We only had time to prowl through the lobby area–which includes a set of sad, weird gray felt statues inspired by 9/11, and also a playable slot machine which purports to save the world, both of which are more effective as art than I think I’m making them sound–and a couple of the galleries. This place is enormous. It’s also very dramatically-designed. The walls, plinths, and backgrounds are often painted in dark colors like black and dark purple. There’s lots of use of contrast between dark and light background colors, and everything is arranged to give each artwork a lot of breathing space. Everything jumps out at you.
There’s a floor of galleries divided geographically, and arranged roughly chronologically within those divisions. The African art gallery includes a lot of 20th-century pieces, many of which were designed for ritual use, so the museum hung up huge color photographs of the rituals for which these headdresses and masks were created. It’s more immersive than the usual museum experience, but the photos only emphasize how bizarre it is that we’re treating these objects as museum pieces to be viewed and assessed rather than worn and used. Then I prowled through the European galleries–they have a lot of 13th-century art there, by the way–and felt the funhouse-mirror version of the alienation provoked by the African art galleries, since here the art of my own religion was being presented under glass. The reliquary had, I think, been emptied of its relics. The art was repurposed to instruct not the faithful but the cultured.
An art museum is such an aggressively modernist place to be: so organized, so cordoned-off, so explanatory and resolutely curious yet weirdly untouched by the art it presents. They’re pristine places and after a while you stop liking them, I think. (I hope!) I wrote about religious museum weirdness here. The new Yale art gallery is a fantastic, thoughtful, even exhilarating example of what a museum of its kind can be. I hugely recommend it! But a vivid and exciting museum is still, in the end, just a museum.