Contextualizing Historic Spaces

Review of Darger as Reader, Writer and Bookmaker at Intuit

Darger as Reader, Writer, and Bookmaker (open June 11–July 18, 2021) is the first is a series of three exhibits about the Henry Darger Room at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. Henry Darger (1892-1973) was a Chicago-based illustrator and author who was never formally trained. His landlady, Kiyoko Lerner, discovered his work after he moved to a retirement home in 1973 and donated the entire contents of his room to Intuit. The room is on display as part of these three exhibits, after which it will be dismantled and the Museum will assess its conservation needs. 

The exhibit provided me with a strong case study for how to contextualize historic spaces in exhibits. Below, you will find a description of my experience in the exhibit. Through this narrative, I aim to reveal the techniques Intuit used to successfully contextualize the Henry Darger Room as well as identify opportunities they could have used to improve upon an already wonderful exhibit. 

I came to Intuit with no pre-existing knowledge about Henry Darger or his work. My parents were visiting Chicago and my mother likes outsider art, so I decided Intuit would be the perfect place to bring them. I didn’t even know this exhibit was at the Museum before I visited. 

When I entered Darger as Reader, Writer, and Bookmaker, I found myself in a white room that felt like a classic art museum with object cases and labels. I quickly skimmed a long introductory panel that presented the premise of the exhibit (perhaps if it had been a bit shorter, I may have read it more closely). I heard audio of a man speaking, but also did not pay close attention to it. 

I saw a small book on a pedestal to the side of the gallery. The book looked new and wasn’t behind glass, so I assumed I could touch it. The opportunity to touch an artifact prompted me to walk towards the book and explore it.

I flipped through the pages of the meticulously constructed scrapbook, learning about the characters that Darger wrote about and drew in his magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion. The scrapbook offered me a tactile experience, which inspired me to look more closely at the artwork than I would have otherwise. It also echoed Darger’s own scrapbook in a case nearby. 

I noticed the characters in the scrapbook were all young girls. I looked up, turned around, and scanned the room quickly. The room was filled with images of little girls. “Why was an older man writing a book about little girls?” I asked myself, feeling a little creeped out. 

I decided to hurry along to the next gallery space. I crossed a threshold, turned, and entered Darger’s room. The threshold was a simple and effective method for marking a physical, emotional, and temporal transition from the contemporary austere gallery space to the cluttered home of Henry Darger frozen in 1973.

Upon entering Darger’s room, the first thing I noticed was the table. It was covered in games and paints and crayons. “This man had an uncomfortable obsession with childhood,” I thought, “not only little girls”

A victrola in the corner belied Darger’s love of music. A typewriter off to the side was stored in a place where it would not have been used. “Did he use this to write?” I wondered.  

I found myself wishing I could cross the rope and explore the room. I wanted to ruffle through the piles of magazines. I wanted to play one of Darger’s games. I wanted to draw a picture with his crayons.

 I understand that my desire to physically explore the room could not be realized, given the constraints of conservation. But, what if I could have read a reproduction of one of Darger’s magazines? Or, what if the exhibit had given me an opportunity to draw my own art using the materials available in Darger’s room and inspired by Darger’s Realms of the Unreal ? Not only would this provide a more active engagement with the exhibit content, but also it would further promote Intuit’s mission by inspiring more untrained artists to make art that is not influenced by the mainstream art world. 

Darger’s room felt cramped and a bit tragic. I felt sad for Darger. It was not the kind of space I tend to imagine when I think of artists’ studios. But, isn’t that the point of Intuit – expanding what it means to be an artist?

After a minute or two of actively observing the room, I turned to leave with a greater interest in Darger’s life and work. There was only one way out of the room, the same way I came in. By creating a single entry and exit to the exhibit, the Museum not only maximized its use of a small space, but also provided me with an opportunity to read the contextual information in a new light after seeing Darger’s room.

 On my way out, I came across a timeline of Darger’s life. “1908 Runs away from the asylum for the third and final time,” I read. My attention was piqued. 

“Asylum. That sounds like a serious childhood trauma,” I thought. “It may explain the obsession with childhood and the little girls.” I read on.

I learned from the timeline that both of Darger’s parents died when he was quite young. He spent years in an Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children in Lincoln, IL. Judging by the numerous times he tried to escape, I wondered if he was abused there. He held a series of nondescript jobs and lived alone in adulthood, working on Realms of the Unreal. Towards the end of his life, he wrote My Life History. 

I started listening to the audio in the space again and realized I was hearing a first-person account of Darger’s life. “This must be from My Life History,” I thought. I turned around to look at Darger’s room again. The audio added an additional personal and intimate dimension to the room. It was as if Darger was sitting with me and telling me his story. 

After I exited Darger’s room, I took a closer look at all of the panels on the wall and the artifact cases. I learned how he was influenced by parenting magazines, coloring and activity books, and religion. 

When I thought I had seen the whole exhibit, I headed to the exit. Just before I walked out, I noticed a tucked-away corner of the exhibit hidden near the bathrooms. While this is certainly not an ideal place to put content, it demonstrates the Museum’s creative use of its limited space. 

I was delighted to find a section about the music and literature that influenced Darger. I perused a shelf with a selection of original books from Darger’s personal library. I wondered if I could touch them. They weren’t behind glass, which suggested I could. But, out of an abundance of caution, I didn’t.  I wished there was some signage either inviting me to pick them up or telling me not to. 

I also found a QR code leading me to a spotify playlist of music from Darger’s record collection. I didn’t have headphones, so I couldn’t listen to it in the gallery. I so wished I could have walked back into Darger’s room and listened to his favorite music while looking at the Victrola. It would have provided an incredible multisensory experience. I wonder how the Museum could have effectively provided me with the tools to do this. 

When my family left the Museum and returned to our car, Darger as Reader, Writer, and Bookmaker sparked a lively discussion. We debated whether Darger was creepy for drawing little girls or whether it was a creative and appropriate way of working through his childhood trauma. We discussed different kinds of intelligence and wondered how the way we define “smart” and “able” impacts the talent of people labeled “feeble-minded,” or today, “special needs.” While we disagreed and debated these topic, we all agreed on one thing: Darger as Reader, Writer, and Bookmaker was an incredibly thought-provoking exhibit!


One thought on “Contextualizing Historic Spaces

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  1. Terrific. What a way to make me see a whole new aspect to this!

    Andrew Singer Sound by Singer,Ltd. 242 West 27 Street New York , N.Y., 10001 (917) 414-8760



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