As a small museum trying to appeal to local families (leaving the tourists to crowd the nearby gator attractions), the Anne Kolb Nature Center in Fort Lauderdale, Florida has to serve a variety of functions. Its permanent exhibit centers on the recovered mangrove lake on which it stands, a marvel of a restoration story; but in order to stay lively for its visitors, it also has to be flexible. That's why these simple moveable walls are a stroke of genius. Three of them in a row provided the support for a temporary exhibition by a local artist. Just one bent wall set on three casters — could it get any simpler? And yet they are extraordinarily versatile and effective. It seems like a fundamental building-block that any institution interested in public engagement could keep in reserve for any time they need it. And not just for purpose-built exhibitions, either: such walls could just as well be wheeled into a foyer during a wine reception and be tacked with a few informational flyers for guests to look at while they sip.
Octopuses were my favorite cephalopod until I learned more about cuttlefish. Many more people now have the chance to get excited about these remarkable little undersea hovercrafts in a new special exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Tentacles. Brand-new and quite lavish, this exhibition features rich colors on every wall, several video screens masquerading as aquaria, and of course tanks of the live wonders themselves. This vaguely hemispherical tank was striking for the contrast between pearly white cuttlefish and supernaturally sparkly black "sand." The sand has clearly been chosen to set off the bright white of the animals. They gleam against it.
The funny thing is, they also bury themselves in it: fluttering a single delicate fin, they dig into the sand and bivouac in the depression, tossing a sprinkling of sand onto their backs. Naturally, they do this to hide from predators. But no predator would be fooled by a glaringly white fleshy nugget sitting atop a black dinner plate! Although in the wild cuttlefish burrow into tropical sand as gorgeously white as they are, for the sake of the exhibit the chosen sand is black. It's an instance in which altering the actual natural context of the "object" on display helps the visitor better appreciate it aesthetically, although not conceptually (as in these examples); the intricate beauty of the camouflage that nature has wrought is subordinated to the visual WOW factor of white-on-black.
This post has been a long time in coming, insofar as this particular display idea was one of the motivations to create this blog in the first place: that's how beautiful, simple, and effective I think it is. With it, the wonderful Airborne Museum Hartenstein in Arnhem (the Netherlands) has tackled the difficult problem of making primary-source documents approachable — in this case, eye-witness accounts of life in Arnhem during World War 2. The Dokumentationszentrum Berliner Mauer addressed this problem in a different but also very effective way. Still, for simplicity, this arrangement takes the prize. Aesthetically it's quite nice too, as if presenting the visitor with a bouquet of flowers that happen to be written on; it does attract a person's attention, far more than texts set flat on a wall. Although the metal stems are permanently fixed to the metal "blossoms" of text, I can imagine a variation on this idea that would allow the texts to be switched out periodically — perhaps even replaced with the occasional object, a hands-on addition to the textual bouquet.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.