I’ve been to Philadelphia 2 times. The first time was to visit The Barnes Foundation in Merion and The Philadelphia Museum of Art. The second time was a repeat of the first just 5 or 6 years later. The after the opening of The Met’s show African Art, New York and the Avant-Garde it was off to Philadelphia with a group from the Brooklyn Museum who are interested in African art.
We received a private tour from the Deputy Director/Chief Curator of the new Barnes Foundation. I understand both sides of the Don’t Move the Barnes vs. Move the Barnes argument. Seeing the collection in Merion was special. The building sits in an arboretum which Mrs. Barnes maintained and cultivated. Inside Dr. Barnes installed his paintings, drawings, furniture, iron work, African art and sculpture in ensembles (a term he used to describe each wall of the galleries and what he had arranged on it) that supported his theories on art. The special feeling I felt had everything to do with the collection but also the amount of planning and travel that went into it. There’s an element of The Morgan Library or The Frick Collection to it as you’re entering a space conceived specifically by the collector to show off their treasure.
Over the Summer I happened to watch a PBS special (entire special here) on Barnes and the construction of the new Barnes Foundation. It discussed what the architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams put into their design technically, but how they wanted to design something in tune with what Barnes wanted. I was impressed and so were the construction workers who all seemed amazed with the engineering, methods and materials that went into it. What surprised me the most was how meticulous the museum staff was in recreating the installations of each gallery in the new building. They measured the position of each painting to 1/16th of an inch before it was all packed to move to Philadelphia. I loved seeing the maps of each wall they made as they recorded the measurements.
The Barnes Foundation in its new home is spectacular. The lighting is better, the building is beautiful and now people can really see the collection. Barnes billed himself as an educator and his mission continues in an outstanding way. They’re currently working on a catalog of the African art to complement the existing catalogs of the collection. Yeah!
After the Barnes we went to the Penn Museum or the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology to see their African art storage and galleries. Once again no pictures allowed but they have a large collection (15,000 ethnographic and 5,000 archaeological) of historic pieces collected between 1891 and 1937. This is remarkable. Like a lot of museums they lack the funding to display a lot of it so what you see in the galleries is a small helping. Going to the storage area was fun. They have the moving stacks or shelves that with just a twist of a lever slide in and out-of-place. If there’s something you want to see you simply go to the website, get the information on the piece, get in touch and they’ll show it to you. Love it. They are a teaching collection so it makes sense. A few days after the trip to Philly there was an article about the Penn Museum and their efforts to get the public in there. Go Penn Museum!
Since I was unable to take any pictures of the art we saw here are some moody pictures of Philadelphia.