Maggie Bell, Assistant Curator, Norton Simon Museum

Maggie’s area of scholarship centers upon the early modern period in Italy with a focus on the role of visual imagery in activating an empathic response.  She has explored the relationship between viewer and sacred art through haptic engagement and considered how the introduction of vetriate glass partitions in the early 16thcentury had bearing upon this relationship. Contrary to those who consider the partitions a barrier, she argues that they served as an enhancement—rather than impediment by “enshrining” the images and allowing them to serve as precious ‘relics.’ (Bell, 2014, p.1).

With great irony, I find this oddly reminiscent of our current state resulting from COVID-induced shutdowns. The full extent of the past ’years severance between gallery and audiences will be a topic of great interest for years to come, and Maggie’s ability to draw connections between historic and real-time effects will be of great importance as she prepares to mount the Norton Simon’s upcoming exhibition, The Expressive Body; Memory, Devotion, Desire (1400-1750) on both the analog and digital platforms.

Interview:

In our interview, we discussed Maggie’s current interest in the ways “visual culture can evoke stories and lived experiences in ways written sources cannot.”  She became particularly interested in “linking the past with the present” through her experience in mounting an exhibition entitled “Sacred Art, Visual Traditions in Latin America and Santa Barbara” as part of the Getty’s “Pacific Standard Time” initiative in 2017.  As part of the exhibition, she collected the oral traditions of Chumash Elders and through video documentation, entered them into the historic record for generations to come. 

Q: How have COVID-induced shutdowns impacted your curatorial strategies?

Maggie reports that she was drawn to the Norton Simon for its small but significant collection that allows her to work across fields and disciplines and employ interpretive strategies through new and exciting themes. When asked how her curatorial work has been impacted by the events of the past year, she reports that it not only delayed her exhibition, but challenged her to reconsider its expression on both the analog and digital platform

With the forced closure of the gallery, Maggie and her team were challenged to identify ways to sustain public engagement, and in the process, discovered new ways to keep touch with their loyal audience while expanding its reach to a more comprehensive and global sector. Through Instagram posts and selective curatorial videos, Maggie and team have perfected the ‘art’ of writing across platform for diverse audiences, and through both “digestible” Instagram posts and curatorial videos, she feels that viewers are now able to connect a ‘face’ with the institution, and engage on a more intimate, personal level. She adds that the video platform allows for greater control in directing the viewer’s eye through both panoramic and magnified perspective, making collections more “enjoyable and accessible.’ and concludes that it has been “a joy” to receive audience response.

Q:  The analog v. the digital platform:

Maggie notes that while the digital platform allows a more intimate exchange between the museum and its audience, it is no substitute for the in-house experience.  The Norton Simon Museum sits on extensive and lavishly cared for grounds, and its in-house amenities are considerable. Maggie’s contends that these are “hard to transfer” – yet adds that the expanded reach of the past year’s digital initiatives will allow their small-but-mighty External Affairs Team to track audience engagement in greater resolution and be more responsive to their expressed needs. As result, she anticipates a positive conversion rate between online and in-house participation, once the gallery can reopen its doors.

Q: The transition from Analog to Digital and Back Again…

The upcoming exhibition will offer a rich opportunity to explore the ways the digital and analog experiences evoke a different response, due to its use of imagery in activating the body.  Maggie reports that she had planned to design a “meditative space” in which the viewer was encouraged to linger, reflect and consider the historical response in an intimate setting.  Yet, due to health concerns and anticipated restrictions upon reopening, she is not sure how many viewers will be allowed to gather, and for what length of time. In response, she plans to create an online audio component that viewers can stream on their own devices– but reports that this traditional museum does not yet have Wi-Fi in the galleries! 

Maggie concludes that if there could be a ‘silver lining’ to the effects of this past tragic year, it might offer an incentive for the museum to rise to the challenge of the 21st century, and join the ranks of those who have struck a delicate balance between a technological and traditional experience. As result, she hopes this might allow the museum to offer its audiences an opportunity to more fully access and engage with its collections.  Indeed, Maggie’s contribution will offer the public a chance to experience the healing power of art, in a much-needed time. 

References: Bell, M, 2014, Image as Relic: Bodily Vision and the Reconstitution of Viewer/Image Relationships at the Sacro Monte di Varallo. California Italina Studies, Volume 5, Issue 1. http://escholarship.org/uc/item/84q9v2k5, accessed on 17 April, 2021

9 Comments Add yours

  1. Sarah Freda says:

    Deena- It was so insightful listening to how COVID has impacted social media from an art curator’s perspective! What stood out to me was Maggie’s comment on the challenges of writing image captions for social media that are accessible and engaging. I recall from the Exhibition Strategies course the best way to write engaging labels: less than 50 words long with concise sentences and simple vocabulary. However, when I go to art museums I often see either a lengthy, intimidating block of text or simply the title, artist, year, and medium. I’m curious whether art curators who have participated in social media like Maggie have changed their perspective of what an object label should look like? I’d be interested to see people’s perspectives about different works based on descriptions in the gallery versus on social media. What would be your prediction?

