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.
Another notable aspect of the show KWAB in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam is the background painting. Walls and floors alike are painted with bold black-and-white designs carefully arranged to highlight the objects. This geniusly serves several purposes:
The painting can be used to make an object really pop out at you. The beautiful ebony armoir above (left) gains a whole new life from the white moon behind it. The sinuous curves at the top of the chest stand out against the light background, and the hovering circle gives the piece a lively dynamic—almost as if it were a nocturnal creature standing in a moonlit landscape.
The tiny silver pitcher above (right) gets an injection of energy from the white rays radiating out across the floor. They turn the pitcher into the source of a geometric explosion, and who doesn't want to look closer at that??
The same black-and-white painting technique on the walls is used in another way, namely to recreate a sense of the objects' original context. Keeping the monotone palette is a nice way to keep the "reconstruction" attempt from becoming distracting, while at the same time contextualizing objects rather unfamiliar to a modern viewer. In the photo below, the oval painting in an elaborate wooden frame is hard to imagine wanting to hang on your living room wall; but with the illusionistic swags of drapery emanating from it, it gains the elegance and appropriateness to the opulent display context it was originally meant for.
In the room below, a different pattern is used to imitate the wall decorations of the time, which in richer houses included embossed leather (!) wallpaper and wooden paneling:
3. Directing Movement
In both the room above and that shown below, the wall and floor painting is used to encourage us to move through the exhibition in certain ways. Above, a long white band leads us from the bottom right (a doorway is just off the photo to the right), along the wall of drawings, and over to the paintings at left, where the half-circle of white under the center painting encourages us to linger.
White stripes and circles similarly guide our movement between these two glass cases, this time reinforced by a subtle white curve on the rear wall:
Such a simple and effective device as these paintings seems worth keeping in mind. Certainly, painting the floor will not often be possible in an exhibition, depending on the space (the Getty Villa's marble floors...). But for the wall paintings at least, I would be curious whether the extra cost and time for installation makes them practical or prohibitive.
Until September 16, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is showing an exhibition called KWAB. Kwab is the name given to fantastical furnishing designs featuring plant-animal fusions in the Dutch Golden Age. Refreshingly, the exhibition left the confinements of standard exhibition design and tried out some very eye-catching new things—paralleling the inventiveness of kwab design itself. The next few posts will highlight some of these elements.
Entering the exhibition brings you face-to-face with the first dramatic device: a huge video sceen showing one of the exhibited objects, filmed in a constantly-moving, close-up pan in various directions. We swirl around, up, into, over, and down the golden vase. Although I'm wary of giving viewers a screen to focus on instead of the object itself, this was a good way to highlight some of the hard-to-see details of the intricate piece. It makes you want to go into the show and find it. Also, most objects in the show are fairly small or, because they are furnishings, not particularly arresting to a visitor expecting "art" in terms of huge Rembrandt paintings—so the massive screen and close-up perspective help draw attention to objects that need it. In the Rijksmuseum, any object that isn't The Night Watch needs all the help it can get!
The feedback room of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin impressed me with its way of cleanly showcasing visitor responses in multiple languages. In answer to a prompt (how would you define a certain term - values, trade, border, echo), visitors write their responses on paper sheets, some of which, presumably, then get printed onto the big colorful sheets you see on the wall. Emphasizing that the visitors respond in many languages, the museum has hung a copy of the original language beside one translated into English—overlapping, so that they are visually clearly joined.
For two more days, the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin is showing its critical exhibition Hello World. Divided into "chapters" which all have their own titles and are housed in different arms of the building, the exhibition as a whole addresses one question: What would a collection of contemporary art like the HB's look like if it weren't so Western-focused? Needless to say, particularly with the Humboldt Forum being built not far from here, this topic is urgent. Because I want this blog to continue focusing on design elements (for now, anyway), here I'll just point out a few sources for reading more about the immense debates that this show takes on.
