Venice in the Age of Canaletto at the Brooks Art Museum

Venice in the Age of Canaletto

February 14-May 9, 2010

Memphis Brooks Museum of Art

1934 Poplar Avenue
Memphis, Tennessee 38104

Venice in the Age of Canaletto exhibits the paintings, art, furniture and decorative arts of Venice from the 18th Century.  Popular paintings, magazine or newspaper prints, and furniture from the homes of Venetians explore their daily lives and beliefs.  Mirrors and sculpture, along with settees and chairs give a glimpse into the homes of people who lived in Venice during the time of Caneletto.  From what I was able to glean from the topic panel, Canaletto was an important artist from Venice who painted sober and artistic oils of cityscapes for foreigners.

My first impression of the exhibit was somewhat skewed by confusion.  The entrance to the exhibit was frustratingly hard to find.  Once I found the small directional sign that pointed the way downstairs I followed the arrow to the bottom of the stairs.  At the bottom of the stairs was another directional sign pointing to the left.  The gallery on the left appeared to be a small children’s gallery packed with students.  Straight ahead was a gallery that appeared to contain items from the Venice exhibit.  Wanting to avoid the children and thinking that the gallery must be the beginning of the exhibit, I continued forward and found a table containing evaluation forms for the cell phone audio tour.  Infinitely puzzled I looked to the first case label and saw that this was indeed a part of the Venice collection.  At this time, a group led by a docent entered and began a guided tour.  This further confused and convinced me that it must be the entrance.

I began to look at case labels and wall labels in an attempt to analyze the exhibit.  However, the topic panels seemed to be at the end of the flow of the exhibit, which did not help the viewer understand the content until the end of their observations.  I was also unimpressed with the first artifacts, a settee and a couple of sculptures, which were not very eye-catching.  The lack of an exhibit title also seemed a bit strange.  I began to go through the exhibit a bit faster to try to find information.  Once I got to the “end”, I saw the title, information about a cell phone tour, and gallery guides for families.  The entrance is hidden on the other side of the children’s gallery around a corner.  The fact that a tour group started at the end still confuses me, but the truth remains that the entrance was unclear.  More clearly stated physical orientation signage could easily fix this problem.  The result of the confusion could lead to frustration or lack of understanding of the exhibit.

After I was able to enter the exhibit from the correct end, I was able to evaluate the layout, graphics, and other exhibit characteristics.  I did very much enjoy the art on display.  The paintings are very colorful and lifelike.  Though I am not generally interested in art museums as much as other museums, the art within this exhibit was engaging to me. The title is on a large red wall with straw yellow and white letters.  The font and font size are appropriate, and the wall is eye-catching.  Opposite the title wall is a sponsors’ credit panel with black text on red background, which is somewhat hard on the eyes.  The first table at the entrance contains instructions for a cell phone audio tour, large print label guide, and a family gallery guide for children.  I did listen to some of the audio tour, but the content was more information than I was particularly interested in.  The idea is great, however, and very valuable for those who wish to learn more information.

The first gallery of the exhibit is dominated by a double screen video of the Venice canals.  According to the wall panel, the film was shot and commissioned by the Brooks in 2008 to give visitors the feel of being on the canals of Venice.  Accompanying sounds recorded at the time of filming give the feel of actually being in modern Venice.  Behind the film is the introductory panel for the exhibit.  The label is clearly readable with black text on a white background and properly sized and spaced letters and lines.  However, the label contains two similar sized paragraphs, and the first paragraph contains over 140 words.  The label also contains several two, three and four syllable words, which may inhibit some visitors.

The first gallery exhibits black and white sketch prints of scenes of Venice life.  The first is a portrait of Caneletto with some basic biographical information.  The walls of the first gallery are a deep, striking red color.  As with other object labels throughout the exhibit, the object labels of the art works mimic the wall color on the background color of the labels with black text.  The labels for the objects in the first gallery were a lighter, yet still deep, red background with black text.  This was hard on the eyes, and again the labels were a bit long.  The average number of words per objects label, for didactic information, seems to be around 100-120 words.  This does not include artist information, materials, dates, or sponsor credit information.

Case labels on vitrines holding objects such as ceramics and sculpture, however, were generally white text on black background.  While not as easy on the eyes of older or sight-impaired individuals, the contrast was much more welcome than black text on red background.  The font is an appropriate sized serif style that is easily viewed from the average vista distance of the objects.  Again, case labels seem to be wordy, with over 100 words per case label.

The initially confusing area or topic panels were much less confusing once I was following the correct flow and chronology of the exhibit.  The black text on white background panels again contained too many words, as well as too many words with multiple syllables and somewhat confusing words.  However, they are very physically readable, despite the possible restrictions of content.

Lighting of objects and artwork comes from spotlight track lighting high in the ceilings, and is properly adjusted for optimal viewing while not causing destruction to the art.  The flow of the exhibit is quite clear and directed by walls, cases and benches.  There is plenty of space for visitors to move around without damaging himself, herself, or the art.

Cameras and docent are very visible in the galleries, and objects in vitrines seem to be secure and inaccessible.  The paintings are in the open and subject to curious hands, but the docents and guards seem vigilant enough to prevent such occurrences.

The exhibit’s end does leave a bit to be desired.  After the visitor sees the paintings, sculpture and furniture the exhibit just ends at the stairwell.  The last objects are not particularly remarkable or thought provoking.  In addition, the last room contained no docent or guard, and the objects were more out in the open with only a small railing along the floor below knee level to prevent people from getting too close.  However, it would be very easy for a person to lean forward and touch or possibly damage the objects, particularly since there is no guard presence noticeable in this gallery.

Based on the content of labels and panels, I would judge the projected audience to be high school or college students.   The syllable ratio to the word count may be too high for anyone below high school level.  The content of the exhibit may also be marketed towards the older audiences.  However, the family guide provided at the beginning does offer questions and activities to engage younger children.


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