Continuing the train of thought from the last post, today I want to share another method by which the Neues Museum in Berlin has chosen to exhibit its objects vertically. The concept seems simple, yet the effect is striking. In the case pictured above, shards of glass have been clipped into special wire holders that stick up from the plinth like flowers — although given the geometry of the pieces, they almost resemble cosmic debris shooting into space! With large, heavy lumps of glass providing visual weight at floor level, the projecting fragments provide a gorgeous contrast in weightlessness. As a way to use the full space of a case, from bottom to top, this is very clever. Moreover, it brings these rather humble pieces of history to life: by contrast, can you imagine the effect if they were simply strewn across the floor of the case? It would probably be stultifying. Instead, here we have a carefully choreographed play of shapes, colors, and space. The stunning effect is worth far more than the simplicity of the idea would let on; and what's more, the concept can be executed on the cheap: although this version is highly refined, a similar idea could practically substitute wire coat hangers. (Alright, just check with the conservators first!) For context, you can see this case in its ensemble of ultra-modern cubic peepholes in the photo below. (Subject for another post, this black box-with-hidey-holes approach.)
While the traditional mode of displaying an object in a museum has been to put it in a glass case, bringing an object out of the case — and therefore into the visitor's physical space — can make it much more powerful. Removing even a transparent barrier like a glass box makes the object instantly more immediate: it now inhabits our world, rather than some removed one whose distance in both time and space seems to be symbolized by the vitrine.
Making objects more accessible in this way has its own complications, of course — not least in that they become quite literally tangible! Not all objects can stand up to a curious visitor's stroking finger or spontaneous sneeze. Precisely this problem was debated between the curators (who wanted the case gone) and conservators (who were concerned about protecting the object) at The Metropolitan Museum, when Navina Haidar hoped to remove the vitrine from around a fabulous incense burner in the shape of a lion. In both that instance and the one pictured above, in the Neues Museum in Berlin, a large base below the object resolved some of the difficulty. The oversized base keeps people from approaching too closely while still allowing them to experience the object "up close and personal."
In addition to the caselessness, two more factors add enormously to the Neues Museum's display of two Bronze-Age trumpets. One is that the base serves doubly as an audio station: by pressing a button on the front, the visitor is treated to a haunting chorus of blaring trumpets. Hearing the tones they would have emitted feels like a substitute for holding them and playing them yourself; it is a wonderful sensory experience.
The second notable factor is that the trumpets are suspended rather than mounted to the base. Their twisting shapes lend themselves perfectly to such an ethereal effect, as if they were being propelled into the air by their bronze flagella. Many of the displays in the Neues Museum's newly-renovated galleries were conceived with a vertical rather than horizontal format in mind, which is not only space-saving but visually arresting. A future post will explore some of the other creative designs.
A recent article in the New York Times discusses an initiative to make public statues more interesting and accessible to the people walking by them on the street. By using a smartphone to scan a code or swipe a chip at the base of the statue, a viewer instantly receives a call — and upon answering, hears an audio track about the statue. In first person, no less, and voiced by a famous actor! (Patrick Stewart is mentioned, among others.) What a clever way to rouse to life these hulking yet often overlooked pieces of public art. The project was conceived and installed by Sing London, an organization that "produces city wide events in which the wider public can engage... Ultimately our projects set out to make cities feel happy places to be." In its mission to engage city inhabitants (and passers-by) in collective cultural experiences, Sing London reminds me a bit of Creative Time in New York (although it isn't focused on the realm of visual arts as the latter is). Certainly with this project, it has harnessed technology in a creative way to reinvigorate honorific statues — an art form that can otherwise feel quite distancing.
This beauty of a display is in the Harvard Semitic Museum. Never before had I seen such creative use of a single color of paint applied to a wall to enhance an array of objects. The objects in question are ancient amphorae, perfect for a wall-mounted display because they are large — taking up a good amount of the large vertical space — and tough, requiring no special climate control or protective glass case. Taking the extra step to paint them into an ancient ship is a truly inspired move that works on several levels:
An astounding number of museums sprinkle the Berlin landscape. By the city's own count, there are over 170. While some of the museums on that list are extremely well-known and heavily frequented — foremost being the Pergamon Museum, with some 1 million visitors per year — many are small, quirky, and practically undiscovered. Neighborhood museums belong to this genre. Off the radar for most tourists, these museums focus on the history and culture of the immediate locality (Kiez); they must be a dream for school groups, and offer the curious visitor too an unusual glimpse of local life.
Of the 20 Kieze in Berlin, more than 11 have their own dedicated museum. One of these, the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum, occupies several refurbished stories of a building in the geographical center of the Kiez. The third floor (or fourth, in the American system) is entirely devoted to a beautiful big map of the area marked by easy-to-read landmarks and colorful numbered circles. The clean white walls, ceiling, floor, and pillars lend an airy feeling, and the room almost feels empty — until you step into it and use it for what it was intended. Borrowing a set of headphones and an iPod, the visitor is meant to walk around the map listening to local Berliners tell their stories linked to specific locales. The stories have been grouped into ten themes, each marked by a different color and labeled on the wall: from "work" and "eating" to "belief" and "suffering," the themes are both straightforward and richly textured. The visitor can opt to follow a certain color to hear stories related by theme, or select a path of stories all told by the same person, or wander the map at will choosing stories of any color or location. It is a marvelous trick of kinetic learning, made even more effective by gorgeous graphic design.
That the stories are personal and told by inhabitants of the Kiez rather than actors, specialists, or museum staff makes them very compelling. In fact, the introductory panel invites visitors to make an appointment to record their own stories in the museum's audio studio! So as it turns out, this spacious white room is filled with only half of a display: the other half comes from the visitor bringing in her own exhibition content, her personal history. Local engagement couldn't get any more local and engaging.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.