A WALK THROUGH WORLD HISTORY
A New Kind of Teaching Museum designed as an Interactive Learning Center in the Main Library of California State University, East Bay
For several years the Art Department at California State University, East Bay has been hoping for an Art Museum on campus. Teaching with slides and books is good, but teaching with actual art is better. That is why Art Department students usually are sent to cities such as San Francisco to see world-class art. The Dean agreed with this goal and requested a preliminary planning study. In that planning study several options for an appropriate type of Teaching Museum were explored. The ideal was to represent “World Art” as a whole, in some way, and to do that within funding levels that are realistic for a small university.
The report began with a review of the history of university museums. The oldest
public museums in the Western World were (and still are) associated with universities. The best-known example is the Ashmolean at Oxford University. Teaching Museums are common in the Eastern United States, especially at Ivy League universities. There are fewer in California, but they tend to follow the Eastern models. The majority of the better-known American institutions are rather large, sometimes as large as public museums in major cities. They also can be so academic in their presentation that the experience is ponderous for most students unless they are following a special interest. CSUEB is looking for a small but rich experience that students, whatever their major, can engage in and reflect on the cultural history of humanity as a whole. Four models were evaluated in the planning process.
Model #1 is the type found at a large university with major funding of the kind located at Harvard, Yale, and Princeton. Such major Teaching Museums can, and often do, have large collections with original works from many cultures. Funding this type of museum is not realistic for Hayward, and is not really needed. It would not be the best use of the funding available within the art-oriented community of the region.
Model #2 is the type found at a small university with limited funding. It can, and often does, have a collection primarily made up of replicas of famous originals. Some use of high-quality replicas to fill gaps is common in major museums; but these museums take the concept to an extreme. Casts of Greek sculpture are commonly exhibited in such Teaching Museums, as they have been for many years in traditional art museums and art schools. Some university museums actually exhibit only replicas. This type of collection was considered informative but not a compelling experience for students because the unique element of authenticity is absent.
Model #3 is the type of public museum found in smaller cities where authenticity is a central concern. They are committed to having only original works, so they have only a few pieces and make no attempt to be comprehensive. This model provides very fine aesthetic experiences as a rule but does not offer a “Global Vision” of world culture which is what a diverse student body should have available on a regular basis.
Model #4 is a new model. It has been designed to meet the specific needs of CSUEB. The area needed on one floor is about 3,500 square feet. Inside this space it is possible to represent all major regions and eras of world culture with excellent original art at a modest cost. It does so by having a small but authentic “masterpiece” at the center of each display area. That central perceptional focus is then surrounded by other smaller originals and a few replicas of museum quality in order to round out a ‘portrait’ of each era of cultural history in Africa, Oceania, East Asia, South Asia, West Asia, Europe, and the Americas. This is the model favored by the Art Department, the Dean of the College, and the President of the University.
How should this Teaching Museum be housed? At first the thinking was traditional, with a plan for a new building. Building new large museums is now running between $200 million and $300 million. The cost of a new university building at CSUEB was estimated between $5 million and $10 million. The President suggested an ideal space might be found inside the existing library. An appropriate space was identified. The architect of the university recently calculated the cost of remodeling that space in an unused area of the reference section at a very modest $300,000. The exhibition floor-plan of the 3,500 square foot area provides an excellent “walkway” through history.
What should be in the museum? The cost of purchasing an appropriate collection would be prohibitive. Happily, an appropriate collection already exists. The Institute for Aesthetic Development is a charitable trust that has focused on innovative modes of visual education since 1975. A number of the cultural centers for which IAD has developed master plans have become national models. From its ongoing programs of special classes, and the lending of art to museums and universities, IAD has accumulated a widely respected “Teaching Collection of World Art.” Working closely with the Art Department of CSUEB as its dream of a museum has been developing over the last 10 years, IAD has recently used its resources to increase the depth and breadth of it Teaching Collection so as to constitute a truly ‘Global Vision.’
At the request of the Art Department, IAD has lent segments of its Teaching Collection to three major exhibitions in the University Art Gallery of CSUEB. The purpose of these exhibitions was to give students and faculty an opportunity to evaluate the quality of the material, and to test under museum conditions the Model #4 theory of mixing original pieces with museum-quality replicas in order to display a rich ‘portrait’ of each culture. To provide students with a 3-D version of a class in “World History” inside a space the size of a large home has never been attempted before. So it was important to test the theory under realistic museological conditions. The reception of the works and the installations has been quite positive. Students and faculty from the Art, Anthropology, English, and History Departments praised the IAD collection as a whole, and the Model #4 concept, and urged the creation of a Teaching Museum. In response to this enthusiasm, the Board of Directors of IAD has decided to donate to CSUEB most of its Teaching Collection, including all of its Illustrated Books, to be the nucleus of the new Learning Center.
The exhibition design team developing this project have a combined total of 50 years experience. The exhibition architecture is extremely simple: wooden cases behind modular glass walls. Most of the walls will display cultural grouping that are semi-permanent. But the design allows for storage under the display units, so objects can rotate easily to create various exhibitions.
