Lowe exhibit features exploration art

Posted May 4, 2013


The Lowe Art Museum’s latest exhibit, “Terrestrial Paradises” displays the engravings of 19th century European artists. The engravings are based on paintings, drawings and sketches composed during  Captain James Cook’s explorations around the world.

terrestiral paradisesWhile the exhibit offers a captivating glimpse into the minds of early modern Europeans it makes a weak attempt, if any, to interest museum goers.

The layout of the space and the descriptions of the engravings are perfect for conveying information, but not ideal for drawing the interests of guests. Museum-goers with no prior knowledge of the time period may have a difficult time appreciating the exhibit as a whole.

The engravings allow the guests to view the world through the eyes of the various artists who accompanied James Cook on his voyages around the world. The voyages, which began in 1768, produced a large group of  art work which immensely influenced and molded early modern European thought; specifically on subjects of colonialism, and exploration.

The significance of these pieces lie in what they reveal about the European state of mind, and not in their value as portraits of natives or renderings of native life.  Unfortunately, the lack of additional detail in the exhibit descriptions may leave many guests with just that.

The exhibit does not help convey the importance of these pieces. Those who have studied or read up on the subject of European exploration will fully appreciate the engravings. Yet, without additional readings some guests may walk away slightly confused.

The intellectual insight behind each engraving is lost amongst a sea of small descriptions and dull brown walls. While the exhibit is well lit and all engravings are neatly displayed, it does little to draw guests in. There is no additional information given in the exhibit to help place it within its proper context. Those who were not originally interested in the subject or aren’t avid museum goers will easily miss this glimpse into the intellectual development of Western civilization.

The engravings allow guests to gain perspective on early modern views on areas such as beauty and nativism. One engraving titled “ Portrait of a Man from the Sandwich Islands with his helmet and portrait of a young lady,” shows the striking similarity between both genders perceived by the artist. It can also be noted that the woman’s face has been slightly altered to fit the European notion of beauty.

While these facts are noted in the description of the engraving, the exhibit fails to connect these facts with the views of early modern Europeans; thus failing to open a dialogue.

The engravings range in style and skill due to the various artists which accompanied Cook on each voyage. He was accompanied by artists Sydney Parkinson and Alexander Buchan on the first voyage, William Hodges on the second, and John Webber and William Webb Ellis on the third. Each of their work was then interpreted into engravings and used to illustrate the official accounts of Cook’s voyage.  When they were published they were slowly evolved to fit the 18th century portrait of exotic and faraway lands.

Yet, besides the museum website, there is little mention of the importance this collection holds. The museum should highlight the ideals behind the collection and make the exhibit more accessible to those without specialized knowledge.

The irony in the situation lies in the fact that the engravings on display are from a volume published as an affordable version of the accounts of James Cook; to make them accessible to “common folk.”  The Lowe should take this as a hint and make its exhibit accessible to those who may not be as intellectually rich in knowledge of this time period.

  • What: Art Exhibit, “Terrestrial Paradises”
  • Where: The Lowe Art Museum, at the University of Miami, 1301 Stanford Drive,
    Coral Gables, Fla. 33124-6310
  • When: March 1- Feb. 9, 2014
  • Cost:  Exhibit is free with admission to museum (Adults: $10, Students: $10, UM faculty, staff and students with ID are free.
  • Hours:  Tuesdays – Saturdays: 10 a.m. – 4 p.m., Sundays: 12 p.m.- 4 p.m. Closed Mondays.