DETROIT - Through an entryway reminiscent of arches at the Doge's Palace in Venice, a series of galleries at the newly renovated Detroit Institute of Arts tells the story of the 18th-century Grand Tour of Italy.
The paintings, sculptures, and furniture, culled from the museum's vast collection, are similar to those that would have been seen by wealthy, young European men traveling to Venice, Florence, Naples, and Rome to complete their education.
Some would have been bought to hang on the wall of an estate to illustrate how cultured that man had become. Others are the equivalent of airport art, cheaper pieces bought by travelers on the run.
In one gallery, museum-goers can sit and write postcards reflecting on their own grand tour. They also have 21st-century tools at their fingertips to help interpret what they're viewing, including hand-held computers and interactive displays.
Instead of the more traditional museum model of grouping objects by time period or style, the Detroit Institute of Arts is using techniques honed in the presentation of temporary or traveling exhibits - the kinds of shows that draw big crowds - to showcase its permanent collection.
It's all part of the museum's $158 million, six-year overhaul, which opened late last week.
"The tendency with the permanent collection is to think of a theme and stuff the works into it," Graham W.J. Beal, director of the DIA, said during a tour of the museum. "We actually started with the works of art.
"And so the stories come from them. And so the strength of the story is that it takes you back to the work of art, rather than using the work of art as an illustration."
It's a fresh way of looking at art that's being debated by museum directors, curators, and art experts.
"The field is still struggling with the fundamental question of how to make a work of art sing - how to help a visitor build their own relationship with a great work of art," said James Christen Steward, director of the University of Michigan Museum of Art, which is undergoing its own renovation and expansion.
Other museums, such as the Musee d'Orsay in Paris and the Tate Modern in London, have explored aspects of the ideas on display in Detroit, Steward said. But observers say no institution the size and scope of the DIA has attempted such a full rethinking of its permanent collection.
Bruce Altshuler, director of the graduate program in museum studies at New York University, said the changes at the DIA are part of a broader movement since the 1970s to make museums more accessible. The reworked DIA, he noted, still appears to remain grounded in time periods, not purely in themes.
"It's not really getting away from history, but presenting history in a different way around narratives," Altshuler said.
The DIA broke ground on the renovation in April 2001 as part of an effort to upgrade its galleries, and become more accessible and visitor friendly. It has been closed since the end of May for final construction and the reinstallation of about 5,500 objects.
Before the project began, stone was falling off the museum's facade and conditions in some places weren't ideal for safeguarding the art, Beal said. Changes include the gleaming Farnsworth Street Lobby entrance and new central corridor of galleries designed to make it easier to navigate the sprawling museum.
But Beal pushed the museum to do more than just improve the 1927 Beaux Arts building and wings from the 1960s and 1970s.
Before the renovation, art seen as part of the Grand Tour galleries would have been displayed separately as Italian painting, sculpture, and decorative arts, as well as under potentially more intimidating headings such as the Baroque period and neoclassicism.
Using the theme of travel, the museum staff hopes the Grand Tour will better engage visitors. Some other galleries organized around themes include Images of Spiritual Power; Art and the Cycle of Life; and the Dutch Golden Age.
Steward said he has some doubts about the DIA's approach, such as the shedding of the traditional language of art history. But he noted the museum is making a clear choice about what's right for itself and visitors.