I'm delighted to have discovered a short essay, newsletter, and indeed entire company devoted to themes like those I explore here! The director of KOCMOS design firm in Leipzig wrote a great piece with the title "What does good exhibition design have to do with changing perspectives?" (Was hat gute Ausstellungsgestaltung mit Perspektivwechsel zu tun?). In it, he sketches the power that exhibitions have—if they are effectively built--to communicate and make us reflect on our own lives. I couldn't agree more (also thinking back to my lecture on this topic), and am looking forward to the newsletter to learn more about how KOCMOC uses design to achieve these very worthwhile goals.
Sometimes even the simplest hint of context can make an object come alive. In the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria, the collection of gold is fantastic—yet if the objects stand in isolation, the way they were used in the past (and the very fact that they were used at all!) can get lost. One solution to this problem is seen above. The medieval gold objects are put into context immediately with a simple line drawing: they were attached to a belt, serving as ornament among the useful everyday objects like a pouch and a knife. It is richly informative in one glance, and far better than a more complicated reconstruction like, say, a full-body dummy!
Last week I was treated to a special tour of the current Mantegna + Bellini show at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, thanks to a generous friend and colleague over at ART-THINKING. Because it was a whirlwind of intense looking and learning, I didn't take any pictures until the last second—upon leaving the gallery, seeing the sign above. The design of the sign is good, using a happy face to communicate nonverbally. The encouragement to share images using the museum's hashtag is a clever way to crowd-publicize. More than that, I was impressed that the curators managed to get permission from all of the loaning institutions to allow visitors to photograph these incredible artworks! They deserve extra cheers for that.
This beautiful show is still open for five more days, closing June 30.
Museum display is just the last step in an ancient object's long life. This is the topic of a student workshop I'll be leading on Saturday in Berlin's Pergamonmuseum. Das Panorama. What is selected for display? What is researched, and how? What gets left out? How is the "knowledge" that the museum finally decides to communicate created? All of these are subjective processes, despite the impression that the "knowledge" presented in museums is singular, objective, and perfectly known. As Ian Hodder famously said, "Interpretation begins at the trowel's edge"—at the moment of excavation. (And, I argue, actually before that, since excavations are sited and carried out based on decisions as well.)
As part of our exploration we'll closely examine the museum labels. I was inspired by those in the interim Pergamonmuseum because they often express a certain uncertainty or scholarly debate about the objects, which I found refreshing. Not just refreshing: it brings us to think critically, one of the most important things a museum display can bring us to do! (But I repeat myself.)
All Berlin higher-ed students are welcome! The details (in German, as the event will be):
Unsicherheit und Debatte in Museumstexten: Wissen zur Antike gemeinsam bauen
Sa / 8. 6. 2019 / 15 – 17.30 Uhr
Treffpunkt: Pergamonmuseum. Das Panorama, Besucherinformation
Keine Anmeldung erforderlich. Die Teilnahme ist für Studierende kostenfrei.
Das Format TISCHGESPRÄCH findet im Rahmen von ABOUT THE MUSEUM statt, einer Initiative des Referats Bildung, Vermittlung, Besucherdienste. Weitere Informationen: studierende.smb.museum und auf Facebook: ABOUT THE MUSEUM.
A permanent exhibition in the Zitadelle Spandau puts not only honorific statues but display itself in the spotlight. Unveiled: Berlin and Its Monuments thematizes the city's long history of erecting statues of various personalities, only to remove them later when the political landscape changes. What deserves to stand on public display, and when? Looking at these statues from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries makes clear how changeable the landscape of monuments is.
In 2015, the city decided to raise Lenin from the dead (below) and bring his head into this exhibition. Now it is exhibited on its side (bottom), emphasizing its fall from grace and current status not as an item of honor but a fallen relic.
Another wonderful trick of display at Halle's State Museum of Prehistory (Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte) are the fossilized skeletons displays in poses and places as if they were alive. A mammoth (above) crashes through the wall into the room housing his bones on a light table. A prehistoric mammal climbs a display case (below left) like a monkey up a tree, while some early elk (below right) soar through the air into the light well. A large grazing animal (bottom) stands chest-deep in dry savannah grass. (The striking display of axe heads in the background featured in the last post.) It is not only much more fun to look at these "living" animals, but educational—for the movement is part of the animal! When reindeer fly...
