A final post about the glorious Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam! This time a technical apect of its permanent exhibition Afterlives of Slavery. Here the display technology resembles a bit the industrical metal grid in the Flesh exhibition currently on in Berlin. The difference is, here the grid is used as a platform for attaching all sorts of materials, not just hanging labels and pictures. Most creatively, the structure is used to best advantage by being paired with a flexible plastic sheet on which the texts are printed; the plastic is cut into strips that can be woven directly into the grid! At right you can see two varieties of this technique, an overall-basket-weave at the top and a just-the-corners tactic below. Allowing infinite combinations and configurations is a huge advantage for such a material. I can imagine it being trotted out time and again for all sorts of different exhibitions, a handy device in the museum's tool box.
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.
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!
Hamburg's Archaeological Museum in Harburg is a gem. The first-floor gallery, pictured above, is relatively small but packed with wildly creative displays. An artificial dirt-and-rock floor (all glued down, safe to walk and scramble on) strikes the right tone for the prehistoric collections. Just so the dark ceiling, recalling a cave or perhaps the night sky. It's atmospheric, certainly; but more than that, the playfulness helps to emphasize the content rather than distracting from it. Who could expect otherwise from the creative team, Ravensberger Freizeit und Promotion, famous for their educational board games! Here are just a few examples:
Every year the American Alliance of Museums confers awards for great exhibition design and label-writing (among other categories.) The 2015 lists are out! You can see the former here as a quick list and the latter here in a more expansive format with photos and descriptions. Of the many worthy entries, my personal favorite was a label by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for the Zulu beer pot pictured above. (You might want to check it out in the MIA's beautiful online catalog, which is not only sleekly designed but includes audio clips and free image downloads.) As reproduced on page 6 of the AAM report, this label brings out the object's visual qualities and social importance at once—certainly deserving its prize.
My second-favorite label appears on page 9: an outdoor panel at the La Brea Tar Pits. It even has something in common with the beer pot label: vivid opening lines. Who could refuse to read further after "The stinky dead mastodon was irresistible" or "How is brewing beer like growing babies?"
Airport exhibitions have the benefit of one thing that other exhibitions can only dream about: a captive audience! But they also have to address some challenges particular to their location. An exhibition on musical instruments titled "Wonderful Winds" at the St. Louis International Airport caught my eye because it is situated on a raised island right where arriving passengers turn the corner between the gates and the baggage claim. Its design is sleek and minimalist—I wonder if airport security regulations impose certain requirements on lines of sight?—and the wall space is small enough that a single wall panel fills the usable surface. The warm lighting and intense color of the back wall create a welcoming atmosphere and encourage you to step inside. Reduced to a few cases and a single wall panel, this exhibition contains all the necessities and is well-pitched to its audience—passengers and welcoming parties with a few minutes to spare, lured into this oasis amidst the usual airport ruckus.
Yesterday saw the finale of an ambitious multi-year project in the National Museums of Berlin meant to probe the issues in displaying ethnographic collections today. This "Humboldt Lab" took place in Berlin's Ethnological Museum and raised some fantastically interesting questions—like the problem of displaying sacred objects not meant to be seen, the subject of an earlier post on this blog. The publication accompanying the seven "trial" exhibits constructed as part of the Lab is lovely too; I look forward to reading it. (For anyone interested in ordering a copy but undecided on which language, go for the original German—the text is much more readable than the English translation.) Although I'll be sad to see the old museum close (below is a view of the sleek South Pacific galleries, reopened in 2004), it will be exciting to see how the museum moves ahead with the results of this unique petri-dish opportunity!
Running across this article this week was serendipitous because it aligns perfectly with the last post on how to display something too small to see. A similar display problem is facing the team behind the Humboldt Forum, a huge new cultural space being built in the center of Berlin. Among other things, the Ethnological Museum will move into this space—and has made this an opportunity to experiment with new, sometimes radical display ideas. Exhibiting objects from "non-European cultures" (the term used in all HuFo materials) is difficult to do tactfully, to say the least; and one of the most intriguing problems that has come up in this respect was addressed in an article from a promotional magazine put out by the Forum. The title and tag line say it all: "Secret Objects. How can you display objects that are so sacred, so secret, that the uninitiated are not even allowed to see them?" The sign in the case reads "Object removed for spiritual reasons."
One of the examples in the article, small inscribed stones from Australia that are considered sacred and "unshowable" in this way, was proposed for a display that included not the stones themselves but 3-D prints of them, along with authentic materials associated with how the stones were used (such as incense). This indeed follows the letter of the law by not showing the stones themselves—but is showing a perfect replica of them a respectful solution? Another proposal has the (real) objects in a case that is somehow clouded or shrouded, from which the veil is lifted for a few seconds every so many minutes to offer visitors a peek inside while still preserving the objects "unseen" for most of the time. This seems to me a dangerously titillating solution, encouraging a peeping-Tom voyeurism that would defeat any modicum of respect for the objects and their culture. It is an extremely difficult problem that the HuFo team is facing; I look forward, not without anxiety, to seeing their answer.
Communicating complex scientific information in a compelling way can be a challenge. This display at the Civico Museo Archeologico di Milano does a beautiful job of breaking down a wealth of fairly abstruse information into four color-coded sections. With bright colors, digestible texts, and an inviting skeleton (always a draw!), the exhibit effectively explains what information can be gathered from ancient bones. At the top is an introduction to the fields of physical anthropology and epidemiology, and to the specific themes elaborated below. Below, labels describe several physical characteristics that can be determined from bones; and in a wonderful example of show-me pedagogy, the bones that are most indicative for each characteristic sit beside the label. So at left, in the red stripe, is a paragraph about "Race" and an explanation of how the length of the femur can aid in an identification. In yellow is "Maladies," including degenerative, nutritional, and traumatic varieties, each represented by a bone marked with an orange dot at the most indicative site. "Age" is detailed in blue, again juxtaposed with the representative bones. Green discusses "Sex" with the help of two pelvic bones and two skulls, a male and a female. That the complete skeleton sitting in the corner is color-coded to match the single bones and themes is the icing on the cake: an excellent clarifying illustration. In every respect, this exhibit fulfills what its title promises: it intelligibly introduces "The skeleton in the service of archaeology." And in a lively manner at that — a true feat, given the lifeless subject!
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.