With this display — one of the many excellently-signed ensembles in the Museo Archeologico di Milano — the museum has accomplished two difficult but worthwhile tasks. First of all, it presents Roman costume in a physical yet not actually tangible way. Seeing these reconstructions of ancient clothes is a fun inroad to imagining life in that period, and this is helped by the fact that the clothes are standing before you rather than drawn on paper or a screen. Placing the mannequins in a doorway (or beside it, as in the case of the male figure) atop the mosaic floors sets them away from the reach of visitors, improving their longevity. Which brings us to the second point: the use of figures enlivens the otherwise very flat and space-hogging mosaic floors, as well as drawing attention to the fact that the floors used to be walked on and once formed part of a house. Simple but important points, presented here in a simple but effective way.
To conclude this brief series of posts on the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, let's return to the Aegean blue galleries of ancient art. This room struck me for two reasons. First of all, such a cluster of display cases (at right in the photo) rising up to a pinnacle is not very common. It seems to me a nice way to provide some height to what could otherwise be a row of cases stultifyingly alike in size, shape, and disposition. The way it incorporates a strong vertical element reminds me of the upright burial in the Neues Museum in Berlin: an economic use of space as well as an interesting break from the usual case distribution.
The other aspect I liked about this room is the high ledge along the lefthand wall. Supporting a set of Greek funerary monuments, it acts like the original base that would have elevated these objects far above the ancient viewer's eye level (as in the example of the Dexileos stele, a replica of which can be seen here in the original context). Like the columbarium in the Altes Museum in Berlin, this gives the museumgoer a better idea of the original display context of these objects than if they were set at ground level or in a case. The trade-off is that their details are not easy to see from this distance and angle; but this seems a fair trade, in that it makes excellent use of large marble objects that don't need the climate control or protection that a case provides.
Don't fret, your eyes are not going half-fuzzy: this is the next innovative display idea from the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg. In a special exhibition on provenance (itself very nicely done, with all the right questions and answers about provenance written into the wall and object texts), this case stood out for several reasons. First of all, the construction-worker orange color under the silver objects. Like the bright purple in the Cabinet of Curiosities display or the cerulean blue in the Greek galleries, I'm not convinced that the color enhances the objects; but it does a fabulous job of acting like a tractor beam to reel in the viewer. Bright! Shiny! Must get closer!
The second feature that struck me is the use of stickers on the glass walls of the case. As in the bubble effect in the Egyptian gallery, here too it seems that vinyl stickers were smoothed onto the panes in order to direct the eye in certain ways. Here the stickers are more subtle than the circular cut-outs: they are clear and just barely textured so as to give the glass a frosted appearance. Cut into large triangles and laid at irregular angles, they create an almost hallucinatory effect as you look into the case. The photo below shows how the stickers echo the geometric gray printed background on the back and base of the case, while the upper photo illustrates the sometimes dizzying effect of looking at an object half-obscured by fog. Yet I loved it, despite feeling vaguely disoriented. As an optical illusion of sorts, it asks the viewer to look closely to figure out just what she's seeing; and in so doing, it gets her to stay put, scrutinize, change viewpoint, look again. That is a great achievement. And in my experience, even if my attention was first focused on the case, it certainly shifted to the objects.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.