It’s perhaps inevitable that the museum, that carefully curated and guarded space for seeing and exploring, would become a favorite subject of examination in its own right.
But in several recent works, photographers who have turned their attention to museums have highlighted not what’s immediately viewable, but what’s just out of sight. In his series Skeletons in the Closet, 2014, Klaus Pichler photographed the uncanny scenes found in off-limits corridors and workshops at Vienna’s Museum of Natural History. As part of his series Animal Logic, 2010, Richard Barnes often photographed natural history exhibits as they were being assembled. Alec Soth, meanwhile, focused on guards, those largely unseen but vital guardians of culture, in front of their favorite pieces at the Minneapolis Institute of Art for the museum’s anthology, The Art of Wonder, 2014.
The desire to have a look behind the curtain likely drew many visitors this spring to the Met Breuer for Unfinished: Thoughts Left Visible, featuring works left incomplete. Who can blame them? People are inquisitive, and we always want to see how the sausage—so to speak—is made.
Voyeurs have further reason to celebrate, for now there is Mauro Fiorese’s Treasure Rooms, on view at Robert Mann Gallery through October 22, which looks at the places, rarely if ever seen by the public, where some of Italyʼs most prominent museums store their art collections. The curiosity, in this case, is surely rewarded. Fiorese’s photographs, even in the most colorless rooms, are visually rich and endlessly interesting.
In the Museo dʼArte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Roverteto’s monochromatic vault, he strategically places, in the right corner of the frame, a black-and-white photograph of a man peeking behind a wall. A similar scheme works in a photo of Rome’s National Gallery of Modern Art, where a painting of a woman looking in the direction of Fiorese’s lens lends humanity and narrative to an otherwise unpeopled and unremarkable room where artworks are stocked clinically, like books or shoes.
Not all are as sterile. Sometimes, Fiorese’s treasure rooms look just like the cluttered, magical chambers of the imagination. In the Naples National Archaeological Museum, statues of various sizes and styles lay strewn about like hastily abandoned ruins.
All of these photographs inherently question the way we view and value art, but some are more explicit than others. In another photograph from the National Gallery of Modern Art, Fiorese finds a downright surreal section where frames of diminishing size are hung within each other, like Russian nesting dolls. Frames, of course, are the structures that surround and enclose art. So, too, are museums. In this photo, and in the rest of his series, Fiorese cleverly takes apart and analyzes the construction.