“Nobody is more surprised than I am,” says Nicholas Bell, the Renwick Gallery curator-in-charge, of the huge online success of WONDER, the Washington D.C. museum’s first exhibition since completing a massive two-year renovation. Search the Renwick Gallery geo-tag on Instagram and thousands of results appear. Not just images of the artwork but of people actually interacting with it. This is hardly the norm for museums, where taking photos of the artwork is often frowned-upon.
The exhibit is designed to celebrate the historic space it inhabits—which was the first museum in the United States built for that purpose—and is made up of nine immersive installations dreamed up and meticulously formed on site by some of the country’s leading contemporary artists. “We wanted people to be very conscious that they are in a museum,” Bell says. “The art is meant to draw your attention to the architecture of the space.” And it does—all the while making you, well, wonder at the installations’ awe-inspiring constructions.
North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty created enormous, otherworldly pods woven from willow branches that seem almost alive as they swirl toward the ceiling. John Grade, who lives and works in Seattle, took 500,000 pieces of reclaimed cedar to construct a model of an actual living hemlock that is approximately the same age as the museum, 157-years-old. Suspended on wires, the tree appears to float in the middle of the room. And Maya Lin’s map of the Chesapeake Bay made entirely of small sea-green marbles crawls across the floor and up the walls and windows.
As you move through the museum, the installations’ sheer size and beauty make it almost impossible not to pull out your cell phone and snap a photo. That’s the idea. “We are happy people are sharing the exhibit in this way,” Bell says, “and that they really want to share what they are feeling in that moment.”
No question the social media play is attracting visitors. In the two and a half months since the museum reopened, more than 275,000 people have walked through its doors just to experience WONDER. (The average annual attendance before the renovation was 150,000.) “If you give people a place that is beautiful they will come,” Bells says. People want to feel this exaltation and fascination.”
Feel it for yourself. The exhibit is on display until July 10, 2016.