One of the elements that truly amazed me about my visit to the new Art of the America’s wing was the “Behind the Scenes” galleries on every single floor (these galleries will be further discussed in a later posting about the on site offerings of the wing). The galleries featured videos that showed the creation of the wing in every aspect – from clips of the designer laying out the artworks in architectural models and selecting the paint for the color of the gallery wall, conservators touching up paintings, and the installation of particularly large works. It was a fascinating approach and made me think about how much foresight the planners of the wing must have had when deciding to document the process.
The current trend in museum exhibition display and education is to demystify the process and make it relatable and fun to audiences, turning the museum into a transparent institution. While many museums are working to incorporate these sort of elements into their existing collections, they have to backtrack and create these kind of behind the scenes looks. The MFA had the advantage of being able to produce these features as they designed and completed the installation of the new wing, creating a true documentary style overview of the inner workings of a museum. This is truly an excellent opportunity to educate the general public about what goes into the creation of a museum exhibition and also how museum’s handle things running the gamut from artwork conservation to interpretation. I decided to examine in-depth the types of behind the scenes materials that the staff at the MFA put together, to see what they highlighted and also how this material was made accessible to the public, outside of these on site “Behind the Scenes” galleries.
As I began to search online, starting at first with links on the MFA’s own website (which will also be explored further in a later posting), I was astounded by the vast amount of information that was out there and by how much effort had gone in to creating an in-depth peek into the inner workings of the museum. The produced materials were available on a wide range of sources, from the museum’s own YouTube page to an extensive amount of coverage in one of Boston’s leading newspapers, The Boston Globe. These variety of locations for this behind the scenes information ensured that it would be accessible and visible to a wide-ranging audience. Which made me realize that not only were these videos, interviews, and photos intended for didactic purposes and for placing in the video displays in the actual museum, but also for marketing and accountability purposes.
The museum’s new wing cost half a billion dollars in public and private funds. It seems that in creating these supplemental materials about the creation of the new wing, the museum was taking all the steps possible to create a transparent environment – a sort of illustrative guide of what they did and how intensive the process of constructing a new building, acquiring new artworks, and installing four floors could be. MFA Director, Malcolm Rogers, even stated that the mostly glass design of the wing was intended to create a sense of transparency of the institution to the community. As quoted in an article printed on September 14th in The Wall Street Journal, Rogers wants “people outside…[to] see people inside and know you don’t have to wear black tie to come in…I want us to be more approachable.”While I truly don’t think this was the main reasoning for the creation of the behinds the scenes aspects, I think it was certain within their considerations. In the current climate of recession, people expect organizations of all types to be held accountable for their explaining their spending. By illustrating the difficulty and importance of the task of creating this revisionary approach to American art display, the MFA has created a framework of tools to stave off questions from the public, in addition to creating a way in which to educate a broad community about museum practices.
The museum also partnered with The Boston Globe, giving the newspaper extensive access to the process and the staff involved. This was mutually beneficial to both organizations – the Globe got the exclusive on the happenings of a major event in the city of Boston and the MFA got extensive media coverage and promotion. The museum even gave Globe photographer David L. Ryan a free rein in the museum to capture the multi-faceted process of the construction and reinstallation of the wing. Starting in 2005, with the groundbreaking of the construction process, Ryan was there, capturing it all. These photos were used in publications and also on the newspapers website, and right before the opening a slide show of the entire construction, entitled “A Wing in the Making,” was compiled to be viewed online. This visual rendering of the new wing coming together is an innovative way to get people, particularly citizens of Boston, connected to and excited about the new wing.
Ryan also took many photos capturing a behind the scenes look at the installation process of the artworks once the wing was built. These images were used in a special preview magazine, “The MFA Takes Wing,” that the Globe printed and distributed in its newspapers immediately prior to the grand opening of the wing. Like the construction photographs, these images were also available for viewing on the newspaper’s website. Also available is a slide show of some of Ryan’s high quality installation shots, along with close up images of individual artworks. The Globe also produced an interactive panorama of rooms once they were completely installed so online visitors could explore the wing without a physical visit. Another fascinating interactive component on the Globe‘s website is a map that provides detailed information about all four floors of the new wing. Clicking on a particular room takes you to a close of view of the layout, as well as links to any online features that relate to that space, such as panoramic views and examples of the types of works that can be seen there. This interactive platform to explore the new wing and the museum’s collection is one of the most extensive that I have seen in all my examination of arts organizations’ websites. This clearly was a very strategic, highly collaborative process between the MFA and The Boston Globe.
In addition to this highly beneficial partnership with a local newspaper, the MFA also put effort into creating behind the scenes coverage for their own usage within the museum’s online and on site visitors. As mentioned previously, the museum has its own YouTube channel, which features well-produced videos – of an interview with the Museum’s director explaining the project, parts of the wing being installed, and of opening day. This, again, can be seen as an attempt to reach out to a wider community and to engage them with what is happening at the museum. The production of these marketing-style introductory videos was undoubtedly done at the same time as the other more focused videos produced for installing on site in the “Behind the Scenes” galleries.
These multi-media, interactive components, made available on multiple platforms and seeking to reach a wider audience show that the MFA has taken full advantage of the opportunities presented by the tools that are now currently available for both sharing and marketing various types of information, as well as fully embracing the current trend of transparency as a means of education and engagement.