The "chapter" formed around a part of the permanent collection (the Erich Marx Collection, above), titled The Human Rights of the Eye, features the works of Rauschenberg, Warhol, Twombly, and others that don't fit into the exhibition's diversity- and global-oriented themes. To frame them in the terms of Hello World, the curators invited the graphic arts duo cyan to intervene. The artists created collages beside the Marx Collection paintings, each collage reflecting visual aspects as well as content from the painting nearby in order to "trace the multilayered cultural interweavings" in the paintings. I did not feel that this was successful to the point of recasting the collection as "global;" nonetheless, I liked very much the dialogue between modern masterpieces and contemporary collages offering a cloud of associations. I can imagine this format—particularly the large shapes like speech bubbles emerging from the artworks—for all sorts of material relevant to the object, including the usual label information, relevant archival material, or even calendar listings for related events in the museum. Here of course the focus was rather on the collages as art themselves. Still, one collage included archival material in the form of a letter by Rauschenberg about his teacher Albers, which I found philosophically inspiring; see below.
Another wonderful current exhibition at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is Fashion Cities Africa. Like the Body Art show described in the last post, Fashion Cities presents a rainbow of human creativity—and of dyed fabrics! The use of cloth in the show cleverly highlights the theme and at the same time subdivides the space into cozy sections. At the entrance (above), sheets of whitewashed plywood are used as backings for introductory images and texts. Each panel introduces a local designer of African fashion, photographed on the street as if you had just run into them personally; once again it's that intimate human connection that flows throughout the museum. The boards are hung up with thick ropes at top and bottom, a very tactile nod to the cloth-and-design theme.
The second room (or second-to-last, if you entered at the other end) is encircled with hanging yards of cloth in various patterns. With pillows and chairs inside, it offers an alluring spot to tuck yourself into—the museum version of a sofa-cushion fort! Panels outside the ring of cloth explain how the colorful patterns came originally from, for instance, Indonesia (batik cloth), reached the Netherlands through colonial exchange, and from there was sent to Africa. It's a much more complex, indeed global history than one might expect. And it stays with you much more when you can touch this stuff of history, feel it, wrap yourself in it!
*stuff: from Old French estoffe = material, furniture. The German word for fabric is in fact Stoff. There's your cocktail-party knowledge for the day!
Last week a new museum topped my list of favorites: the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam. All too rarely does a museum visit energize you—but, for me, this one did! Instead of museum fatigue and an aching back, I felt revived. The energy and freshness of this museum come from a beautiful openness of worldview, reflected in both the chosen themes and the carefully-written texts (not to mention the program of events). Even the permanent exhibition about slavery manages to sound considered and non-judgmental while at the same time exposing the horrific facts.
This openness is the ideal, indeed necessary complement to the museum's main focus: people. Period. To such an extent that both the website and the museum itself refuse to limit this focus further by mentioning the "tropical" cultures which originally gave the museum its name, or any other restrictive vocabulary. The mission statement is staunchly about people, for people. It obviously intends to take a stand against the colonialist agenda that informed the museum's foundation. Still, at first I found it almost too vague—until stepping inside. People really are the focus of the exhibitions, and it's fantastically invigorating. Encountering so many vibrant cultures feels like standing in the sun streaming through a stained-glass window, all the blues and reds and greens painting and warming your skin, touched by the cosmic light.
But maybe I just came up with that metophor through the inspiration of one of the beautiful human-based current exhibitions, Body Art. Typical of the Tropenmuseum is the human focus and breadth of people included here. Bodily modifications and clothing are examined not by culture or time but according to the desired effect, from making a person feel "different to the others" (above left, extreme piercings and makeup), expressing a group identity (below center, mafia tattoos), or displaying wealth. This grouping allows for striking juxtapositions: under the title "Eigenzinnig" = "Self-Determined" or "Quirky" (above right) are, on one side, a shockingly tiny belt from the days of corsets; and on the other, a contemporary photograph of a woman with a split tongue. Just so can unexpected differences be drawn, as for instance with tattoos. Facial tattoos were carried out on the beautiful girls in a southeast Asian village so that they would appear too strange or ugly for the local ruler to claim as a wife, and could thus remain safely in their communities. A grandson of a Holocaust survivor had his grandfather's concentration camp tattoo reproduced on his own forearm as a permanent reminder (below left).
