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The Radeke Restoration Project

The Rhode Island School of Design Museum, Providence.
June 12, 2014

With the opening of the Donghia Costume and Textile Gallery and rooms that house collections of Asian and Middle Eastern art, the RISD Museum wrapped up an $8.4 million renovation and modernization process begun in 2006.

So, on a warm Thursday evening, museum members were invited to visit rooms closed to us for more than a year. We walked through newly organized, climate-controlled, neatly detailed spaces. Prosecco and hors d’oeuvres were served in the stairwell, under the renovated laylight. (No food or drink in the galleries, please.)

The highlight of the evening, and the purpose of the event, was a series of descriptive talks given by members of the curatorial staff. Here, the logic behind the organization of the collections and the display of objects was presented. Keep in mind that RISD is a design school, with a museum attached. And here, in the museum galleries, filled with objects made by past artists and designers, pedagogy is paramount. “Art in the new galleries,” says Sarah Ganz Blythe, the museum’s director of education, “is arranged in such a way that the role of the artist and the act of making take center stage.”

Dale Chihuly (RISD MFA Ceramics, 1968), Gilded Frost and Jet Chandelier, 2008. Helen M. Danforth Acquisition Fund and gift of Chihuly Studio. Courtesy of the RISD Museum, Providence, RI.

So the emphasis is on materials and on historic art, traditional questions, and possible modern answers. An example: In a small case in the center of a room filled with Egyptian artifacts are five small objects, each representing a different material and craft. (An ancient paint box is one.) This display is an introduction to the art around it, intended to demystify the creative process for the RISD students who visit and who will all face the same problems in one way or another.

Perhaps the most enjoyable moment of the evening occurred during a discussion of a newly displayed Egyptian mummy case, its provenance (the mummy’s grandfather is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art), and its location in the room. Pointing to a lighting fixture in the hallway made by former RISD student and teacher Dale Chihuly that appears to be an enormous, writhing nest of asps, the curator ended his talk. As finally positioned, the objects were engaged in a dialogue, the ancient with the modern. One could almost hear Indiana Jones saying: “Snakes. Why’d it have to be snakes?”