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  • Paris Myers

The Benton County Museum and Kynaston McShine’s Muse

Can bodies of artwork have expiration dates? Does anything ever become irrelevant, or does everything in the collection always have value? The introduction fromThe Museum as Muse: Artists Reflects by Kynaston Mcshine begins by discussing their personal experience working in a museum: the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York City. Mcshine remarks on how they (the museum staff) regularly witness the museum’s exhibitions being reflected in contemporary artworks (pg. 491). This sentiment opens up a larger discussion of the unbalanced nature of the relationship between museums and artists, and how “artists have studied every aspect of the museum, as if anatomizing an organism” (pg. 491).

Unlike the major “survey” museums that McShine discusses, such as The Metropolitan Museum of Art and MOMA in New York, the Benton County Museum in Philomath, Oregon, is old, and focuses on targeting a very specific region and local population. The architecture is not lavish, and the building as a whole is spatially awkward but contextually comfortable for the objects housed within it.

What does it mean to be the only museum in a county? What kind of responsibility does the curator have to the public? How do exhibits and objects get different kinds of meaning depending on where they are?Currently, at the Benton County Museum, the main floor gallery is a year-long exhibition titled Circa 1920: Roaring Into The Modern Age. This exhibition acts as an opportunity for museum goers to compare and contrast life 100 years in the past to the present. The items presented are from the museum’s permanent collection.

McShine boldly states that “What is not on display in the museum is as crucial to it as what is…” (pg. 496). This sentiment resonates incredibly with the Benton County Museum, where for decades they have had only one main display room.

In contrast to its main-floor, permanent collection exhibitions, the Benton Museum has a second gallery, which often features living artists. Most recently, Philomath Open Studios: The Exhibition, was featured, from Sept. 27 – Nov. 9, 2019. Is there value added by having the “newer work” upstairs and the historical work on the main floor of the museum?

Additionally, McShine notes how there is a discussion that occurs organically between the museum and the artist. In retaliation, artists have purposely made works that are either “...due to their size, ephemeral materials, or location, are not collectible nub museums…” (pg. 493). However, many of the permanent collection objects housed at the Benton Museum were never intended to be displayed in a formal sense. They are objects of function, of pleasure, of past reality. They were not self aware in the way that contemporary art often is. But in the case of the Benton County’s exhibition of the1920s, there are no living craftspeople or working class or youth or artisans living to challenge the museum’s presentation of that decade. The conversational tone that takes place about the 1920s relies completely on the museum’s presentation of its collection.

In order for an institution to examine itself and grow, there has to be a certain level of removal and certain level of connection back to the initial community. Rather, there is a responsibility to remove oneself from a point and time and a responsibility to connect back to it. McShine emphasizes how the general public savors how museums have “...basically a settled nature:the artworks have their more-or-less fixed place” (pg. 496), but in the next year, this historical Benton County Museum will shift its permanent collection into a brand new, contemporary home in the heart of Corvallis, Oregon’s downtown.

I am incredibly curious to see if the prestigious architecture of the new building impacts the public in a negative or positive way with respect to the collection’s reorientation. Additionally, how will moving their permanent collection from a historical structure to a modern one change the way in which the museum is seen as accessible or inaccessible? Who is now allowed entry, and who feels excluded?

In my honest opinion and experience, the historical architecture always made the items feel too accessible. Too close to reality. There was a sense of suffocation about the exhibits rather than the usual expansiveness—both physically and mentally—that larger museums pride themselves on. Perhaps, the permanent collection of the Benton Historical Society will now be viewed as proper, artful exhibition instead of a forced gathering of previously common things. Perhaps, the spatial effects of a new building for the Benton Historical Center will be a catalyst for a healthy sense of questioning and compassion between past and current—sparking conversation that allows for new connection points in the minds of community members.

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