Two Empty Rooms, Memphis, Tennessee
By Benjamin Craig
I have this problem not just at galleries, but at many museums. I see others succumb to it too—moving from one piece to the next, reading about each, mentally noting the artist, the year, the medium, sometimes a bit more. I see visitors carefully reading plaques, in fact, more often than I see them admiring the art the plaques describe.
Designing an exhibit must be difficult. Many collections, shows, or individual pieces warrant some explication or context—so, the plaques. But the design of many rooms suggests a way of moving from piece to piece, which my mind (and I think this is a general human way of sorting things) organizes into a narrative. And once I’m in a narrative frame, I go to the text.
About a year after that photo was taken, my wife and I took a trip around the southern U.S. We made a stop at the Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. The Civil Rights Museum isn’t a perfect analogy for a gallery or an art museum, because much of it is designed precisely to communicate a narrative. Many exhibits are made up primarily of plaques, arranged in chronological order, with artifacts placed as details supporting the narrative. Visitors move along a prescribed path, and the story unfolds. It works.
The museum is located inside the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while standing on a second-floor balcony just outside his room. Much of the hotel has been renovated to better suit its purpose as a museum, and before visitors make it to the second-floor hallway, they follow a bread-trail of plaques. The story of King’s assassination unfolds in text and artifacts, newspaper clippings and audio recordings.
When visitors enter the small second-floor hallway, though, all of that—plaques, words, provided narrative—disappears. King’s room and the room across the hall from it have been preserved, the hallway walls replaced with glass so that visitors can see in, and at the end of the hallway is a window where visitors can look out onto the balcony and see the spot where King stood when he was shot.
The transition from reading to looking is jarring. The empty rooms, the view of the balcony, and the glass that separates you from those quiet places but allows you to see them, are all presented without comment. You change gears. You look. And it is heartbreaking.
Benjamin Craig is the magazine's managing editor. In October, he wrote about Woody Allen and the film Love and Death.