Dead battery irks, but does not ruin Turner to Cezanne

By Elise Lundstrom
ArtsPost staff writer

Why are there people walking around in the gallery with their cell phones? That was the first thought I had when I entered the “Turner to Cezanne: Masterpieces of the Davies Collection, National Museum of Wales” exhibit at the Corcoran Gallery of Art.  But this wasn’t disrespectful.  The newest tactic museums are employing to make their galleries more interactive is to have people use their own cell phones instead of renting audio guides.

This exhibit is traveling the country, giving American museum-goers a chance to see works they could only have seen in Wales up until this point.  In the lobby of the Corcoran Gallery there is a video that details the lives of the Davies sisters and their collection, highlighting the works in the exhibit. You can watch the actual installation of the works, while the curator and various scholars inform you about the history of the collection.

The actual exhibit, on the third floor, spans three rooms, the first painted red, the second yellow, the third blue, a play on the primary colors, then further categorized by periods of art the Davies sisters collected, from Academic Salon painting to Beyond Impressionism.

In small print on the first wall of the exhibit is an explanation of this new process.  You call, listen to the message, enter the number of the work you are looking at, and then you can hear extra information about the image.  No speaker phone please, air time charges apply, and your quality of reception is based on your service provider. There is also a special “family” audio program, marked by a paw print, that has more interactive recordings.

The Corcoran emphasized the sustainability of this new practice of using your cell phone, and while I applaud them for trying to find new ways to be environmentally friendly, there were many problems with this new practice. It took me four tries to get the system to recognize the number for Renoir’s “La Parisienne,” and the recording was faint and scratchy.  Some of the recording was a repeat of the video from the lobby, or of the wall text, but there were a few valuable tidbits.

“La Parisienne"

“La Parisienne" by Renoir 1874

For the same work “La Parisienne” I listened to the family audio.  It asked me if I thought the woman in the image was a nice person.  There were bustling street sounds, meant to be the sounds of Paris, and a more formalistic breakdown of the elements of the image.  It was a refreshing counter to the more historical and biographical adult version.  Note to self: listen to the family version.

Also, if your phone is not fully charged, you may be out of luck to hear the audio.  My phone died in the middle of the exhibit. If I had had a hand-held audio guide, I would have been able to listen without fear that my battery would go dead.

While I was frustrated with the audio component of the exhibit, I was impressed with the rest.  The wall colors complemented the works, the galleries were well-lit and there was clear and concise wall text next to each image.  It was refreshing to see someone take the time to put explanatory wall text next to each work, not only next to the works deemed more valuable or important.  This may have been due to the fact that there was no exhibit pamphlet available. Another sustainable move by the Corcoran.

The wall summaries at each new period of art were surprisingly informative, explaining a bit about the sisters’ interest in the period and about the periods themselves. For example, the Davies sisters’ grandfather was a tenant farmer and so they felt a unique connection to the works of Millet.

The final section, “Later Collecting,” was the most intriguing.  It included lesser known works that the sisters collected, which were mainly by British and Welsh artists.  Some included were Agustus John and Robert Polhill Bevan.  This fit well with the National Museum of Wales, whose core objective is the “advancement of the education of the public,” and keeping appreciation of Welsh and British culture alive.  The exhibit was a once in a lifetime chance to see and learn about works that had never come to the U.S. before; if only my phone hadn’t died.

The exhibit runs through April 25. Visit www.corcoran.org for more information on the exhibit and the gallery.