The general architectural design is extremely simple and secure. There will be no new construction, except for the modular display units. Existing walls, lighting elements, electrical systems, and climate controls will be used. Long-term maintenance will require little more than new light bulbs and periodic dusting. The display areas can be used by any Department of the university with visual needs. No additional library staff will be required to manage the new Library-Museum, except for temporary student staffing provided by whatever Department is preparing an educational display.
Final planning of the project over the past two years has included the Anthropology Department and the History Department as well as the University Librarian. Their enthusiasm and combined perspectives inspired a change of the proposed name from “Museum of World Art” to “World History Center.”
Because it will be located in the main library, its central location is the one place where all students find themselves at one time or another. Because it is in the perceptual arena of books, it will be approached with a similar open-minded attitude. The atmosphere will be natural, casual accessibility rather than the remote formality that keeps many people from wanting to go to museums. This special “time-capsule” will make world history a natural extension of the student’s daily environment. Other times and places, other people’s cultural uniqueness, will no longer seem so “foreign.”
This Learning Center will be student-friendly in every respect. The area is relatively small, so any student can walk though at a leisurely pace and see most of the displays in a short period of time without becoming either disinterested or exhausted. There will be benches along the way. A portion of the space will be a “Learning Lounge” – an informal reading and research area, outfitted with books, computer monitors, and comfortable seating.
The experience of this Learning Center as a whole will be like walking through a giant book of world history. This is more than a metaphor. It will be a structural theme. Each era will be a clearly articulated “chapter” with its own architectural space, color, wall texture, and text. In many museums, the visitor is offered labels that tell no more than artist, title, and date. This ‘book-museum’ will have ‘pages’ of explanatory text for each era and object. The test exhibitions for the IAD collections in the University Art Gallery indicated that students like long, highly informative, wall labels that are up to 10,000 words for each 1000 square feet of display space. Moreover, there will be “footnotes” at your fingertips. In other words, at any point, you can stop and look for more data in the Learning Lounge or from conveniently located computer monitors. Those will not only connect to internal searchable databases for details on each object, but also to the internet for a wide universe of related information. There also will be a “virtual museum” website and social networks.
The Special Collections of the CSUEB Library already has a fine collection of Illustrated Books. With the addition of the IAD Donation, there is now a comprehensive collection of Illustrated Books that document the entire history of this very important art form. They will be featured as centerpieces in each area of this unique ‘book-museum.’
In Europe, for example, modern European history and the printed history of the Illustrated Book both begin in the Renaissance. The most celebrated Illustrated Books of this era are the Dante illustrated by Botticelli, and the Nuremberg Chronicle illustrated in part by Durer. The Renaissance gallery, is planned as a re-creation of an Italian library from the time of Leonardo. A full-scale model of this studiolo was recently installed in the University Art Gallery and was an exciting experience for students of art and history. Together with sculpture and furnishings, this studiolo will feature a complete first edition of the Botticelli, and not only a fine facsimile of the Chronicle but also an original page from the first edition. This page includes an illustration by the young Durer, a page which will be exhibited next to an impression of Durer’s most famous print “Melancholia.”
The most important printmakers of the Baroque era include Rubens, van Dyck, and Rembrandt. They all illustrated books. Excellent examples of their work will anchor the Baroque gallery. In the 18th century gallery, along with paintings and prints, will be the first edition of the Encyclopedia Brittanica, which played a major role in the birth of the Industrial Revolution. The 19th century gallery will begin with Blake, perhaps the most widely respected book artist in all of Western history. Thanks to earlier IAD donations, the Library now has copies of all of Blake’s “illuminated books.” Together with paintings and sculpture, the rest of this early modern gallery will include facsimile editions by Manet, Renoir, Lautrec, and Gauguin. The 20th century gallery will feature original editions by Matisse, Picasso, Duchamp, Ernst, de Kooning, Rauschenberg and Ramos.
The Asian galleries will include not only jades, bronzes, and porcelain from the neolithic era to the modern era, but also fine Chinese and Japanese scrolls. The central Asian gallery is planned as a re-creation of a Ming Dynasty scholar’s study, the kind of place in which many scroll-books were created. The last gallery of Contemporary Art will feature work by members of the CSUEB Art Faculty from the collection of the CSUEB Art Department, as well as Artist’s Books from major booksmiths of the East Bay.
This Learning Center also can draw on other university resources for temporary exhibitions from various Departments in an area next to the permanent collections in order to celebrate and encourage the creativity that connects all disciplines. For example, ancient bones or tribal artifacts can be presented by CSUEB’s Smith Museum of Anthropology. Physical Sciences might want to present sea-shells actual and painted, or minimal art beside digital mother boards, or a comparison of Hubble Telescope photographs with contemporary Space Art.
Visually, while moving through the galleries of this “time-machine,” one can go anywhere in time, from the Stone Age to the present, anywhere on earth. Intellectually, if the wall labels are not enough, anyone can ask any question at any time. Many students will visit many times seeking a larger context for whatever they are studying. Every student will be able to walk away from this special space better prepared to be a citizen of the world for having developed with a richer, deeper “Global Vision.”
It is our hope to raise funds sufficient to construct the Museum within the Library at a cost of $500,000. If you are interested in helping to make this new learning space a reality for our students and the campus, please don’t hesitate to contact me at LANIER.GRAHAM@csueastbay.edu