February 8, 2007

Treasure Hides Behind the Scenes at the Johnson

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In the fall, I was given the wonderful opportunity to take a tour “behind the scenes” at the Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art with museum director Frank Robinson, who guided me not only through the sweeping collection of art, but also through the story and character of the remarkable building that houses it. I was inspired on yet a whole new level by the “behind the scenes” work, processes and facilities that personify a most profound respect, preservation and dedication to art. I realized that the process of creating and upholding a museum is its own form of a beautiful, challenging and intimate art, making the artistic and intellectual choices that determine which histories it will tell, organized and maintained by man’s power to create, and defined by a distinctly cultural process.

The 10-floored building, designed by the renowned I. M. Pei and completed in 1973, is a prominent work of art in itself. With its singular design and its bold use of concrete, the building embodies a contrast and a coexistence of weight and weightlessness, solid finality and ethereal boundlessness. As you walk through the building, there is a sense of being both indoors and outdoors at once. The large windows allow for the crisp entrance of natural light, and open to the majestic view of Cayuga Lake.

I was taken by one such view upon entering the museum’s private room often used for dinners, special lectures and events, whose open glass windows span an entire wall. The fortune of the sunny day made for a breathtaking view of the Finger Lakes that illuminated the beauty and privilege of living in Ithaca that we too often forget.

As though this were not sufficiently stimulating, the room’s other three walls won my attention with yet three more impressive views, each bearing a prominent Lichtenstein print. These three prints are in fact a considerable treasure, Mr. Robinson explained, for they are the very last prints on which Lichtenstein ever worked. Printed on steel with added brushstrokes, the trio is left visibly unfinished, for Lichtenstein passed away before he could complete them.

From this treasure, Mr. Robinson led me to thousands more as we entered the Asian collection storage room. Using a highly organized storage system that conserves space to allow for maximum storage capacity, individual sections of the enormous apparatus must be rolled open to create aisles through which one can walk to see the contents of its drawers. Structured so that only one aisle is open at a time, the unnecessary waste of space is eliminated, allowing for the housing of 7,000 Asian collection objects. Mr. Robinson pulled open aisles and drawers to reveal Chinese ceramics as old as 2,500 BC, pieces from the Han dynasty made to be taken into the tomb, and other astonishing artifacts of life in another time and place.

We looked at Thai ceramics and a collection of Javanese masks used for theater, both of which the Johnson can claim the best collection America. In addition, due to first-rate preservation, the collections boast an incredibly high quality that allows students to study variation between different pieces and different cultures. The Chinese and Japanese hand scrolls and hanging scrolls are kept in acid-free, neutral housing and sometimes even in their original boxes.

We moved on to the light filled print room which holds about 20,000 works that include prints, drawings and photographs. I enjoyed taking an up-close look at some Rembrandt etchings, particularly an intriguing self portrait that incorporates the glory of the great renaissance masters, juxtaposed with a profound sense of realism. The painting storage room also provided an interesting viewing opportunity, with its array of paintings spanning centuries past to the works of today just beginning to gain acclaim. One of the room’s noteworthy pieces is in fact the painting of a relatively unknown artist that the museum decided to leave unrestored as a tool for education and observation.

With such an vast and rich collection, the museum’s plans for expansion are clearly an exciting and necessary new development. The plans include an entire new wing to be built mostly underground, which will allow for more space in the museum for display, storage and education. In addition, the museum has been working on a project to digitize images of their works onto CDs to erect a modernized organizational and cataloguing system. I was given a glimpse into the high-tech room dedicated to this endeavor, where a highly specialized camera and a cutting edge system are able to digitize the images with high speed and high quality.

With all of these momentous developments in the works, the Johnson Museum has much cause for excitement. The Cornell and Ithaca community are lucky to have access to the impressive collection of art that it offers, and to the striking presence of the museum itself.