Art Curatorial Education

Listening to the Decorative Arts

Round Room video gallery, Milwaukee Art Museum's Lower Level Chipstone gallery.

As of late we at Chipstone have found ourselves discussing how the different senses affect our perception of decorative arts objects. For example, have you ever been asked to describe an object while blindfolded?

At our summer session for college undergrads, titled Object Lab, the students are required to do just that. It is amazing how “seeing” an object with our hands instead of our eyes, makes us drop the art historical jargon and really get into the essence of a piece. Although our conversation at Chipstone has centered around touch and how touching a piece of furniture or a ceramic object helps the viewer understand the object better than if he or she were just relying on sight, I’d like to explore how sound can add to an object’s experience and understanding.

The Chipstone galleries are an experiment in sensory perception. Take what we call the sculpture gallery. This is the gallery downstairs modeled after the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s ancient art sculpture gallery, in which all of the furniture is set on high pedestals.

Furniture gallery, Milwaukee Art Museum's Lower Level Chipstone gallery. Photo by Wynne Patterson and Jim Wildeman.

The gallery contains minimal labeling, encouraging the visitor to really focus on the object instead of being drowned in information. Although you could think of this gallery as an exercise in close viewing, it is also an exercise in how sound affects our perception of objects. Christian Elser, an opera singer based in Chicago, developed an audio tour for this gallery that includes no narration. Instead, he paired a piece of music with each of the pieces. They weren’t straight off pairings like, for example, pairing a baroque piece of music with a baroque chair. There are interesting and seemingly random pairings, such as a Newport chest with a Philip Glass piece. They strangely evoke one another and help the viewer focus on details, such as the veneer design mimicked by Glass’s riffs and repetitions, that s/he might have otherwise completely missed.

Another room in the Chipstone galleries that is focused on sound is the round room. The round room is a kind of oasis in the middle of the collections. In it, one sits on a round plush bench and is surrounded by a myriad of screens, all showing a different stage in the making process. The videos loop between Randy O’Donnell demonstrating woodworking and Michelle Erickson demonstrating ceramics (one additional video is also coming soon!). One of the great things about this room is that there is, again, no narration. Instead, the viewer can listen to the woodworking tools splitting, scraping and carving the wood. The viewers tend to become entranced listening to these sounds which function on a primal emotional level. These sounds aid the understanding of the making of furniture much more than a narrator explaining the steps would. One can almost feel the material that is being shown.

The next time that you’re at the Milwaukee Art Museum we invite you to try out what it feels like to listen to a piece of art instead of just looking at it. Come to the round room, close your eyes and just listen. Look at an artwork and ask yourself: What music would you pair it with? What would its making have sounded like?

Claudia Mooney works for Chipstone, the Milwaukee-based foundation dedicated to promoting American decorative arts scholarship. She researches objects and creates relevant programming for Chipstone’s exhibitions at the Milwaukee Art Museum and in the community.

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