Exhibits on the Page

Day 12

 Alchemy of the Soul, a book published by the Peabody Essex Museum to accompany the exhibit of the same name by Maria Magdalena Campos-Pons, is on my Catalog of Curiosity list so I can talk about the experience of reading an exhibition catalog. I am a museum professional but my background is history, not art, so in most ways I'm reading it as a layperson. I wrote about the content of the book and exhibit in my previous blog post. Overall, while I loved learning about the exhibit and the artist, reading an exhibit catalog was complicated.

The exhibit moved me enough that I wanted to learn more about it, hence buying the book. However, reading it made me fall in love with Magda Compos-Pons's work. She might be one of my favorite living artists. I wish I could go see the exhibit again, but I started reading soon before it closed, and now it’s too late. I think it would have been amazing to read the catalog first, and then get to see the exhibit it was about. Of course, the key problem with this is that I don’t know what would convince me that a specific exhibit catalog was worth it until I had seen the exhibit -- especially since while the book of Alchemy of the Soul was fairly affordable, exhibit catalogs are often pricey. It’s not surprising, given the number of full-color images they contain.

Another problem that's not easily solvable, given the medium, is that I love to read on the go, which means reading coffee-table books is difficult. But, a smaller book wouldn't have the collectability of its current format, which I imagine motivates some catalog buyers.  

Museums are also looking at questions of cost and convenience to the audience, and of cost to the museum. In fact, if they weren't, I probably wouldn't have been able to get a 100-page, $20 book about this exhibit. However, many museums have been looking at e-books as a solution, as Judith Dobrzynsky described more than five years ago, and I love print books. I hope that the trend veers towards diversity in exhibit publications, and not just streamlining them.

The book Alchemy of the Soul peeking out of a somewhat full cloth bag.

The fact that the scholarly essays in Alchemy of the Soul are written for the layperson rather than for art critics also suggests that the PEM is already on board with the trend of making their publications more user-friendly. A traditional exhibition catalog in an art museum could be 500 pages and so academic as to be unreadable.  

Should you buy an exhibition catalog or coffee table book next time you're in a museum? Maybe. Increasingly, not all catalogs are made alike. Page through it and look at the essays; if they seem readable, it's probably going to be worth your while. If not, perhaps you want a poster of your favorite piece instead.