For all these reasons, I was deeply affected by this exhibition. Even more so because of the intimacy of the setting, arranged like a living room from last century. The homey feeling gives our bodies a safe, comfortable space to inhabit while we reflect on how we use them to express ourselves.
At the show Luxury in Silk (Luxus in Seide) in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, the subject of yesterday's post as well, this wall caught my eye. Clearly the arrangement of words is based on the word clouds now used on websites to visualize the most frequent search terms and clicks. But here the cloud serves to show the plethora of jobs in the 18th century that had to do with creating clothing, shoes, and jewelry ("Mode-Metiers im 18. Jahrhundert"). It's interesting to see such an aesthetic transition from an online space to a physical one.
The second stunning exhibition I got to see recently at the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg concerns painting and the birth of photography. Light and Canvas. Photography and Painting in the 19th Century does a wonderful job of presenting a complex subject: how did the invention of photography change painting, and how did the long tradition of painting influence early photography? The display underscores the dual protagonists of the story: the paintings are hung on vaguely kohlrabi-green walls, while the photographs inhabit black-walled chambers separated off from the main gallery space. The walls framing the entrance to the chambers are reflective silver overlain with black images, recalling early silver prints (visible above left). This is a genius conception for several reasons:
Overall I was hugely impressed by the effective presentation of such a complex subject and such a challenge in terms of display. You're in for a treat if you get a chance to go; it's open through September 9, 2018.
Over the weekend I got to visit two beautiful exhibitions in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg. The one about painting and the birth of photography will be the subject of a future post; today it's all about silk dresses! The show Luxury in Silk (Luxus in Seide, through Jan. 6) centers on a newly acquired silk dress from the 18th century. It is displayed in a chamber of its own in the center of the square exhibition room, with the "supporting actors" surrounding it: brooches and other period jewelry, old books and caricatures documenting fashion trends, and several pieces of clothing and shoes in unfinished form.
Displaying a pair of soccer star Mo Salah's shoes in the middle of a gallery of ancient Egyptian sculpture—as reported in this article in The Guardian, screenshot above—is a display tactic all of its own. Capitalizing on World Cup fever is just one element. What's more, the incursion of such a colorful, everyday, clearly modern material into a room full of old, imposing, monochromatic statues is eye-catching. In this case it's also a powerful statement about cultural heritage: keeper Neal Spencer says that "The boots tell a story of a modern Egyptian icon, performing in the UK, with a truly global impact." The same could be said of the ancient colossi surrounding the shoes. As museums are increasingly confronted with dissatisfaction about cultural colonialism and claims of presenting a "global heritage," such displays trying to engage the debates are on the rise. Successful or not, the fact that they engage at all is a first step toward improving how we teach and learn about culture through objects.
A current special exhibition at the Altes Museum in Berlin called "Fleisch" (Meat) focuses on the cultural significance of meat. Ranging from the religious rites of animal sacrifice to the lustful gaze directed at nude female bodies, the theme is perhaps overstretched; but as an interdepartmental intitiative it is exemplary, and its design is beautiful. The most striking component is industrial-grade rebar lattices painted a fleshy pink, serving as the mount for signage and pictures; these are attached with simple S-hooks reminiscent of meathooks. It's a simple, cost-effective device which here also highlights the theme of the show—very tasteful!