This is where cunning display tactics come in handy. The museum erected a series of freestanding interior walls to serve the needs of art display within the architectural shell (and constraints) of the castle. Many of the walls even have lighting rigged along the top, providing closer and more dirigible light than anything hung from the mile-high ceiling could:
One last post will conclude this series on the Landesmuseum Hannover. These expansive walls of watercolor landscapes, lit from behind with an even glow, run throughout the exhibition of Saxon archaeology. As an artist, art historian and admiring niece of a wonderful mural artist, I fell in love with these immediately. But they operate beyond the realm of personal preference, I swear! Not only do they add color to the display without complicating the view of the objects themselves—which remain on a white ground—but they flesh out the objects' use contexts. Each mural is crafted to show the phase of prehistory that the objects belong to. The type of housing shown is accurate to the time; so is the state of nature or agriculture. But to be honest, it is so bewitching to see a gorgeous watercolor at this scale that I could care less about the content... Oh wait, not really! Bad art historian!
The keen-eyed will have seen that the white cutouts of boulders at left are represented in the painting at right—and that this sort of construction to contextualize the objects was discussed in the last post.
Another pleasing aspect of the Landesmuseum Hannover's galleries are the framing devices for the objects. Archaeological objects in particular can be small, withered, corroded, or otherwise unimpressive; sometimes they need a little help to get their due. These gold partitions affixed to the cases of gold jewelry and precious objects from Bronze-Age Germany (Lower Saxony, to be precise—of which Hannover is the capital) serve this end. With their color and concentric-circle design, they draw attention right away—and perfectly echo the objects in the cases! Both the spiraling gold wire of the jewelry (below right) and the circles on the astrological discs (below left) become more obvious with this big visual hint. What is more, the cutouts in the gold screens offer a peekaboo with the objects that makes looking more fun (just like the dividing wall from this post!).
A similar but distict tactic can be seen in the architectural frames erected around other artifacts. These serve not just to highlight but also to contextualize the objects. A house-like construction (below left) emphasizes that these objects came from a domestic context. For the grave goods, a wonderfully sculptural and minimalist tumulus points to the original context. They are restrained indicators, but so large and physical that they might even work subconsciously...
Another element of the Landesmuseum Hannover's ethnographic displays that I quite liked was this wall of musical instruments from Sumatra and Papua New Guinea. It's not only a beautifully minimalist, vertical display—an unusually artistic layout for such practical objects—but it is brought to life by recordings of each instrument at the touch of a button. Seated at the white podium, you can put an earpiece to your ear and select an instrument from the diagram to listen to. Watching two girls do this together, taking turns choosing, was a sight to warm any curator's heart! Plus, this display is in the same room as the complete gamelan instrument ensemble, which is even used in concerts. Now that's really bringing the displays to life!
Many museums are currently asking themselves how to appropriately deal with their ethnographic collections (see links in my previous posts on the subject). Some major European museums, although notably not all, are now openly acknowledging the role that colonialism played in their acquisitions. Reading the work and watching the lectures of Bénédicte Savoy on this topic would be an absorbing job for a wonderful few months. Some museums are even putting on exhibitions about their colonial past, such as Voices from the Colonies at the National Museum of Denmark. While it has been rightly pointed out that ethnographic material is not the only site of colonialism in museums—that museums themselves are colonialist structures—it is certainly one of the most obvious. And if the museums themselves do not take action, others will: the "Guerilla, Activist-Led Tour of Looted Artifacts at the British Museum" made headlines last year.
Against this background, the Landesmuseum Hannover has taken commendable action in its own ethnographic displays. Particularly striking is the section marked off by a decorative metal dividing wall stamped with the word "Kolonialismus" in the center. This is an imposing marker of the surrounding area, and invites a curious new way of looking through the cutout letters (see photo above). On display here are objects presented in a story of colonial interaction, from depictions of visiting Europeans made by Africans whose lands were being colonized, to a 19th-century painting titled "Smoking Moor" for which the Landesmuseum has provded a modified label: "Moor" has been crossed out and "Human" (Mensch) added instead. It is a small but effective way to reframe objects we might otherwise pass over, and to make us question the metanarratives of museum exhibitions.
Such a simple yet effective idea: an object-of-the-month display at the museum entrance. Here it's the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin, and the object in "Das aktuelle Schaufenster" (the current showcase) is a contemporary Swedish dress used in the celebrations of Saint Lucy. You can see the doors of the main entrance just to the right. What a great way to bring out of storage some objects that may not fit into the other exhibitions, and draw in the visitors as soon as they step over the threshold!
