September 11, 2010–March 6, 2011 – Oakland Museum of California
For his latest project, conceptual artist Mark Dion has embarked on an unprecedented expedition through the Oakland Museum of California’s art, history, and natural science collections to create multiple site-specific installations and interventions throughout its art galleries, drawing upon the overlooked orphans, curiosities, and treasures from the collections. The Marvelous Museum includes objects that date back to OMCA’s predecessor institutions and, while they often lie outside of OMCA’s California focus, still tell a rich and interesting story of how museum collections are assembled over time and how curators and museum visitors engage in an often invisible and silent dialog about the nature of art, history and science. OMCA Senior Curator of Art René de Guzman will curate this first major West Coast presentation of Dion’s work, which will be accompanied by a publication by Chronicle Books in partnership with The Believer magazine. The book itself, like many of Dion’s artworks, is a compendium of oddities and discoveries featuring an in-depth interview with the artist by Lawrence Weschler, photographs by David Maisel, and writings by a range of cultural and art historians.

The Marvelous Museum comprises two discrete installations and 18 interventions for which Dion has selected a variety of objects, exploring the Museum’s collections over a period of two years and drawing on a pool of close to two million items in storage. Dion refers to these items as “orphans” because they are “objects that no longer fit the museum’s mission or curatorial mandate, which, as times have changed, left lots of things high and dry.” The objects he has chosen present what he calls a “comical/critical foil” that illuminates the history of OMCA in visually and philosophically compelling ways. Says Dion, “Museum visitors just see just the tip of the iceberg––museums are dynamic places; battlefields for ideas.” The Marvelous Museum provides a provocative glimpse into the museum behind the museum. Says de Guzman, “Dion advances our goal of dynamic collections galleries, and just when OMCA has retooled for the future, The Marvelous Museum celebrates our wondrous past.”

The interventions explore the nature of museums and public presentation, the history and purposes of collections and exhibitions and are intended to create an internal dialog in visitors as they contemplate thematic juxtapositions of art, history, and science. Examples include surprising and intriguing placements such as a large stone coin from the Island of Yap in the Art of the Gold Rush Gallery amid 19th century landscape paintings and daguerreotypes; a taxidermy baby giraffe in the California People Gallery surrounded by figures and portraits by Viola Frey, Dorothea Lange, David Park, Carrie Mae Weems and others; a drawer of police batons and Republican campaign materials in the Counter Culture Gallery, and more.

In one dedicated gallery, Dion will also create an installation of three iconic museum staff offices that reveal the theories and mechanics of how museums operate. These vignettes include a 19th-century natural sciences curator’s office filled with unusual biological specimens, art and paraphernalia; a history registrar’s office from 1976, the year of the US bicentennial celebration and a point at which America re-assessed its history; and a contemporary art curator’s office from which curator René de Guzman will work in public view during the exhibition. In this space, the environs of museum staff that usually create exhibitions themselves become the presentations. A second gallery will house a dense collection of exemplary artifacts and storage materials in an installation that simulates the fascinating behind-the-scenes Museum processing rooms and collections storage areas that are rarely seen by the public.

Says Lori Fogarty, Executive Director of the Oakland Museum of California, “Mark Dion’s project aligns with the opening year of OMCA’s re-installed Gallery of California Art, and arrives concurrently with our institution-wide transformation of landmark facilities and presentation of collections. This timing is auspicious as we explore some of the same questions Mark Dion addresses in his own work: What do our collections convey about our history? What are the relationships between the natural world, social history and creative expression? And, for OMCA, what is the relationship of California to broader trends nationally and internationally?”

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