If you have not spent much time in the Johnson Museum before, you may not have noticed how large or diverse it truly is. The Preview Gala for the Johnson’s new wing demonstrated just that, with a look at its new galleries and exhibition spaces. Included in the building’s original designs, though never built due to budget constraints, the new wing sports a new entrance for welcoming larger groups, a new gallery and a new studio for educational purposes.
With more than 30,000 pieces in the collection, one of the primary reasons for the expansion was simply the need for more storage space. The addition also presented an opportunity to move in the direction in which many museums are going, by showcasing the museum’s collections using “visible storage.” Once finished, the new galleries will also play host to a contemporary collection, which the museum has as of yet been lacking. The museum will also add a gallery for a video-collection, and will convert its old studio into a lecture space.
Somewhat packed together, the Johnson’s visible storage area is neat to look at, with a section for American decorative arts, one for African masks and wood carvings and another with a full suit of European and Samurai armor. Instead of the typical information cards or plaques that accompany museum pieces, the storage collection utilizes iPod Touches in order to convey information on each work. Unfortunately, the visible storage area both felt and looked incomplete, as various sticky notes placed around the exhibition attested to the lack of descriptions on the iPods. In addition, without an iPod, one felt somewhat lost, adding to the confusion. On the whole, however, the visible storage was interesting and gave a further glimpse into the framework of the museum.
Other renovations included the fifth floor, which houses the Johnson’s Asian collection. Labyrinthine and rather large, the fifth floor was more fun to explore than the visible storage. A variety of works graced the cases of the Asian collection, from Iranian pottery to Chinese furniture. The two most ostentatious pieces were a hand-written, wall-length script of sections of the Quran, by Pouran Jinchi, and a sculpture of the Bodhisattva Nanhai Guayin. Calligraphy is merely a passing thought in the western art world, in contrast to images, which are far more often the center of attention. The beautifully striking Tajvid Red (Recitation Series) is simply amazing to look at, and makes one wonder at the effort put into it. Just imagining making such a thing, taking the pain-staking care to craft each figure and at such a scale, makes one truly appreciative of the more literal art of writing. The Chinese sculpture, on the other hand, demonstrates a wonderful use of both bodily and facial expression. The Goddess of Mercy, with a pair of Guardian Lions at her feet, practically personifies confidence and pride, as she sits leaning back above you, one arm resting on her throne, the other thrown carelessly across her knee. Even the eyes look self-assured, as she glances down around her.
Though less grandiose than the Jinchi piece and the Bodhisattva sculpture, the gallery’s other works well represented a variety of cultures not often seen in American museums. Simply strolling through the galleries exposed one to a multitude of smaller works that spanned the Asian continent as well as time. Fluid ink paintings, made in the last forty years, revealed bright, lucid colors. Works that looked to be from India turned out to be Japanese. Cuneiform tablets exposed the audience to one of the earliest pieces of written word. Every turn around a corner on the fifth floor brings a new and unexpected experience for those who are only used to the western notion of art.
The Johnson Museum has done an excellent job of revealing the depths of its collections and the variety of cultures and works it encompasses. If one had any complaint, however, it would be that the expansion shows off too much.. Getting to see the museum’s collections is certainly interesting, but there are so many pieces that it becomes increasingly hard to take everything in. One’s eyes slide far too easily from one piece to the next, without allowing for one to really think about what he or she has seen. Although the collection shows a large volume of pieces, it also demonstrates a great variety of works. So even if you have trouble looking at everything, at least you will get to see something that you likely did not expect.