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Museum guestbooks: Pre-digital responses to art

Tuesday - 7/24/2012, 8:10am  ET

Part of Liebovitz's ''Pilgrimage'' exhibit. (WTOP/Heather Brady)
  • Gallery: (11 images)

Heather Brady,

WASHINGTON - The guestbook in Annie Leibovitz's "Pilgrimage" exhibit was easy to miss.

Tucked into a corner of the exhibit's third and final room in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, it played last fiddle in an orchestra of photography showcasing what inspires Leibovitz as an American artist.

But some did stop to write or draw something - and Leibovitz might have seen their entries.

Andy Grundberg, associate provost and dean of undergraduate studies at the Corcoran College of Art and Design, curated Leibovitz's exhibit, which was displayed in D.C. from January to May. It then began traveling to other museums.

"When I was there with her several weeks after the show opened, she looked at it," he said. "I think she's pretty fascinated to know how people are responding, as nature would indicate. I ended up looking at it whenever I went."

Grundberg said he went back to the show around a dozen times. After giving a tour, he would gravitate back to the guestbook to read what people were writing. He was curious if the notes were influenced by each other.

"It's an ongoing thing because from one week to the next, there would be all these additions," Grundberg said. "The question I always have is whether people who are about to write in it go back and look and see what everybody else has written."

Leibovitz is a celebrity in her own right as someone who's photographed celebrities, Grundberg said. He thinks the entries in Leibovitz's guestbook speak to the degree of intimacy that people feel with well-known celebs.

"It's like, ‘Oh, I know Annie Liebowitz. I've been looking at her work for so long that she's a personal friend of mine,'" he said. "It's really quite touching and poignant, the way in which the guestbook embodies everyone's sense of closeness to Annie. I think it's touching for her, too."

While some of the guestbook's inscriptions are from inspired visitors, some are more personal - messages from former interns, family friends who live in the area and others who know Leibovitz well.

"Her sister lives in suburban Maryland and she used to have more family here," Grundberg said. "There are people in D.C. that really do know her, so there's an interesting mix of people that wish they knew her and people that actually do."

Guestbooks are the most traditional form of interactivity in museums. Grundberg said they provide a place where people can respond to what they're seeing in some retrievable way that records their experience.

"Nowadays, we talk a lot about blogs and tweets and digital responses to their experiences," he said. "The guestbook is the pre-digital equivalent of all that."

Even though the "Pilgrimage" exhibit made a journey of its own, the guestbook didn't travel with it - a disadvantage to the pen-and-paper method of engaging with visitors.

"I don't know of anyone that's ever traveled their guestbook along with the show," Grundberg said. "They end up being museum-specific, rather than exhibition- specific."

Guestbooks aren't usually catalogued, treasured or put under the care of a registrar in any way. They're considered ancillary byproducts of a show, like a wall label.

"In my experience, the museums just end up with the book," he said. "But they might make a gift of it to Annie. Or if she asks for it, she might get it."

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)