Halle's State Museum of Prehistory (Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte) has impressive pieces and ways to display them. The display of Bronze-Age axe heads (above and right) is a dazzling way to emphasize how ubiquitous these tools were: they were the tool of their day, essential to some of the most basic life functions. Precious and finely worked, yet so necessary as to be owned not only by the elite. (The smart phones of their day?) I found the display not only visually pleasing but a good teaching moment for precisely that reason.
The juxtaposition of the axe heads with plaster faces in a modern art piece was also arresting!
One last post will conclude this series on the Landesmuseum Hannover. These expansive walls of watercolor landscapes, lit from behind with an even glow, run throughout the exhibition of Saxon archaeology. As an artist, art historian and admiring niece of a wonderful mural artist, I fell in love with these immediately. But they operate beyond the realm of personal preference, I swear! Not only do they add color to the display without complicating the view of the objects themselves—which remain on a white ground—but they flesh out the objects' use contexts. Each mural is crafted to show the phase of prehistory that the objects belong to. The type of housing shown is accurate to the time; so is the state of nature or agriculture. But to be honest, it is so bewitching to see a gorgeous watercolor at this scale that I could care less about the content... Oh wait, not really! Bad art historian!
The keen-eyed will have seen that the white cutouts of boulders at left are represented in the painting at right—and that this sort of construction to contextualize the objects was discussed in the last post.
Another element of the Landesmuseum Hannover's ethnographic displays that I quite liked was this wall of musical instruments from Sumatra and Papua New Guinea. It's not only a beautifully minimalist, vertical display—an unusually artistic layout for such practical objects—but it is brought to life by recordings of each instrument at the touch of a button. Seated at the white podium, you can put an earpiece to your ear and select an instrument from the diagram to listen to. Watching two girls do this together, taking turns choosing, was a sight to warm any curator's heart! Plus, this display is in the same room as the complete gamelan instrument ensemble, which is even used in concerts. Now that's really bringing the displays to life!
Many museums are currently asking themselves how to appropriately deal with their ethnographic collections (see links in my previous posts on the subject). Some major European museums, although notably not all, are now openly acknowledging the role that colonialism played in their acquisitions. Reading the work and watching the lectures of Bénédicte Savoy on this topic would be an absorbing job for a wonderful few months. Some museums are even putting on exhibitions about their colonial past, such as Voices from the Colonies at the National Museum of Denmark. While it has been rightly pointed out that ethnographic material is not the only site of colonialism in museums—that museums themselves are colonialist structures—it is certainly one of the most obvious. And if the museums themselves do not take action, others will: the "Guerilla, Activist-Led Tour of Looted Artifacts at the British Museum" made headlines last year.
Against this background, the Landesmuseum Hannover has taken commendable action in its own ethnographic displays. Particularly striking is the section marked off by a decorative metal dividing wall stamped with the word "Kolonialismus" in the center. This is an imposing marker of the surrounding area, and invites a curious new way of looking through the cutout letters (see photo above). On display here are objects presented in a story of colonial interaction, from depictions of visiting Europeans made by Africans whose lands were being colonized, to a 19th-century painting titled "Smoking Moor" for which the Landesmuseum has provded a modified label: "Moor" has been crossed out and "Human" (Mensch) added instead. It is a small but effective way to reframe objects we might otherwise pass over, and to make us question the metanarratives of museum exhibitions.
Such a simple yet effective idea: an object-of-the-month display at the museum entrance. Here it's the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin, and the object in "Das aktuelle Schaufenster" (the current showcase) is a contemporary Swedish dress used in the celebrations of Saint Lucy. You can see the doors of the main entrance just to the right. What a great way to bring out of storage some objects that may not fit into the other exhibitions, and draw in the visitors as soon as they step over the threshold!
