Museum Life: the exhibition film

Banner for Exhibition on Screen,

Banner for Exhibition on Screen,

Continuing on the theme of last month’s Museum Life post, another relatively new approach in reaching audiences is the exhibition film. Recreations of the exhibition experience have been around for a while now, with interactive panoramas, dedicated websites, or static photographs or videos of each gallery space displayed online through their respective institutions or organizers.  By contrast, these exhibition films are highly produced–for high-profile blockbuster shows–and are the length of a feature film. These films then go on tour, playing at theaters around the country for a brief period or single-showing.  While this kind of costly production isn’t possible for every institution, it’s an interesting idea and I think could be executed with varying degrees of production, achieving the same end of bringing an exhibition to a wider audience.

I wonder if this departure from the usual exhibition presentations (catalog, brochures and postcards, websites) was inspired by the 2002 film, Russian Ark–a single-shot take of the Hermitage, in which an unseen narrator and an actor portraying the Marquis de Custine walk through and engage with centuries of Russian art, luminaries of Russia’s past, and specific historical events.  That film could be the closest I ever get to the Hermitage, and the experience was enchanting and immersive.

I was able to see one of these exhibition films, David Bowie Is, produced by the Victoria and Albert Museum.  I was pretty excited about this showing as it combines two of my favorite activities–going to the movie theater and going to exhibitions–that experience of entering another space and potentially becoming completely, utterly immersed in what is before and around you.

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The film began with a very brief introduction to the physical environment and mission of the V&A, and went on to include numerous shots of the gallery rooms and the objects within them, with extensive commentary by the curators, amounting to a personal tour.  There were multiple returns to a talk-show type set-up with various invited guests giving their personal impressions or memories of Bowie, such as musician Jarvis Cocker and designer Kansai Yamamoto.  To emphasize the feeling of “being there” and having a conversation with other exhibition-goers, the filmmakers returned several times to the capture of audience reactions and commentary in the galleries.  A visual bridge between transitioning to another gallery room or exhibition focus often consisted of stylized presentations of guests in frozen poses, gesticulating towards or contemplating the costumes, lyric sheets, posters, or multimedia presentations before them. These unnatural, freeze-frame poses annoyed my film-going companion, but given the highly theatrical and endless poses of Bowie, this strategy seemed fairly fitting to me.

A post on the art blog Hyperallergic briefly discusses the exhibition film in general (in a positive light) and cites concerns amongst some observers that it cannot reproduce the experience of being at the exhibition and seeing the art in person, with reference to Walter Benjamin’s famous essay.  Of course it cannot completely replicate it, but as Benjamin also observed the reproduction is not a mere carbon copy of the original and becomes something else entirely; it is true that the original is transformed and you are having a completely different experience in watching the film–not necessarily a bad thing.

The emphasis on audience thoughts, memories, and opinions spilled over offscreen to those of us in the theater watching David Bowie Is.  A woman sitting beside me, nearly in tears–a big Bowie fan like the rest of us–turned to my friend and I afterwards and implored us to do whatever it took to get up to Chicago and see. that. show.  She talked about the experience of wearing headphones and listening to Bowie’s songs while reading his hand-written lyrics, seeing the costumes up-close, and being completely surrounded by all that glorious Sound and Vision (sorry–couldn’t resist it).

The exhibition film can not only bring together interested people in one room (similar to the gallery space), but effectively transport and involve viewers from far-flung places in the exhibition experience. Access is a significant result of these cinematic exhibition representations, and on a grand, immersive scale that currently appears to have positive benefits for art lovers worldwide.


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