Paging through Edward Tufte's book Visual Explanations (1997) is instructive not only for graphic designers, but anyone creating—or even reading!—visual displays. In a distinctly personal, engaging voice, Tufte explains what makes effective visual presentations for all sorts of information. He does not feel compelled to hide his disdain for a bad design, and he openly celebrates a good one. One example is the diagram of an ear at the top of the page above. Tufte so loathes the design at left, with its heavy lines almost indistinguishable from the ear itself and its cryptic letter labels, that he compares it to a Renaissance drawing of a man being stuck with swords (below). He juxtaposes the bad design with one he finds preferable, in which the indicator lines are finer than those delineating the ear and the nonsense letters are replaced with the names themselves. The thickness of the lines is highly significant, Tufte points out: one thickness should be used for the drawing of the ear (the object being explained), another for the indicator lines (the metalevel of our knowledge). The two grids at the bottom of the page show this again with two different thicknesses of line used in the background pattern; the diagonal lines overlying them are harder to distinguish in the lefthand example because they are nearly the same thickness as the background lines.
The facing pages shown below illustrate not only Tufte's exasperation at bad design and his acerbic wit at its expense, but also the huge range of applicability of his principles. At left is a painting by Ad Reinhardt, which Tufte uses as another illustration of how subtle differences can have great meaning (here in the shades of blue rendered in three nearly imperceptible vertical bands; Reinhardt wanted to focus the viewer's attention on these simple and subtle differences).
Art historians, of course, are very accustomed to comparing two objects (a cornerstone of the discipline since Wölfflin), but they do it differently than people who are not trained to look for certain details or to already know certain things about the objects. This can lead to the display of a group of objects which makes art-historical sense but not intuitive, repeated-image-viewing sense. In the Neues Museum in Berlin (below), one room has a timeline written on the wall behind a row of Egyptian sculptures. The intent is to show how humans were portrayed in Egyptian art over time. But the earliest objects happen to be just heads, while the later ones represent entire bodies. The repetition of heads at first, and the subsequent break with this repetition, gives the false impression that what changed around 1600 BC is that the Egyptians started depicting people with bodies. Or perhaps in a different color of stone? Meaningful similarities and differences are hard to notice because of the many other factors at play beyond just the one meant to be highlighted.
Recently the Berliner Zeitung published an interview with me in their series of "Berliner Weltverbesserer" ("Berliners Bettering the World")—a title I can only hope to aspire to! I'm especially proud to be one of the first humanities scholars interviewed for the series. Archaeology can stand up to nanotechnology in bettering the world! That is my view, anyway, as I try to show in this short text about what I find important about my research. The understanding of other cultures is something I try to underscore in my work, since I think it helps us to better understand and respect our modern multicultural world. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian interactions 2000 years ago can tell us a surprising amount about our intercultural interactions today!
Over the last several months I've been impressed by a new trend in exhibitions pairing ancient art with modern and contemporary art in thoughtful, provocative ways. So much so that I wrote a position piece about it, now posted here under the exhibition reviews section. Please feel free to leave comments below; it's all about the dialogue!
Peeks behind the scenes are the best! Everyone loves a glimpse behind that institutional facade, whatever the institution. Museums are no different (see Wiseman's film on the National Gallery), and conservation in action is an increasingly popular way to give visitors a little look-see.
This case in the beautiful Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen is fondly knows as the Nasothek—the gallery of noses. (Although there are a few ears in there too.) These facial parts were once added onto ancient portrait sculptures in the modern period in order to fill in the missing parts. This was common practice in past centuries, when ancient art was considered best when flawless. Noses, as a protuberant and thus frequently knocked-off piece of sculpture, were restored by the dozens.
Nowadays, however, the principle of object care has changed. Instead of restoring ancient sculpture to make it look perfect, museums consider their primary task to preserve what they have as best they can. This means no more gluing on modern additions, rhinoplastic or otherwise. In fact, it can even mean removing those additions from previous centuries. This was the Glyptoteket's decision, resulting in a lot of loose noses rattling around in a storage box somewhere. Why not display them in a striking array and thereby tell a bit of the history of modern receptions of ancient art? Still better with a Roman portrait head next to it, its own nose and brow additions removed, thus telling most of the story at the very first glance.
Of course, two decisions have to be made before the question of display tactics even arises.
Then, and only then:
This last question raises further questions about intended audience, etc.—the subject of immeasurable spilled ink already, and still flowing (good thing; we need the flood). The first question, about whether to display at all, is equally complex and has been addressed in a small way even on this blog. Let's turn to the second question.