Berlin's Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen), whose ethnographic collections spread over an impressive range, currently has an exhibition on wool. I was eager to see it primarily because the subject seems a hard sell for the public; how can it be presented in a lively way? Secondly, cloth culture looms large (ha!) in both of my main projects right now. Luxury textiles in the ancient Mediterranean are one touchstone of my book-in-progress; and textile production as a female activity is a current focus of my gender studies research, connected to my role as Women's Representative in two departments.
The exhibition turned out to have several tricks up its sleeve. (The puns just won't stop!) I quite liked the rack of woolen knitwear hung from the ceiling (above) as a way to invigorate the space and use that lofty ceiling. The wall graphic of a thread connecting the exhibition exponents is a good idea, although I admit I only noticed it too late—among other things, it visually links demo videos to otherwise inscrutable woolworking devices which I noodled over a while before realizing that the explanation was just a step away.
My absolute favorite part of the show, however, is the DIY weaving station (above; detail below). This was the perfect way to solidify some knowledge of the weaving process. Hands-on activities are underused educational devices for adults! We all have a bit of kinesthetic learner in us. Using the provided tablets loaded with demo videos of knitting, weaving, crocheting, and embroidering, I got a 1-minute overview of some weaving techniques and tried it out immediately. As you can see (below), my interest was in interweaving two colors of yarn. It's harder than it looks...
This experience was enriching in several ways. I gained new respect for the skill and physical labor involved in weaving, and the fact that women worldwide have been charged with this incredibly taxing and important task for thousands of years. (This podcast episode from Classics Confidential, Weaving Women's Stories, is another fabulous way to gain appreciation for that!) In doing this tiny bit of weaving myself, I also realized how meditative weaving can be, how it keeps the hands and a part of the brain busy while allowing other parts of the brain to wander. The image of Penelope weaving every day takes on new meaning; this woman had a lot of time to think over her life, her husband, her suitors, her island kingdom. Relationships between women could be built up in the time spent spinning wool together, as demonstrated by two Hungarian grandmothers in a video in the exhibition. Suddenly the age-old (patriarchal, need it be said) associations of women spinning and knitting, plotting and gossiping makes more sense. Spinning yarns, embroidering tales—how enlightening!
In preparation for a public forum I'm co-organizing next week (Decolonize Mitte! Humboldt Forum, Museum Island, and Schloss—all are welcome to attend!) I've been thinking a lot about ethnographic museums. How can we make them spaces that "work for us," in the sense that they encourage learning, understanding, respect, tolerance, community building, engagement, discourse? Ethnographic collections are a focal point of current debates on provenance research and how to make museums for a modern, anticolonialist world; they are the crucible from which new metals will be poured, hopefully shaping other museums as well. Antiquities collections, more my area of expertise, can look to them for guidance not only in displaying provenance research, but in engaging visitors by telling human stories in a strikingly candid way.
Dresden's Museum für Völkerkunde seems to me exemplary in this respect. Even its online presence makes clear its priorities: connecting people through its displays of things. Its homepage centers on a wonderful statement of just this ("Erzählungen von Menschen, Dingen und Orten" = Stories of people, things, and places) and an introduction that cuts right to the chase: Where did all this stuff come from, and why is it in Germany? Museum visitors make this one of their first questions in the antiquities collections I've worked in, and especially in the current climate they are very likely to do the same in the Dresden ethnographic museum. They will appreciate the no-nonsense approach:
"Today, the uniqueness of many of the objects goes hand in hand with the necessary questions regarding their origin. Who created them and why? How did they come to Dresden? Were these objects given as gifts, sold or even taken from their original owners during the colonial era?"
This is a brave thing to put on the homepage of any museum, particularly with the final phrase raising the potential for repatriation claims. Just so the link to find out more about the collection history (pictured above), whose token photo is a Benin bronze depicting a European man aiming a rifle. A more succinct summary of the conflicted acquisition history could hardly be imagined—how honest to put it right up front!
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.
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 the article "Geheime Dinge" (page 46) 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.