Marcel Duchamp: Boîte-en-valise

by Angela Steinmetz, Former Head Registrar, Smart Museum of Art

last edited on Tue. April 28 2015

In the late 1930s, Marcel Duchamp struck upon the idea of presenting a history of his best works in a small, portable box.

From this idea came the Boîte-en-valise, or “Box in a Valise,” which eventually grew to a series of 300 boxes (in seven separate editions) filled with reproductions of his works. This collection of multiples offers numerous starting points for dialogue on Duchamp, art history, and the nature of museums and exhibitions.

The Smart Museum acquired a Boîte-en-valise in 1983 with the understanding that it would be heavily used for education purposes. Of course, the Smart also has a mission to preserve its collections for future generations. Striking a balance between these two priorities has been a challenge, as opening the Boîte is an essential part of understanding the work but also causes inevitable wear and tear each time it is done.

In Objects and Voices, the Boîte-en-valise is displayed together with a video of it being opened. To further facilitate use, extensive photo documentation of the piece is available online and a special display case was designed to limit unnecessary light exposure.

Following the exhibition opening, in spring 2015, the Smart received, as a gift from Helen Zell, a second example of the Boîte-en-valise. The acquisition resolves a major dilemma for the Museum and helps to ensure that visitors and UChicago students and scholars can continue to view this seminal, but fragile work by Duchamp.

A version of this article was originally published in the gallery guide to Objects and Voices.

Everything important that I have done can be put into a little suitcase”—Marcel Duchamp