“I think people don’t understand museums,” says Tim White, an exhibitions installer for the Weisman Art Museum. “The galleries, the work you see at any given time — that’s just a small part of what a museum does.” A museum’s duties, he says, are as much about archival as they are presentation of work; like a library, one of a museum’s central missions is keeping and maintaining cultural treasures for the public trust.
White leads me downstairs in the freight elevator, where we poke around a bit in an area the public usually can’t see, the warren of storage and work rooms in the Weisman’s expansive basement, where a portion of the museum’s collection of more than 17,000 works is stored (still more is held in storage off-site, as is the case with most museums).
It’s boggling to be down there — shelves upon shelves, floor to ceiling, filled to capacity with strange and wonderful objects: Asian china and ornate sculptural forms, stacks of contemporary prints and, then, we come to the furniture.
White’s been talking with me about the museum’s understated new show, drawn from their outstanding permanent collection of Korean furniture — “A Reverence for Materials: Woodworkers Look at Traditional Korean Furniture.” He’s showing me some of the opulently decorated North Korean pieces that didn’t make it into the exhibition.
“A Reverence for Materials” is unusual as much for its angle of approach and method of curation as for its subject matter. Christopher James, communications director for the museum, says “With the American Craft Council presenting a big conference here in October, [Director and Chief Curator] Lyndel King said, ‘Let’s give them something to see,’ and show some work geared specifically to craftspeople.”
With that in mind, King asked three members of the Weisman’s installation crew – Mark Kramer, Tim White and Joel Schwarz – to curate a small exhibit, drawn from the permanent collection showcasing the fine craftsmanship, specifically the joinery and woodworking skill, that’s a hallmark of South Korean artisanal furniture design.
White says, “We didn’t miss a beat when she asked us — over the years, as we’ve installed other exhibitions using pieces of Korean furniture from the collection, we’ve all found favorites.” He says with a smile, “The hard part was narrowing them down to just a few pieces.”
For the exhibition, Kramer, White and Schwarz decided to go with work in the South Korean style, which, unlike its counterpart tradition in the north, eschews elaborate ornamentation in favor of “letting the natural beauty of the wood speak for itself,” White tells me. Craftspeople working in the wooded southern regions have a varied abundance of lumber from which to choose; those in the northern part of the country don’t have that kind of selection, so they usually work from simple pine and dress it up with ornate metalwork and engraving, he says.
The wood used for these South Korean pieces is, indeed, organically lovely; the graceful proportions and clean-lined designs are also immediately pleasing. But the curators, all woodworkers themselves, are primarily calling your attention to the virtuosity of the handiwork in these furnishings.
In their selections, the Weisman’s woodworking curators point you to all the things usually unremarked by the uninitiated. “Look here: Notice the joinery of this piece – it’s so finely done as to be nearly invisible to the eye. And check out the way this craftsman uses a visible mortise and tenon as a prominent design element. And over there: Can you believe the artisan found — much less dared to fashion this way — pear wood so thick and expensive? There’s a sly craftsman-to-craftsman chest-thumping going on in that one.”
It’s as if you’re privy, for a moment, to shop-talk across oceans and time, spoken in the language of shared craft and skill. I can’t think of a more engaging way to invite us, the public, into a new appreciation of these rarely seen, less showy treasures.
“Reverence for Materials: Woodworkers Look at Traditional Korean Furniture” will be on view in the Weisman Art Museum in Minneapolis through Feb. 7, 2010.