Last week, students enrolled in SU London’s London Museums: Art, History & Science course were treated to a rare opportunity – a private tour of one of England’s oldest and most renowned public art galleries, The Dulwich Picture Gallery.
Led through the gallery by the eminent chief curator Xavier Bray, students were afforded the unique fortune of learning about the inner workings of an art museum from one of the most accomplished curators in the UK.
Student Perry Russom writes about his Dulwich experience below:
Dulwich in the Dark
By Perry Russom
My museum class follows Professor Donatella Sparti in unarranged two’s like ducklings following their mother. We waddle down the leaf-splattered street on a crisp autumn morning just south of the City of London in a town called Dulwich. Dreary-eyed, as we had all just returned from fall break, we share stories from our travels as we make our way to the destination. Just as I was getting to the exciting climax of one of my fall trip’s tales, Professor Sparti yells, “We’re here!” Dulwich Picture Gallery.
We are quickly introduced to Xavier Bray, chief curator of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, who would give us a private tour of the gallery while it was closed. Professor Sparti tells us that Bray speaks several languages, has had an illustrious career in the world of museums, and has been published numerous times. A quick Google search of “Xavier Bray art” yields 1,560,000 results in only 0.18 seconds. Bray guides us through the back door of the museum where we glide by the gift shop and congregate at the back of the museum.
Bray says that the museum’s elegant main corridor was one of the first ever to be solely intended for the showing of pictures. He explains how the advanced lighting system works that helps in the preservation of the art. There is an automatic sensor that reads the light in the room and decides if the lights need to be strengthened or dimmed. He shuts off the lights to show us how the art was originally viewed in natural light. The light looms in from the ceiling windows, creating a palpable presence. The room becomes cavernous as shadows cast along the faces and landscapes of paintings.
Colors come alive. Portraits develop from having flesh colors to flesh tones, and the subjects emerge from their frames. Shadows deepen on the paintings as if the dimensions extend from two to three.
But it was the sound of the gallery that was the most impressive. Silence…the only sound was the faint scurrying of the museum workers feet down the hall as they prepared the next exhibit. The quietness creates a sense of amazement as the extensive history of the room’s work starts to pile up.
Bray clarifies the way the pictures in the cubes of the hallway were hung, while critiquing the color of the walls. “It looks pinkish,” he says, “and I don’t like the way that it meets the white.” The set-up of the art is a constant juggle for a curator by dually deciding what painting to put where and which order to do it. It’s an art behind the art.
He explains that there is much more to museums than just the set up, wall color, frames, descriptions, and much more. Funds have to be raised, paintings have to be sponsored, and new art has to be bought. He describes it as a chess game: it takes a series of well-calculated moves to orchestrate a museum as the chief curator wishes it to be.
HOA 473: London Museums: Art, History & Science is a three-credit course in the department of Art & Music Histories. Through the study of many of London’s major museums and galleries, and in particular art collections, students familiarize with museum-related debates, museum curatorial practice and museum-skills generally. Students also analyse major art-historical and sociological themes from the perspective of both museum goers (the public) and museum insiders (curators, restorers and trustees).
Students in this course benefit from guest lectures and discussions with curators from London’s most important museums and during weekly visits to museums they are able to test theories put forward in class in front of the original works and within specifically designed environments.