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The Marvelous Museum: A Project by Mark Dion

With his series of artistic interventions in the newly re-installed Gallery of California Art at the Oakland Museum of California (OMCA), Mark Dion posits that a museum is a dynamic site, the history of which is as worthy of investigation as the didactic exhibitions on view there. In The Marvelous Museum, Dion has carefully selected pieces from the museum's permanent collection that might not otherwise be seen and placed them around the gallery, highlighting connections between science, history, and art. By juxtaposing these orphaned objects within a larger exhibition, Dion focuses viewers' attention on the story behind the museum's collection itself, pulling back the curtain to reveal what goes on behind the scenes.

OMCA's Gallery of California traces the story of the landscape, history, and culture of the state. Through this, Dion weaves a secondary narrative focused on OMCA's vast collection that is often unrelated to the themes in the main show. In doing so, he illuminates the role that curators play in making sense out of a vast array of artifacts and objects. Most of the interventions that Dion has orchestrated are on view throughout the Gallery of California. Objects in storage crates with accompanying classification tags highlight the double identities they assume when they enter the collection.

Dion has made his selections with an eye toward both the aesthetic and cultural connections between the works and those surrounding them. Some noticeably stand out, others blend in, and it is only with careful scrutiny that their identity as interlopers becomes apparent. A stuffed two-day-old baby giraffe stands next to a nineteenth-century sculpture of Venus, raising questions about the nature of portraiture. An architectural element made of thick rope stands amidst a room of outsider art, looking perfectly at home were it not for the packing crate in which it sits. Dion draws similar aesthetic connections between an electrical insulating column placed in a room of ceramics by artists such as Robert Arneson and Peter Voulkos. Sharing a similar material as these works and placed in proximity to them, the column's formal beauty stands out more than its utilitarian function.


Architectural fragment from the Tubbs Cordage Co. building at the Panama Pacific International Exposition, 1915; Courtesy of the Oakland Museum of California. Photo: David Maisel.

In a room of 1960s minimalist artworks, Dion has placed a natural-history exhibit consisting of a cube of earth, which enters into a playful dialogue with a nearby pristine glass cube by Larry Bell. The comparison draws attention to the man-made quality of this seemingly "natural" work. Lastly, a set of drawers full of '60s political and counterculture ephemera adds context to a room filled with like-minded art of the period. Part of the joy of the exhibition is in seeking out Dion's orphans on one's own, as he strives to recover a sense of wonder that has perhaps become conspicuously absent in museums.

Dion has also created two installations that literally display the inner working of the museum. First, he has re-created three curator's desks: a nineteenth-century naturalist's, a 1976 historian's, and a contemporary art curator's (modeled on the desk of OMCA's own René de Guzman, who has been seen to sit in the installation from time to time). These desks illustrate the changing role of the curator -- from organizer of scientific knowledge to arbiter of high culture. Indeed, the museum's collections, assembled over decades, also reflect this evolving role, and hidden in a back corner of the exhibition is another installation that re-creates a museum storage room. Half-opened crates fill the center of the room, while mismatched oddities sit side by side in a storage cage: a stuffed bird next to historical examples of chairs next to a mounted set of walrus tusks. For children, this room conjures up thrills akin to the classic young adult novel From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler, while for cultured museum-goers, it illustrates just how important a curator's role is in shaping an exhibition from unordered objects.1

Another part of The Marvelous Museum that bears mention is its catalogue; more than simply a portable compendium of the works on display, it is designed to resemble a crate and features the many objects than weren't included in the actual exhibition. It also goes into greater depth about the development of the collection and the process of selecting the works from a pool of almost two million, revealing to viewers a glimpse of the making of an exhibition about making exhibitions.

The Marvelous Museum: A Project by Mark Dion is on view at the Oakland Museum of California through March 6, 2011. For more information visit museumca.org.

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NOTES:

1. E.L. Konigsburg. From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (New York: Atheneum Press, 1967).

This article was originally published by Art Practical, an online magazine providing comprehensive analysis of Bay Area visual arts events and exhibitions.

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