Descending into Museum Bowels

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Descending into Museum Bowels

I bet you my last green dollar that when you hear the word 'library' you think about endless shelves of books. What most people don't know is that so many libraries literally contain hidden treasures not to be read but to be looked upon, to be ogled. A few years ago, the Hammer Museum organized an excellent exhibition of treasures from the Great Libraries of Los Angeles, where photo portraits of Oscar Wilde and Frieda Kahlo vied for your attention with Amelia Earhart's notes of her famous transatlantic flight. The best was a small painting by Picasso which he gave in 1909 to Gertrude Stein and signed "Homage a Gertrude." She kept it in her Paris apartment nailed to the bedroom ceiling and if you know your way around UCLA you can find this tiny painting in the Young Research Library, with the four holes - courtesy of Ms. Stein - still intact.

Last month the UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History opened the exhibition "UCLA Collects! Bodies of Knowledge" whose intention is to demonstrate the surprising riches of various UCLA cultural institutions. The theme of the exhibition is the human body and among the 200 objects on display are medical and anatomical illustrations, drawings and prints by Matisse, Rembrandt and Picasso as well as works by such contemporary artists as Kiki Smith and Bruce Nauman. From various geographic regions and eras come images of the human body as diverse as a Mexican papier mache skeleton and a 19th century Japanese print of the body's acupuncture points, a European 19th century box containing a set of 50 glass eyes along with Asian sculptures and puppets with multiple eyes scattered all over the body, as a visual metaphor for the ability to perceive and understand.

This delightful exhibition does away with traditional linear and logical storytelling and instead breaks boundaries between various disciplines and institutions. Inspiring and often outrageous juxtapositions of the artifacts are meant to not so much inform, but allow for the pure pleasure of visual surprises and stimulation. Rembrandt's etching of a Woman Washing Her Feet next to an 18th century French anatomical plate of a sitting figure allows the free poetic association rarely offered by traditional museum exhibitions. Andrea Mantegna's engraving of a mythological orgy next to Cezanne's color lithograph of Bathers made me think about the excitement and surprises of a spontaneous live jazz session. A semi-abstract drawing by contemporary Los Angeles artist Bill Brice and an old African wood sculpture stare at each other as distant cousins struck by their family resemblance. And so it goes... The exhibition that, instead of lecturing, keeps you awake and amused about thousands of ways that various cultures and eras intertwine.

Makes you think about better ways museums can share with the public their hidden treasures, usually kept in dark storage for years and sometimes decades. Only during a special exhibition few precious objects are allowed into daylight for a couple of months, and then back they go. Only a few museums I know - among them, the Metropolitan in New York and the Legion of Honor in San Francisco - created open storage facilities where visitors can see hundreds and thousands of artworks and artifacts stacked on shelves from floor to ceiling. What for a car junkie is diving under the hood of an old rare car, for the art lover is descending into a museum's bowels chock full of visual treasures...I cannot think of a better way to enchant and impress visitors with the variety and depth of a museum collection.

"UCLA Collects! Bodies of Knowledge"
UCLA Fowler Museum of Cultural History
Los Angeles
Ends: August 21, 2005