What is displayed has as much impact on the message of the exhibit as how it's diplayed. (Yes, all exhibits have a message, whether conscious or not. My students seem to grasp this better than many professionals.) The Museo Egizio in Turin is currently co-hosting an exhibition that makes this clear in the most laudable self-critical move I have ever seen a museum make. Please send other examples if you know of some; in my experience, this is unique. This archaeology museum has decided to highlight the problems of where its objects come from, under what circumstances of colonialism or other duress they were acquired, and what role or right a museum even has to create knowledge around them.
How does it achieve this very tall order? By exhibiting works of contemporary art that raise these issues. Above (screenshot from the museums' Facebook site), a piece by Liz Glynn in her series "Surrogate Objects for the Metropolitan" imitates some of the look of a Greek vase while also announcing its collage-like materials as if for a humble craft project. It thus questions the value of Greek vases—after all, many were simply the red plastic cups of their day—as well as the way the museum literally puts them on a pedestal, and the effect this has on what we think of them, how we value them.
A piece by Ali Cherri in the Turin exhibition positions a taxidermied hawk triumphantly spreading its wings over a table full of archaeological objects. This is a powerful image to highlight the potential predatory nature of dealing in antiquities. For an archaeological museum to champion awareness of these issues is as surprising and new as it is exemplary. It is a typically inspiring move by museum messiah oops I mean director Christian Greco. Hopefully he will inspire many, many other museums to follow suit.
The building of a large drainage pipe under Berlin's Mauerpark is a triumphant example of how simple display concepts can be transformative. Rather than making yet another annoying construction zone in the city, and this one right in at the entrance to the most popular park, the organizers decided to make it an attraction in itself. They achieved this by erecting a wooden wall around the main building area and decorating it with fun and informative panels. The biggest and most iconic is the cartoon cross-section of the pipe itself (above). The pipe introduces itself through a speech bubble: "I'm a drainage pipe with a 4.4-meter diameter"! More detailed panels describe the water system in depth. Around the corner, a spin wheel with exercise challenges on it ("do 5 pushups!" etc.) is a further attraction. Most surprising of all, you can see it all and learn more on a beautiful modern website devoted to the project! Way to go, Berliner Wasserbetriebe.
The brand new special exhibition at the Plaster Cast Collection in Berlin features this piece, a cast of an ancient sculpture depicting two wrestlers. Just the head of one wrestler and his hand intertwined with the hand of his opponent is preserved. The fragmentary preservation adds to the drama of the piece, as it leaves the modern viewer to decipher what is going on in this tiny excerpt of tumult. The display heightens this even more, with the stark white of the piece brightly lit against its dark pedestal; the effect is a further disembodying of these twisted human parts. The display fits the piece, as the Germans would say, wie die Faust aufs Auge: literally, "like a fist in your eye"— that is, like a glove.
In the exhibition Repliken Wissen = Replica Knowledge, currently in Berlin's Tieranatomisches Theater, all of the objects are original—and none of them are. The exhibition displays modern replicas of Minoan and Mycenaean art in order to point out that replicas, far from being simply reproductions of some much more interesting "originals," have their own stories to tell. Their lifetimes may not be as old as that of the archaeological objects they copy, but they are complex, thrilling, and illuminating in their own way. Displaying multiple replicas made from the same model (such as the drinking cups above) highlights this theme of copying.
One of the display techniques that cleverly underscored this message consisted of pools of plaster under the objects on the glass shelves. These slightly irregular blobs form a much-needed opaque backdrop and injection of color to frame the pieces, which, many in shiny metal, would otherwise melt into a sea of reflections in the glinting vitrines. Moreover, the plaster pools (as curator Felix Sattler explained on a tour) recall the process of molding and pouring plaster replicas of the ancient objects. Thus the theme of the show is reinforced by its display. Definitely worth a visit, as is the Theater building itself; it's up through the end of March.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.