Curating is harder than it looks

My longest essay last term was on the subject of polyptychs, their format’s rich addition to meaning, and the concomitant curatorial nightmare they pose.  (Sans pompous academic language:  they’re cool, but it’s a real pain to show them to best advantage)

My essay was righteously indignant about books and public displays which misleadingly or desultorily present polyptychs.  Today I have the pleasure of complimenting an institution for presenting a polyptych well.

The Philadelphia Museum of Art has a choir screen and altarpiece from “the high altar of the chapel at the château of Pagny” that dates from the 1530s.  They’ve gone to a fair bit of effort in its display, and here are some notes on what they did well with the altarpiece.

1) There is a small distance between the artwork and the wall.  As a consequence, museum visitors can peek at the undisplayed side of the open wings and (indistinctly) see that there is painting on the side facing the wall too.

2) Handouts.  Charts.  Diagrams.  These laminated guides are discreetly placed in a rack just to the side of the altarpiece.  They are easy to ignore if you are already very knowledgeable about this sort of artwork, but they’re also extremely thorough if you’re in the throes of curiosity.  Note how clearly they present the different iterations of this artwork.  You can’t see the original artwork in its closed state, but they’ve approximated it in a color photograph and explained the calendric component of its opening and closing.

3) They protected the lower levels of the sculpture from casual interference, but have plainly given as unimpeded a view of the artwork as was reasonable. (Note the reflections on the lower tier of the photo below.  That tier was about eye-level, while the upper register is distinctly overhead.)

4) Additional information is available online and through their free audio tour.  Here’s an example from their website:

“Surprisingly, such elaborate and impressive works were not exorbitantly expensive, partly because they were made from prefabricated components and treated standardized themes such as the Passion of Christ, seen here. This example belongs to a group by an anonymous artist sometimes called the Master of the Oplinter Altar. While distinct from the Italianate and local styles found in other works at Pagny, the altarpiece, with its detailed, fully modeled, gilded figures, follows a taste for Northern art that was well established in Burgundy, which had historic links to the southern Netherlands. The paintings strike a contemporary note, echoing the then enormously influential style of Pieter Cocke (1502-1550), and would have lent a note of brilliant color to the stone chapel. Dean Walker, from Philadelphia Museum of Art: Handbook of the Collections (1995), p. 125.” (qtd. from


In the curatorial strategies I just highlighted, the museum has made certain that visual learners, auditory learners, and those who prefer to read have all had a chance to access information about this impressive altarpiece.

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