rounds was pleasantly surprised to find a provocative, albeit not perfect, blend of exhibition techniques in the Walters show.

Rounds, who resembles Mark Twain and shares his talent for storytelling, directs the museum studies program at the University of Missouri in St. Louis. His background is in science and history -- not art.

He is the former chief curator of the California Museum of Science and Industry in Los Angeles and the former executive director of the Los Angeles Conservancy, a preservation organization.

"A good rule of criticism is: You critique what is on the floor because what is actually there is what the museum visitor experiences. So I didn't read the catalog, and I knew absolutely zip about the Scythians when I started."

In this show, a gold finial (cup) made in the fourth century B.C. sits in a glass case as though upon an altar. Around the cup, the gallery lights are dim so that the visitor's eye is drawn to the object, which shimmers under a spotlight.

But context is provided, too. Nearby, large photo murals that depict horses thundering across the steppe help the visitor envision the land of the nomads; a life-size mannequin of a horse's head models the kind of bridles and bits that were used by the Scythians; text panels describe how burial sites were built.

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