From the moment our Material Culture and Public Humanities class entered the Taubman Museum of Art in Roanoke, Virginia, on March 29, 2019, our bodies moved within the space based on perceived roles and the configuration of the museum lobby and gallery spaces. Through a process informed by individual experience, the construction of gallery spaces, and our bodies in proximity to art on display, we transformed from person-on-the-street to museum-goer to interpreter-as-worker.
Upon entering, our class gathered around the information desk, bunching almost comically in a vast, nearly empty lobby. An employee welcomed us, gave us information about what art we would find, and oriented us to the space itself. In that moment, we became museum-goers. There is a mental shift that occurs when ordinary people become museum-goers. Museum-goers have an expectation that what they find in a museum is significant enough to be displayed and the act of display itself invites interpretation.
Margaret Lindauer describes a “critical museum visitor” as one who is concerned with the “visual, written, and spacial features of an exhibit.” I’d argue that any museum-goer is always already primed to be a critical museum visitor, regardless of the salience of their critique.
Lindauer calls the critical museum visitor’s attention to the architecture of the museum itself. The Taubman has pronounced angles, large windows, and concrete walls that are combined in a way one might expect from mid-century modern. Large diamond-shaped windows, lit at night, bring to mind the Louvre. Its architecture is what one expects from a modern museum that includes art and installations from all periods.
A critical museum visitor, argues Lindauer, is also one who understands how the space reveals who the institution’s “ideal visitor” is. She defines an ideal visitor as “one who would be ideologically and culturally at home in the exhibition or politically comfortable with the information that is presented.” All visitors to the Taubman have a second-story view of Roanoke’s historic district and vintage, rooftop advertisements. Visitors are even invited to visit the museum’s third story for the expressed purpose of taking in this view.
This juxtaposition and amalgamation of historic and artistic, brick and glass, horizontal and angled, and new and old signal that an ideal museum visitor has an appreciation for historic preservation. Moreover, the ideal museum visitor believes in the urban redevelopment process that incorporates the arts as part of revitalization efforts. In this way, museum visitors are meant to recognize the relevance and importance of the past for the future of Roanoke.
Inside the galleries, museum-goers transform into interpretive laborers in a corporate environment. Bob Trotman’s exhibit, Business as Usual, has a strong and purposeful effect on its audience. According to the information about the exhibit on display, the catch phrase business as usual “reflects the implacable force of profit-making which lies at the heart of corporate culture and much government policy.” His work is meant to reflect broad themes of “power, privilege, and greed.”
The sculptures are varied in color and size. Some hang from the ceiling and others seem to be pushing up from the ground. The impact this has on a visitor is instantaneous. There is no obvious direction for visitors to take, no ordering of sculptures. When visitors enter the space, I observed that most moved toward the right side and followed an oval trajectory around the space.
As visitors move into the space, motion sensors awaken sculptures. This is jarring and unexpected at first, but then I found myself waiting to see how a sculpture might come to life. And as I moved through the space, more and more sculptures began moaning, groaning, clicking, thumping, flowing, pouring, and tapping.
This first video clip is of a sculpture called “Waiter”(2014). Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.
The second clip shows two sculptures. The first is “Claptocracy” (2019) and second is “Fountain” (2014), both of which are part of Trotman’s exhibit titled “Business as Usual” at the Taubman Museum, Roanoke, VA. March 2019.
Trotman’s website states that his statues are meant to reflect a tradition of carved religious figures and ships’ mastheads. His work uses this tradition to satirize power and privilege. In the way that his carvings perform, they also satirize the museum-going experience. The large, vast, minimal, and quiet space of the museum lobby is drastically different from this gallery space in which his anguished, fearful, and angry workers make noises that echo off the white walls.
Once deep inside the gallery with many of the sculptures moving and making noise, I felt unsettled and anxious. I found myself confused, not knowing what direction to look, and moving my head quickly to find the origins of a new noise. It simulates the experience of working in a corporate, cubicled environment. It immediately brought to mind the sounds of computers clicking, telephones ringing, muffled conversations, drawers opening and closing, and papers being shuffled. The sounds within the gallery mock or magnify the sounds you might hear in a corporate environment and function to make strange the sounds of the corporate office by recreating them (not recreating the exact sounds, but recreating relative sounds). In this way the critical museum visitor becomes a worker, feeling physically overwhelmed by trying to isolate and understand individual sculptures.
In addition to sound and movement, Trotman’s sculptures change in other ways as you move through the space. It is surprising to see “White Men” (2015), which exhibits power and forward force, is hollow. These men are even more dehumanized from the back. From the front they are faceless in the generality of their features and the repetition of those features. From the back they are mere silhouettes. Empty.
This sculpture titled “Martin” (2008) also seems more sinister from the back. From the front he is a corporate worker pleading or falling to his knees from exhaustion. From the rear, the viewer sees him positioned as if for an execution. His bare feet remove him from the corporate context provided by his clothes. Viewers ask, “If this man is no longer in an office, where is he?” Our minds suggest he could be a political prisoner or a man condemned.
Another way “Business as Usual” is displayed differently than other gallery spaces is that there are no benches inside. Most galleries had small wooden benches (although the permanent collection had several plush, black pleather benches) positioned to allow visitors the opportunity to sit and consider works of art.
There is no tranquil contemplation in “Business as Usual.” Visitors are not invited to linger but are instead meant to become uncomfortable by the sounds, movements, sizes disparities, and physical contortions of the sculpture subjects.
As viewers exit the gallery, it is obvious that we were not meant to relax. Visitors clock out of the exhibit using a time card that reads “Your work is my business.” Visitors to the exhibit are on the clock and each time a visitor clocks out, one last resounding “thump” echos through the museum corridor. Trotman mockingly draws back the curtain on museum curation, revealing museum visitors as interpretive workers whose time and energy benefit the artist himself and the museum as an institution.
As critical museum visitors, our work is interpretation. Individual sculptures in “Business as Usual” offer plenty for visitors to interpret, but the space and nature of its display (especially in contrast to the museum lobby and architecture) controls our visit, our movements, and our interpretations.
Margaret Lindauer,In New Museum Theory and Practice, edited by Janet Marstine, 203-225. Blackwell, 2006.
“Taubman Museum of Art.” www.taubmanmuseum.org (retrieved April 2, 2019).
Trotman, Bob. “bob trotman.” www.bobtrotman.com (retrieved April 2, 2019).