Another beautiful and effective display concept at Aedes Architecture Forum (if less mind-blowing than the subject of the last post) belongs likewise to the show FARAWAY SO CLOSE. A Journey to the Architecture of Kashef Chowdhury / URBANA, Bangladesh. Here the architect Chowdury's drawings, models, and materials (or photos of them) are laid out on drafting tables lit by arm lamps, as if you were looking over his shoulder as he works. It is an intimate way to experience the material, far more so than if it were hung on a wall, let alone pressed behind glass. The openness of the display couldn't directly translate to a bigger venue, where the chance that pieces would go missing is higher, or to an exhibition with originals that would be severely damaged by being touched. But it is such a lovely way to encounter the material on human terms, I wonder if it couldn't be adapted to more venues. Peeking into the artist's studio is, after all, endlessly alluring.
A revelatory multisensory exhibition is on view now at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin. The show FARAWAY SO CLOSE. A Journey to the Architecture of Kashef Chowdhury / URBANA, Bangladesh takes wooden models of the architect Chowdhury's buildings, designed to meet the climatic challenges of Bangladesh, and hangs them from nearly invisible cables. Hovering against the black walls like UFOs highlights the otherworldly nature of the buildings' shapes; it emphasizes the literally out-of-the-box thinking behind the designs. A polygonal snailshell (above right), walls in concentric circles with aligned or offset entrances, or whole islands with central pools engineered to beat the constant floods—these are forms of elevated creativity.
This experience meshed well with the symposium next door on museums in urban space, Extrovert Interior: Publicness and the Contemporary Museum. Asking how the museum mission is being relocated increasingly outside a single building (museum-in-a-box programs for schools, mobile museums on wheels and water, biennials in unexpected venues), the program was a poetic inverse to the exhibition's bringing-gravel-inside idea. All in all a very stimulating day at Aedes, and certainly not the last. I'm already looking forward to their next show, on Archi-Tectonics (Netherlands/New York).
Berlin's Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen), whose ethnographic collections spread over an impressive range, currently has an exhibition on wool. I was eager to see it primarily because the subject seems a hard sell for the public; how can it be presented in a lively way? Secondly, cloth culture looms large (ha!) in both of my main projects right now. Luxury textiles in the ancient Mediterranean are one touchstone of my book-in-progress; and textile production as a female activity is a current focus of my gender studies research, connected to my role as Women's Representative in two departments.
The exhibition turned out to have several tricks up its sleeve. (The puns just won't stop!) I quite liked the rack of woolen knitwear hung from the ceiling (above) as a way to invigorate the space and use that lofty ceiling. The wall graphic of a thread connecting the exhibition exponents is a good idea, although I admit I only noticed it too late—among other things, it visually links demo videos to otherwise inscrutable woolworking devices which I noodled over a while before realizing that the explanation was just a step away.
My absolute favorite part of the show, however, is the DIY weaving station (above; detail below). This was the perfect way to solidify some knowledge of the weaving process. Hands-on activities are underused educational devices for adults! We all have a bit of kinesthetic learner in us. Using the provided tablets loaded with demo videos of knitting, weaving, crocheting, and embroidering, I got a 1-minute overview of some weaving techniques and tried it out immediately. As you can see (below), my interest was in interweaving two colors of yarn. It's harder than it looks...
This experience was enriching in several ways. I gained new respect for the skill and physical labor involved in weaving, and the fact that women worldwide have been charged with this incredibly taxing and important task for thousands of years. (This podcast episode from Classics Confidential, Weaving Women's Stories, is another fabulous way to gain appreciation for that!) In doing this tiny bit of weaving myself, I also realized how meditative weaving can be, how it keeps the hands and a part of the brain busy while allowing other parts of the brain to wander. The image of Penelope weaving every day takes on new meaning; this woman had a lot of time to think over her life, her husband, her suitors, her island kingdom. Relationships between women could be built up in the time spent spinning wool together, as demonstrated by two Hungarian grandmothers in a video in the exhibition. Suddenly the age-old (patriarchal, need it be said) associations of women spinning and knitting, plotting and gossiping makes more sense. Spinning yarns, embroidering tales—how enlightening!
In laying out her art museum in Boston, which opened in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner sought to ellicit an emotional response in her visitors. Rather than teach them something intellectual about the works on view, she prioritized aesthetic impact. And she was able to realize this vision completely, being the sole visionary and financier of the museum—not to mention a seemingly headstrong personality.