  2. deenadeutsch says:

    Hi Sarah — I will be in touch with Maggie soon, and will pass you question along. I’m sure she would be more than happy to elaborate!

  3. Stephanie Ho says:

    Hi Deena,
    This was a really interesting interview. I did not realize the Norton Simon does not have wi-fi!! In this day and age, that is really crazy!! But, definitely, good luck to them to get it installed — especially since I am a huge fan of audio, and I would like to see more audio integrated into museums. I was interested to hear how one of the biggest challenges for the curators is writing short and engaging Instagram captions for objects they “know at a more scholarly level.” At the same time, Maggie pointed to the benefits of digital engagement, in that there can be more text, there can be audio and visitors can zoom in and otherwise manipulate images, to see more of the artwork than they could in person. And, with digital, one theme I’ve heard from several interviewees is that the museum can reach a much more expanded audience than it could in person. My favorite part of what the Norton Simon is doing is the social media effort to ask followers “what is your favorite artwork?” — and then the curators will respond directly. This is a really good way to engage because the museum is not only communicating directly with the person it is responding to, but it’s also showing all of its other followers that it respects people enough to ask for their opinions. And, as Maggie mentioned, it gives the museum more of a human face.

  4. Kenny Clink says:

    Hi Deena,

    I am both surprised and understanding of how the museum does not have Wi-Fi as it makes sense that it would be missing because it might encourage the use of phones in a gallery that may discourage their use, however, it is surprising because it is almost a fundamental piece of interaction today for museums to have free, accessible, Wi-Fi for their guests to use.

    A lot of museums are likely to return to how they were prior to the pandemic and completely abandon any permanent changes to how they create exhibits, I think the hybrid between analog and digital has a huge advantage when it comes to accessibility by allowing those with disabilities and learning disabilities the same experience that would be available in the traditional exhibit.

  5. Hey Deena,

    Great interview! One thing that I took away from the interview was Bell’s outlook on the pandemic. I enjoyed her positive point of view that museums could act as a place of healing for their audience. I think this is a really optimistic way of looking at the pandemic. I also appreciated that she pointed out that even though digital aspects of a museum can allow the visitor to engage more closely, it is not a substitute for the in-person experience.

  6. Mary Trosin says:

    Wow what an interesting background and comparison to Covid-19, I always appreciate when museums can take historical events and relate them to our current circumstances. It’s comforting to know that people have gone through similar experiences on different levels before us in history and have come out on the other side. It’s interesting that she refers to digital being more intimate and I think in some ways this is accurate because the museum is having conversations with people on a more casual platform. On the other hand, I also see in person visits as being intimate but maybe in a more intrapersonal way where the museum is offering the opportunity but less involved in conversation. It’s really nice to hear how digital growth in the past year could lead to more in person visitors and I hope that this is the case for many other museums. I think oftentimes, it can feel like the digital and the analog are competing in museums but really they can be a major support to each other.

  7. Carissa Johnson says:

    Writing an exhibit label is pretty difficult as is, so then having to pivot to instagram captions and other social media content is pretty impressive and commendable. I am so pleased that museums of all types are now forced to have the conversation about the future of their digital content and that many of them are leaning towards it sticking around.

    I was struck that she said that she was in need of WiFi. Is it normal for art museums to not have WiFi or is that a problem set unique to the Norton Simon?

    Great interview, such an effortless conversation between two really knowledgeable women in the museum community. Thank you.

  8. Kristina Zapfe says:

    Such an interesting interview Deena! I like that Maggie made mention of the fact that visitors come to museum environments for ambiance and social engagements in addition to objects themselves. Her emphasis on accessibility and learning about how people utilize the museum through data collection is great way to frame data collection in a more positive light. Sometimes data collection gets a bad reputation through misuse, but using it to engage with audiences and benefit visitors is great to hear.

  9. Jennifer Kimberlin says:

    As much as we have learned about how to make engaging, rewarding digital experiences, its so true that there is no replacement for the meditative (sometimes sacred, even) visit to an actual museum. She mentions the advantage of being able to reach a broader audience – which makes it accessible as well. Covid has made that a revelation and there is really no going back. It’s the norm now and an engaging online experience is expected. Thanks for the interview.

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