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.
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