With widespread concern over “fake news,” it’s more important than ever to question information presented as factual. In that spirit, Milwaukee Institute of Art and Design’s newest gallery exhibit “Just the Facts” wants visitors to use a critical eye for purported factual information presented in museum exhibits.
Open through March 4, “Just the Facts” intends to subvert traditional museum exhibits by highlighting their artificiality. Museum exhibits are, after all, shaped by the curator’s perspectives, the museum’s budget and the historical resources they have available, so, the exhibit argues the information they present is neither neutral nor objective.
“Just the Facts” features work by five renowned artists: sculptor and print-maker Mark Dion; multimedia artist and lithographer Beauvais Lyons; photographer Diane Fox; instillation artist Jennifer Angus and painter; and sculptor and distinguished MIAD alumnus Tony Matelli. All five artists focus on how narratives are presented in natural history and art museums.
“We wanted to draw attention to how we accept the narratives provided by museums at face value, without question,” said Mark Lawson, MIAD’s Director of Galleries and head curator of “Just the Facts.” “Questioning such narratives is so important in our current political climate because we need to be careful consumers of news and media.”
Unlike many museum exhibits, the “Just the Facts’” exhibit space doesn’t offer self-guided tours equipped with arrows and audio commentary. It instead attempts to provide a meta-commentary on the linear museum-exhibit space by letting visitors enter through either of the two entrances.
In perhaps the most memorable section of the exhibit, Lyons’ work showcases an array of imagined ancient species. The most inspired these are the “Ornithological Quadrapeds,” a seven-part series of paintings of tetrapod-reptile crossbreeds, such as the lizard-hawk. Lyons refers to this work as “creative zoology,” using 19th-century printing techniques to parody real 19th century zoologists’ depictions of novel creatures, which incorporates an element of realism.
This realism is where Lyons’ work shines. Stepping into his corner of the exhibit, you can easily imagine that these creatures existed, especially with the help of Lyons’ zoologist-curator persona, Reverend James Randolph Denton. Lyons’ section is complete with a video of a fake history of Reverend Denton and a bull-raccoon hat for visitors to try on. Through Reverend Denton’s real-seeming fake work, Lyons’ wants visitors to question the veracity of exhibits and their curators.
Like Lyons, Matelli’s sculptures successfully attempts to show the self-seriousness that can plague museum curation. The sculptures “Joseph and Jesus,” “Women With Vase,” and “Goddess” are decorated respectively with blackberries, cantaloupe and peas placed on strategic and often amusing parts of the sculptures. It’s hard not to laugh when you see a blackberry sitting on baby Jesus’s head.
Matelli’s sculptures are made of concrete and painted bronze, deliberately weathered to reveal inauthentic metal supports poking through their backs. His most poignant piece is “Hand,” a mounted wall-length mirror covered in a dust-like substance. Standing in front of the mirror, visitors see their reflection and Matelli’s statues looming behind them, the dust representing the biases viewers bring to the museum experience.
A far cry from Lyons’ and Matelli’s absurd pieces is Fox’s photo series, “UnNatural History.” These photographs of natural history museums aim to depict the artificiality of reconstructed “wild” scenes in museums. One especially striking photo features an exhibit filled with ancient ecology with a modern exit sign reflecting through the glass. Dion’s “Brontosaurus” (above) has a similar aim: It’s a dinosaur figure with atop a stand that’s filled with cleaning supplies.
Taken together, the exhibit succeeds in its mission of questioning the subjectivity of museum curation. It leaves visitors with a peculiar sense that things presented as “just the facts” can be far more complicated than they seem.
“Just the Facts” is open Mondays through Saturdays from 10 a.m.-5 p.m. until March 4. Admission is free.