Sometimes her touch seems more enthusiastic than professional, as in the tapestries that have been bent in order to fit into a corner (below), or the row of pictures hung on the short side of a cabinet, as if to use every possible inch of vertical space.
The great achievement of this display concept is letting viewers really look at the pieces, make associations, think creatively and personally about what they are. We cannot be distracted by text or multimedia stations; we have to just look at the objects. And if the immense variety and quantity of objects can be overwhelming, this is in part a result of the ceaseless acts of imagination prompted by these pieces—just what Mrs. Gardner was going for.
Yesterday I finally made it to Museumsdorf Düppel in Berlin, an open-air museum that has been on my to-do list for years. It centers on an absolutely charming reconstruction of the 12th-century village excavated there primarily in the 1970s. The houses with reed roofs and mud walls are impressive for their craftmanship, as well as the feeling they give you of standing really and truly in a medieval village. The lightly damp, gray, freezing weather enhanced the effect. Hats off to the capable people who made it possible to live in such conditions, constructing surprisingly cozy houses and fashioning their own clothing, tools, candles, food, and on and on. Truly impressive!
As a supplement to the village, the small interpretive center is a gem. "Klein aber fein," small but fine—the description fits perfectly. One of the displays that caught my eye for being both economic and effective is the timeline: a series of small lit vitrines sunk into the wall boasts a series of colors, each vitrine framed by a different hue. These correspond to the colored bands on the timeline above, which stretches from 10,000 BC to the present day. Each vitrine holds a miniature diorama of the landschaft around the village in the indicated time period (a title for the whole wall would help convey this: Changing Landscapes, or some such). I went gaga over the grace of the dioramas—constructed of cardstock cut-outs with simple pencil drawings, they are outrageously simple yet communicative works of art.
The three latest episodes of the podcast Working (tagline: "Slate interviews Americans about their jobs") are dedicated to the work processes in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of them, "Working at MoMA: How Do Exhibition Designers Do Their Jobs?," features a conversation with Lana Hum and Mack Cole-Edelsack, the Director and Senior Design Manager respectively of MoMA's Exhibition Design & Production Department. (I was lucky enough to meet Lana Hum in 2014 as part of the Center for Curatorial Leadership/Mellon Foundation Seminar in Curatorial Practice.) It's a fun conversation to listen to: both the interviewees and interviewer (Jordan) have smart things to say and seem to be having a good time. A few novel points jumped out at me:
I look forward to hearing the other two episodes about MoMA's operations!
My presentation on Friday led to a vibrant discussion—the most gratifying possible outcome of a talk! We discussed how displays of ancient art can achieve certain effects together with its visiting audience. Particularly in view of the warm reception it received, I hope that this presentation might spark further ideas in the online community; so here are the slides and talking points to look through as you like. I hope that the conversations will continue to grow and multiply, invigorating our museums and our communities.
This Friday is a very special day: I'll be giving a talk about museum displays of ancient art! In particular, how they can benefit from an injection of multivocality, uncertainty, complexity, non-traditional narratives, and other conversation starters. Please come and join the discussion! Complete information about the event is here.
Ancient Images, Modern Projections. Displaying Complex Narratives in the Museum
by Dr. Stephanie Pearson, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and New York University Berlin
on 23 November 2018
at the conference Image studies and museum practice: the image as the focal point of research versus the image as exhibited object. A conference run by the Ancient Objects and Visual Studies programme at the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies
in the Abguss-Sammlung Antiker Plastik der Freien Universität Berlin
Schloßstraße 69b, 14059 Berlin
In preparation for a public forum I'm co-organizing next week (Decolonize Mitte! Humboldt Forum, Museum Island, and Schloss—all are welcome to attend!) I've been thinking a lot about ethnographic museums. How can we make them spaces that "work for us," in the sense that they encourage learning, understanding, respect, tolerance, community building, engagement, discourse? Ethnographic collections are a focal point of current debates on provenance research and how to make museums for a modern, anticolonialist world; they are the crucible from which new metals will be poured, hopefully shaping other museums as well. Antiquities collections, more my area of expertise, can look to them for guidance not only in displaying provenance research, but in engaging visitors by telling human stories in a strikingly candid way.
