03 April 2013

A different point of view

In the novel Fault lines, Kate Wilhelm writes of one character, a photographer, who has a friend pull him around a shopping mall in a small cart so that he can photograph the world from a child's viewpoint. Seen through the eyes of Wilhelm's first person narrator, the resulting photographs are:
...marvelous, and frightening. The world the child sees is different, a scary world of distorted people that changes as adults sit down, or stand up, that makes common buildings with short flights of stairs become imposing, looming structures that threaten to smother a small child. Hallways become nightmares of shadows and distances that seem endless. That explains our own nightmares a bit, I thought, staring down the hallway of the public library that I knew so well, but that was now strange and menacing, caught from this angle, three feet from the floor.
It's an experiment which I have often thought of trying myself ... but, as with so many other things I think that I will do, it has never happened. That hasn't reduced it's hold on my imagination, though.
As a child, I remember wandering around museums. I was very interested in what museums hold, but didn't much like the museums themselves. Not just because they were old, huge, dusty places, but because they withheld from mw what they were supposed to reveal.  A glass topped case of Roman coins which I would have liked to wonder at was placed at the height of my nose ... so all that only reflections of the ceiling were visible to me. I retreated into books, instead, where the roman coins were laid out for me in a way that I could actually see.
Museums have (as I acknowledged a few years ago) changed beyond all recognition since then. Children are invited in to experience materials placed with them in mind. And I applaud the change. I have taken children as young as three or four around museums of all sorts, delighting in their delight at new worlds unfolding, overjoyed to hear them ask for repeated return visits on future occasions.
Art galleries have gone some way in the same direction, but not nearly so far. I have taken the same children to exhibitions of sculpture, conceptual installations, and all sorts of other experiences which they have embraced in myriad ways from which I learnt new worlds in my turn. Two dimensional forms (painting, photography, print making, etc), however, serve children less well.
Geoff, a reader of and occasional commenter upon this blog, is a wheelchair user with “eye level 42 inches from ground”. He recently sent me an email from which I've extracted the following (slightly edited, with his permission):
We went to an exhibition of Wild Life Photographer awards. As usual, many of the photographs were hung so high that I could not appreciate them. The same problem, at the same venue, the same day with the National Portrait Awards exhibition except for the very large paintings.
It is not about me being in a wheel chair – but as much about children.
There were, there on that day, many children who gave an awkward upward glance gave a shrug of disappointment and walked on, eventually giving up and wandered around, seemingly bored.
On a previous visit one of the stewards said that when she takes her grandson he takes his binoculars! On that occasion there was an A4 print at least 12ft from the floor level.
I have noticed, when observing people hanging exhibitions, that they reach up above them to hang the picture. I wonder why? When asked, they do not know.
A polite positive complaint to the venue has no effect whatsoever.
So, please, when visiting an exhibition, if you see the hanging in such a way, perhaps suggest that children are important.
I reckon that exhibitions should be hung my midgets, dwarves and people in wheelchairs.
Large paintings are, as Geoff notes, less of a problem. Walking around the Tate Modern in London, I see children standing for longer periods than most adults, drinking in and puzzling out a Jackson Pollock canvas larger than themselves ... but passing by smaller works without a glance. The difference is that large paintings automatically come down lower, where a child can first of all be drawn them and then actually see them. There is also the fact that large paintings are often not behind glass, so as the child looks up ward from first point of contact s/he does not lose the image in reflections. The smaller images which these children ignore are hung, usually, at an average or tall person's eye height and therefore above that stratum within which a child's world exists.
I don't pretend to know a pat answer to this problem.
Anyone who has been to one of the big blockbuster exhibitions which pull huge crowds, knows why the picture hangers reach above them: it enables more people to see the work, over the heads of the crowds. But that only applies to those of average height or taller. I took ten year old Dan to the big Gauguin, maker of myth show at Tate Modern a couple of years ago and, while the high hanging let me see work which would otherwise have been hidden by the thronging visitors, it was no use to Dan: I had to hold him up so that he could get the same advantage. In the end, he opted for fighting his way to the front of the crowd wherever there was a large piece of work and staying there, ignoring the rest of the exhibition entirely.
When I hang my own exhibitions I tend to hang each image one third above my own eye level, two thirds below. Since my work is usually about A3 sized (roughly 400mm × 250mm or 16ins × 12ins), and my eye level is about 1.63m (that's 64ins, for comparison with Geoff's comment), I am definitely part of this problem which I would like us to address.
What to do?
If I (or anyone else) hung an exhibition at a median eyelevel of one metre or so, it would not solve the problem, it would change it. It would immediately become inaccessible to most visitors – catering to a minority by excluding the majority.
That doesn't, however, mean that nothing should be done. It means that some other answer must be found.
Perhaps there could be special children's exhibitions, as there are children's sections in libraries. While that might be an interesting idea to try out, however, I don't like it as a general solution – it ghettoises rather than including.
Hanging work on multiple levels would be one approach. Some pictures at one metre, some at one point six five or higher. Children and others with a lower viewpoint would be drawn in by different images from those with a majority perspective; both groups would then have to put in a little work to see more.
Another twist on the same theme would be duplication of every image at both levels; but that would involve expense which I don't see artists or curators going for eagerly.
Then there is he possibility of dual floor levels ... a raised walkway in front of exhibited work could allow children, wheelchair users, and anyone else with a lower than average point of view, not only to see the work at its own level but to get in front of the uncaring hordes who so often block them from seeing it at all. I quite like this idea, despite the practical issues (mostly related to health and safety) which occur to me: such issues can, I'm sure, be solved.
A different approach, suggested by a colleague when we discussed this yesterday, would be to have low tables on which reproductions of all exhibits (possibly in book form, possibly as individual cards) are placed for easy browsing. This seems to me a valuable idea but I would prefer to see it as an addition rather than an alternative. On its own, I fear, it would simply relegate children and other low view point visitors to a second class audience which only sees second hand reproduction content. 
I'd be interested to hear your take on this, and your alternative suggestions for tackling what I believe to be a real and important problem. You can, of course, comment to this post ... or, as most of you seem to prefer, write to the email address on the blog masthead.

  • Kate Wilhelm, Fault lines. 1978, London: Hutchinson. 0091325909
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