I’ve forgotten how to go to museums — or at least, I’m not good at it anymore. It’s not that I don’t enjoy it, but now that I go to one five days a week for work, I don’t excel at it the way I used to, which makes museum-going as a social activity difficult. As soon as I step through the doors of a museum, my work brain turns on. I start analyzing and critiquing, which makes it kind of hard to enjoy things until I’ve been to said museum two or three times.
Zelda and her brother got to experience this in full force on our short jaunt back to Louisville a couple weeks ago. On Easter Sunday, the three of us went to check out the newly reopened Speed Museum. The Speed had been closed for the larger part of three years while it underwent major renovations, opening back up to the public in March, two weeks before our visit. The renovation gives the museum nearly twice the space it had before and definitely updates its look. This was the art museum I grew up with, the first museum where I had a job (read: unpaid internship, because non-profits), and I owe it a lot. I hadn’t been back since that 2010 internship, and I was excited to see how much it had changed. The answer: a lot.
We entered through the new building, a contemporary-looking concrete and glass structure with sleek finishes and an admissions desk that lit up. We were greeted at the door and given fancy new maps of the layout, in a lovely blue that the Speed seems to have adopted as the new color of their brand (coincidentally, the same color that my current employer is phasing out). Upon this first interaction, my brain automatically went to the work place: I wonder if those are volunteers or paid employees, I wonder what their title is, whose purview are they under: Visitors Services, Engagement, Security? My first job at my current institution involved greeting people, so I know how sucky a job it can be for long periods of time. Because of this, I try to go out of my way to genuinely talk to people who are greeting me, because I know how much a legitimate human interaction can brighten up your entire day. It’s the same reason that once you’ve been a server, you are automatically nice to other servers: You’ve been in their shoes. You know where the blisters start.
So we’re three steps into the museum, and I’m already thinking about work. We came on a Sunday, which (thanks to a hefty donation by the Brown family, basically the Mafia of the Ville) meant it was free. Honestly, I was a teensy bit disappointed, because I really like flashing my museum badge to get free admission. Museum employees have each other’s backs! But for the most part I was thrilled because FREE MUSEUMS ARE AMAZING. Everyone should get to see art. Everyone.
As we made our way to the permanent collection, I still found myself comparing and contrasting in my head. The first two galleries in the new layout are themed “Discovery” and feature pieces from each of the collections that will be given more context later — a sort of visual introduction to the Museum. This isn’t uncommon in encyclopedic museums, but I think it works best in a museum of the Speed’s size. My own institution does it, but it’s almost too much at first, so it overwhelms rather than informs or contextualizes. At the Speed, the Discovery galleries give the casual visitor an idea of the collection, and allow a more art-experienced visitor to make cross-collection connections. Plus, it highlights objects that might otherwise be overlooked; placing things out of context is often a good way to engage visitors more.
The collection is wonderfully highlighted in the new space, and there is a noticeable effort to get visitors making connections with the art. In addition to including and highlighting their non-Western art (an area where many American museums, and art history in general, fall by the wayside), there’s also an effort to engage art on a local level. The museum includes a “Kentucky Collection,” which highlights the history and culture of the state, encouraging visitors to see the scope and importance of art on the local and global level.
I also appreciated the amount of information the visitors are given. There’s a lot of opinions about museum wall labels (I know right? Those little placards on the wall next to paintings? The ones you skim over, if you read them at all? A lot of work goes into what those should say and precisely how much they should say.). A lot of people think that labels should be minimal, allowing visitors to interpret the art in their own way. But this often gets pushed to an extreme where visitors aren’t given enough information to stay engaged. I appreciated that the Speed didn’t venture too far one way or the other. Some objects were given additional information to help visitors contextualize the whole gallery, but we weren’t inundated with unnecessary information, or subjective opinions.
Where the renovation shines is in the new contemporary galleries, with a ton of space for some of the collection’s amazing works from more recent times. The contemporary works are housed entirely in the new 62,500-square foot north building. The sleek modern space, designed by Thai architect Kulapat Yantrasast of wHY architecture, allows the contemporary collection the space to shine and lets the form of the museum complement the art that’s inside it. It’s here that we (figuratively) met our new favorite art patron, the Reverend Al Shands, whose name graced every other wall label with promised gifts to the museum (and prompted a quick Google search to find out just who this generous dude was — a story worthy of its own post).
As for me, still in work mode, I could only marvel at the basically empty first floor of the north building and think, this is a killer event space, they’re going to do so well with this –also those benches are awesome…am I the only person who notices benches in museums? To be fair, the benches were really cool, especially if you’re someone who’s had to deal with both patrons complaining that there’s nowhere to sit and and museum professionals complaining that the benches aren’t the right aesthetic. I love a healthy balance that way, and the Speed nailed it. We spent a few minutes imagining what it might have been like to have prom in the space before we headed to the small gift shop (a bit disappointing, and lacking in both bumper stickers and magnets, which were what we were after). After that, it was a quick hop, skip, and a car ride to coffee and chocolate chip cookies. We may have only been home for 24 hours, but Please and Thank You is not to be missed.
All in all, I am so excited about the new Speed. The renovation has brought life back into a place I loved when I was younger, and is getting even more people engaged in art. My only big complaint? The photography policy is super confusing, and not clearly labeled or explicitly explained on the wall labels or really in the map. But aside from that, it was an overwhelmingly positive experience, much to my pleasant surprise. I was a little bummed we didn’t have time to check out the new and improved education center, but there’s always time to go back. I can’t wait to see what else is in store for this place and what it will bring to my home. After an afternoon well spent, we headed out into the bright sunshine with smiles, a sense of discovery, and as many informational pamphlets as fit in my purse…you know, for research.