Karol Wight took the reins as executive director of The Corning Museum of Glass at exactly 8 AM on August 15th, 2011. But she had already arrived in the town of Corning, New York, weeks earlier with her family to set up their new home. She is grateful to have had extra time to reorient to the culture and climate of Western New York state from Los Angeles, where she had been the senior curator of antiquities at the Getty Villa. Among other things, she had enrolled her children in school well before starting her duties at The Corning Museum for a simple reason: “I knew once I got started I wouldn’t have time to do anything else,” she told the GLASS Quarterly Hot Sheet in an in-person interview earlier this month at the museum’s cafe.
While Wight may have moved across the country for her new job, she was well-acquainted with the institution she is now leading. During her doctoral studies in art history at UCLA, she assembled a committee of experts chaired by Corning Museum’s outgoing executive director, David Whitehouse, because her topic was ancient Roman glass, a subject in which she remains an established scholar. Wight was also chosen as the courier to accompany the priceless Roman cameo glass vessels the Getty loaned to the Corning Museum of Glass for the 1987 exhibition “Glass of the Caesers,” just one of many ongoing connections between the institutions.
Though her credentials and experience as a curator of ancient glass have been well established, those who imagine her approach to museums might reflect an overly academic and dry approach of a stereotypical antiquities expert would be wrong. “For the ancient world and Classical world is the foundation of much of contemporary culture,” Wight answered when asked this question directly. “You can always make links between present and past through literature, and through works of art. The links are always there.”
But there’s another way that Wight brings a highly contemporary approach to museums. Because a lengthy legal battle held up the renovation and expansion of the Getty Villa, in Malibu, California, there was a four-year delay before the institution officially opened. The curators took the time as an opportunity to carefully test their exhibition premises. While squarely focused on the cultures of ancient Greece, Rome and Etruria (a region of Central Italy with a distinct ancient culture that had a strong influence on the Romans), the exhibition is arranged thematically, partly the result of the collection itself which is not a comprehensive chronological collection. The objects are are often displayed grouped together across centuries, and the juxtapositions bring out key understanding about the variety of cultural approaches and the way traditions changed across time. It also keeps the focus on the objects themselves, while supplementing them with layers of additional information through interactive video screens and unobtrusive wall texts. The exhibition opened to strong reviews and has widely been considered a success.
Wight calls the long delay as the legal battle with the Villa’s neighbors played out as an unexpected but much-appreciated “gift of time.”
The Villa renovation project was a huge museum-education lab. We had the opportunity to reinstall the antiquities collection in a museum building dedicated to ancient art and figure out how to do that best. It became an evolving lab of antiquities display–we had a huge team of people working on it that included the education and design departments working closely with the curatorial department. We brought in focus groups to see if our theories of didactics were going to work or not. In the end we had a well-defined and developed program, and we all sat down to write the Web text and panels simultaneously. It was a fabulous experience.
Asked how this experience might inform her approach to the Corning Museum exhibitions, updating the exhibition approach of the institution she is taking over was clearly on her mind.
What I want to do over the next year is to make a thoughtful assessment of our current displays. We’re not in a position to make radical changes in the galleries, and I’m not thinking of a major overhaul of the space, but possibly to rethink the displays a little bit. We need to ask ourselves do we think they’re working, is there a different way to label the collections, where could we most effectively insert technology, and what would those technologies be?
Wight says nothing like the long closure and reopening of the Villa is possible for The Corning Museum, but she is considering incremental ways to budget time and resources toward updating the presentation of artwork at the museum, starting with the ancient glass exhibitions and “seeing where it takes us as a curatorial team.” The goal is “a more coherent presentation,” according to Wight.
In the quest to make museums more visitor-friendly, there is some concern that exhibitions might become less scholarly in the push to make them accessible, a risk when interactive bells and whistles compete with carefully composed wall texts. But Wight dismisses such concerns that an embrace of technology means a lessening of scholarship. She cites her experience at the Getty Villa as an example.
I think this is a fallacy of curatorial work, the fear of “dumbing down.” There’s no need to dumb down. Yes, you can use simpler words to say it, but you’re not dumbing down the idea. I’ve been very interested to ask the curators, who is your audience? At the Getty, we spent a lot of time determining that our audience was a college-educated nonspecialist, not necessarily extremely knowledgeable about the antiquities. Here at Corning, we’ve been writing to an 8th-grade level. But I wanted to know who determined that. It’s a question nobody had asked, even though that’s not exactly who our visitor is. I always want to reassess things.
While she may be ready to examine some of the business as usual at Corning, she is also quick to praise the many accomplishments of the entire museum staff, who have done much to embrace new technology, starting with a complete redesign of the museum’s Website that will go live in early 2012. She cites the live streaming of glass demonstrations that at one point had 450 viewers from seven different countries.
Other ongoing programs she cites with satisfaction are GlassLab, Corning’s outreach to the design world with a mobile hotshop it’s been setting up at design fairs and academic programs; the recent renewal of the contract by Celebrity cruise lines, where three vessels feature a working Corning hot shop with live glassblowing activities to enlighten passengers; and the “Make Your Own Glass” experiences the museum offers to complete the experience of glass for visitors.
Wight is especially impressed with how The Corning Museum attendance is holding strong even as other cultural institutions have faced steep drops in their visitor numbers. “At the Villa, visitorship is down something like 20 percent, as it is around the country,” she says. “Visitor numbers at Corning are holding, even exceeding last year’s visitation.” She cites the impact of the tour companies for helping to improve the already impressive numbers. “Our family visitors are spending a minimum of four hours here,” she continues. “That means they’re doing all the activities, they’re viewing our collections, eating, shopping, and playing with the interactive exhibitions. It’s fantastic.”