Looking beneath the Surface

The challenges posed by a visit to the Barnes Foundation have everything to do with the relationship between private (proprietary) and public (open) systems of information organization.

With collection-development issues so much on our minds lately, it was perhaps more than mere chance that took me last weekend to the Barnes Foundation, recently relocated to its splendid new home in downtown Philadelphia. The foundation carries on the work of its founder, Albert Barnes, who personally acquired more than eight hundred works of Impressionist and post-Impressionist paintings, making it the site of one of the world’s great collections of late 19th- and early 20th-century European art.

The collection is more ambitious than this, though. Decorative metalwork, New Kingdom Egyptian sculpture, Qing-dynasty paintings, African woodcarvings, Native American pottery, 19th-century cabinetry, door knockers, tapestries, keys, necklaces, masks . . . the collection blossoms in unpredictable directions in every room, twenty-three of them, several thousand objects in all. And it is in the arrangement of this eclectic group of objects that the newcomer to the foundation finds the greatest challenge to traditional notions of a collection.

The objects in the Barnes are arranged in “ensembles” created by Barnes himself. These ensembles are no respecters of the usual methods of classifying museum objects. They do not represent the chronological development of a single style or artist any more than they do filiations of theme, medium, or genre. Or at least so it seems at first. Looking more closely, one discovers, here and there, clarifying serendipities: a Dan figurine (West Africa) juxtaposed with a Modigliani “girl in evening dress,” for instance. Understanding the principles informing each ensemble requires close study. We sense this didactic principle at work not only in the collection’s organization but also in the foundation’s refusal to place names, dates, or any other identifying information on the works of art themselves. As much as anything, the arrangement is a rebuke to standard ways of “consuming” art.

In reflecting on my visit it occurred to me that the challenges posed by the Barnes have everything to do with the relationship between private (proprietary) and public (open) systems of information organization. Most museums, and most collections of documents, follow standard principles of classification, meant to aid in the discovery of assets. But another way of classifying things is in the service of a pedagogical program. These latter systems, as all good teachers know, are intended to spark understanding rather than to facilitate finding something. Here meanings are meant to be discovered, extracted inductively from the whole rather than supplied by a standard system of organization. Our sense of dislocation when visiting the foundation is thus due primarily to a kind of taxonomical dissonance, a confusion at finding the latter principle at work where we expect the former.

Does the latter method—self-discovery rather than supplied labels, insight rather than imposed structure—have a place in a public collection such as a library? I think it might. How many librarians have suggested “alternate” pathways to patrons who find that public systems have not led them to the information they need? Do we not, at very least, need to make a space for these alternate approaches in our thinking, if not in our formal structures of classification? These are only a few of the issues raised by a visit to the Barnes. Highly recommended.

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About the author:

Mark Cummings is the editor and publisher at Choice