Dresden's Museum für Völkerkunde seems to me exemplary in this respect. Even its online presence makes clear its priorities: connecting people through its displays of things. Its homepage centers on a wonderful statement of just this ("Erzählungen von Menschen, Dingen und Orten" = Stories of people, things, and places) and an introduction that cuts right to the chase: Where did all this stuff come from, and why is it in Germany? Museum visitors make this one of their first questions in the antiquities collections I've worked in, and especially in the current climate they are very likely to do the same in the Dresden ethnographic museum. They will appreciate the no-nonsense approach:
"Today, the uniqueness of many of the objects goes hand in hand with the necessary questions regarding their origin. Who created them and why? How did they come to Dresden? Were these objects given as gifts, sold or even taken from their original owners during the colonial era?"
This is a brave thing to put on the homepage of any museum, particularly with the final phrase raising the potential for repatriation claims. Just so the link to find out more about the collection history (pictured above), whose token photo is a Benin bronze depicting a European man aiming a rifle. A more succinct summary of the conflicted acquisition history could hardly be imagined—how honest to put it right up front!
A lot of objects are at home in the dark. However, in art museums, we are used to illuminating objects in the same even, "objective," investigative manner in which we also write the labels (my critique of the attempt to be objective, and my suggestions for other tactics, are laid out e.g. here and here). How would it be to put on a whole exhibition about objects in the dark? Not utter darkness, but a recreation of the low-light conditions in which they were originally used.
A photograph on the ICOM member page (above) got me thinking about this, offering a stunning example of how this idea might play out. A beautiful piece of Islamic tracery or woodwork illuminated from the inside shows its form infinitely better than if it were put under standard museum lighting. Look at the gorgeous pattern it casts over the visitors and walls!
Roman sarcophagi are another genre that would benefit hugely from such a display. Their figures in relief would have danced in the lamplight of the tombs. The dramatic lighting of a sarcophagus in the archaeological museum in Antalya, Turkey gives some idea of how this enlivens the object, but really the lighting has to be flickering orange to achieve the right effect.
Lamps themselves look very different when they are their own sources of light than when lit from an external source. The Idolino in Florence, who once held a functional lamp in his hand, may have looked like a real person trying to find his way in the dark!
Religious items too would be abundant in this display, as they are so often used in enclosed spaces—temples, caves, household niches, etc. This would be a really fun show to put together!
Walls of text are daunting. We all know it; so why is it so hard to get away from them? Well, it's hard to reduce the things we want to communicate to little bite-sized chunks. But those nibblets are infinitely more digestible! Just look at this example from the archaeological park in Xanten, Germany. Here the signage is consistently structured into a few nuggets so small that even an overheated, weary visitor like yours truly could bring herself to concentrate for just a darn minute. Despite being a museum veteran, I often have to trick myself into reading signage: "Ok, just that one sentence next to the picture. And maybe that one standing by itself right at the end." That is precisely the sort of self-deception that the Xanten signage makes the most of! Each sign beguiled me into tricking myself three or four times over—until, without realizing it, I had read the whole thing! The easy structure with lots of empty space for your eyes to rest (and your brain to think there isn't too much work involved) makes a huge difference. This is just one of the wonderful visitor-friendly aspects of this park. Three cheers for Xanten!
This last post about the KWAB exhibition in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum concerns lighting. This show got me and my partner-in-museology thinking about the potential for self-directed lighting in museum display. The impetus was this lovely, huge, embossed silver platter. Its fabulously fine relief is hard to see in any detail, not because the lighting is poor per se, but because it is static. Especially for objects that would have been handled, passed around, held up to the light, or simply displayed in a space where people could view it from different angles, the viewing conditions offered by a museum could hardly be more different. And it can be frustrating to try to make out what all those tiny relief people are doing on this silver thing; even I was inclined to give up and move on to something more decipherable. But adding a couple of pink hands as a reflecting screen (above right) changed everything—even more so when moved from side to side! The addition of not only light but color and movement made the relief eminently more legible. This is the reason that Reflectance Transformation Imaging works so well (here's the process): under different lighting conditions, especially ones we can adjust and move at will, we can perceive relief and texture much more easily.
So how about visitor-directed lighting? This could be as simple as offering visitors sheets of printer paper at the entrance and encouraging them to use it as a reflecting screen (on objects in glass cases only, if you're worried about paper and people getting near unprotected objects). But personally I think it would be exciting as a central element of a show; it could even be the main topic, "Old Things in New Light." You could experiment with little lights mounted on tracks in front of the objects, so the visitor can slide the light from side to side. Heck, grab that gooseneck lamp from your desk and mount it next to an object—there, you've got interactive, user-directed lighting! There are dozens of forms this could take, and just as many epiphanies about the objects in new light. Let's go wild and see what happens.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.