Andrea Pitt: What is a museum?

Artist Ann Hamilton asks this question with figura. In this work, which fills the Spencer Museum’s two-story Central Court, Hamilton responds to the dual, even contradictory, nature of the Museum as a place that simultaneously conceals and reveals its vast collections.

This paradox has long surrounded museums.The best way to preserve something is to keep it sealed away, out of sight. Hamilton’s installation seeks to activate the Museum’s collections and turns our attention not to what is seen, but to what often remains unseen.

Through Hamilton’s engagement with the Spencer’s collection of presepio dolls, brought out from storage annually at Christmastime for inclusion in a traditional Southern Italian nativity scene, we are made aware not only of their presence in the museum’s collection, but also their individual personalities. Larger-than-life portraits depicting them cover the Central Court’s walls. They take on a haunting quality emerging from the misty pinkish backgrounds on which they are printed. Some have their backs turned to us. Others glance away, exposing a personal moment or reverie. Still others gesture passionately, perhaps about to engage us in a conversation.

To one side of Central Court, we enter a room in which the presepio dolls are laid out in cases. Again the dolls are specimens for examination, this time tagged with accession numbers. Here they are immortal, static, while on the walls of Central Court, they seemed alive, breathing, perhaps even talking.

Looking at the cases, one can only think to the other objects laying in wait in the Museum, and wish to know and understand them. In this museum afterlife, as objects displaced in time whose original functions have vanished, they reside. We, the viewers, may encounter them here, seemingly for eternity.

Andrea Pitt, History of Art graduate student, University of Kansas

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