The Barnes Foundation - interior picture

Barnes Foundation – review

Futuristic, bureaucratic, impersonal, institutional, and international in that placeless Bauhaus manner, the Barnes Foundation in its current reinterpretation is far removed from what I imagine to be its original homey setting. I can understand immediately as approaching the sleekly mod designed structure why there was so much controversy surrounding the move of this collection. The new entrance exudes more of a sense of a mausoleum than a private home, as the works were originally housed. I’m one paragraph in and have yet to even discuss the art, and that gets at the root of the issue I held with the Barnes Foundation. The architecture, the back story, the sense of discontent, all overpower and take the floor over the art.

The entry process was overly complicated and unfriendly. The mandatory coat check forced you further down into the building away form the art and toward the gift shop. It was a full fifteen minutes before even stepping foot into an actual gallery. Not that it ultimately mattered; the whole time you are tantalized by the beautifully stunning architecture. After walking through the modern grand hall on the main level that absorbed all sound and footsteps into an ambient otherworldly din, I was greeted by slim and minimal display cases in a side gallery. It consisted of a variety of objects: archival works on paper, photographs, and household decorative items. I particularly liked the graphic treatment on the walls that displayed greatly enlarged newspaper articles applied in a ghostlike silhouette. “Experiment in Education” was the title of that newspaper and caused me to realize that I had been walking around viewing objects for several minutes now and still had no clue as to what the topic of the exhibit was. I had to circle back around to read the minuscule intro panel on the backside of the wall at the entrance. I am someone who likes to dive into an exhibit first and then go back to read the curatorial voice. This exhibit is confusing and haphazard without that guidance first. It ends up that this particular exhibition is entitled “The Ensembles” and is a collection of the history and select property of Mr. Barnes. Feeling generally satisfied with the design, but questioning the delivery, I move on to the main portion of the museum housing the permanent collection.

I feel claustrophobic. The first room is cramped, yet hushed, with people donning audio tour headphones walking around like zombies. No didactics or intro panels explain what to expect. Knowing that this is supposed to be a reproduction of the Barnes’ residence, I wonder just how closely they reproduce his interior. Are these the original wall colors? The same object placement? The same distance between walls? I sit on a bench in the middle of the room to rest and stumble upon a booklet guide inserted into a builtin placeholder. Within, thumbnails of the art along with title, artist name, and date are printed. I appreciate the skied displays of art, but the randomly placed door hooks surrounding the works threw me off. The materiality of the place made an impact and reinforced the maze like arrangement of rooms and works. It was like walking through someone’s thoughts or dreams as they flip through an art history book.

The “reproduction rooms” are rather abruptly punctuated by mod hallways and sitting chambers that remind you of the artificial nature of the artistic transplant at the Barnes. They give the whole space and experience a sense of timelessness, but also generic alienation, as if in a sterile viewing lab. The loving, personal touch of the individual’s story is lost. You no longer feel the connection that a real person lived, had meaningful attachments to these specific pieces, was moved to acquire them, and then arrange them in his own fancy to display to the public. You could plop this museum down anywhere. The comfort and love of a home has been siphoned out, replaced with the rationalized gratification of über-sexy aestheticizing titillation.

It is also quite repetitive. Room after room, you view the same set up of similar objects. With the skying of the objects, it becomes more about the setting, than the individual pieces. Essentially one leaves with whatever knowledge she brings with her. This really is art for art’s sake. It is a quiet time of reflection – aesthetics, design, composition, curiosity of subject matter. This key point is what ultimately won me over. It was refreshing finding myself stripped away from the outside world in this art-focused laboratory. The booklets in a way made the whole thing a scavenger hunt and the enshrined rooms made the visitors part of the performance art of the experience.

Does the history of the collection eclipse the art? Or is it the big draw? The collection is quite stellar; big names and famous pieces all democratically given similar treatment. I personally admired the wide array of modernist works on the upper level. Barnes was clearly on the forefront of the movement, collecting paintings as well as the African masks, Yoruba stools, Benin bronzes, and wooden Igbo twin statues that inspired those works.

Ultimately, a large risk was taken with moving into a new building with a daring design and reinterpretation of a collection that was dictated to remain in situ. People generally abhor change and to make such a drastic shift was a brazen gamble – one that apparently paid off in terms of visitation numbers. There is still plenty of discourse about the move with strong opinions dividing critics into two polarized camps, but when is such attention ever bad thing for a museum seeking to remain relevant to its community?

Having never had the opportunity to visit the original house, I would be very interested to hear the opinions of those who have visited both.