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!
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 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.
From time to time, of course objects have to go off display—to be conserved, to go traveling, to be studied. But for a visitor it's frustrating to see an empty space in the display case; so what are the options for filling it? Particularly if the object is coming back soon, replacing it may not be practical. Personally I like the simple-yet-effective photograph of the missing object with a little caption about what a great time it's having on tour (or whatever the reason it's absent; remember the spiritual objects that are not allowed to be seen?).
One variation on this predicament—and its solution—caught my eye at the archaeological site of Prima Porta, just north of Rome. The Roman villa here (the "Villa of Livia," built in the 1st century BC) has a nice big pool out in the garden that was once surrounded by columns, as well as a black-and-white mosaic floor depicting marine creatures. To protect the remains of the badly damaged floor, a wooden platform has now been built over it. But this hides the mosaic! And the traces of the columned porch! So it was decided to adorn the platform with wooden discs representing the position of the columns, and black paintings of the mosaic sea creatures still frolicking beneath the plywood. The result gives an impression of the original layout while still protecting the remains.
An exhibition on Chinese antiquities currently in Berlin's Neues Museum uses a couple of display tricks worth noting. One consists of long banners stretching from the first few display cases up to the two-story-high glass ceiling—a wonderful use of the cavernous space! It's simple, cheap, and very eye-catching. The black banners are printed with the name "Egypt" in several languages; the red ones with "China." In this way the banners serve as the introduction to the second display tactic that caught my eye: throughout the exhibition (no photography allowed beyond the atrium, sadly), the Chinese objects are always placed on red risers or red squares as a background. The Egyptian objects get the same treatment but in black. Because the exhibition is arranged by theme rather than culture (e.g., how each culture respectively approached currency, votive offerings to gods, and so on), the red and black color-coding is a very useful visual cue for which culture produced any given object.
The upper floor of Hamburg's Archaeological Museum doesn't plunge the visitor into an immersive landscape as the lower floor does (subject of the last post). Rather than turning windowless walls into a black cave, this floor uses walls of windows to leverage its position on a park and pedestrian walk, bringing inside the natural light and greenery.
In one section of this airy space is an exhibit highlighting artifacts found around the museum. Arranged on a transit map of the area (similar to this room of Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum), the objects each have a grab bar near them like those in a bus or tram—complete with the red STOP button! When you push the button, a voice from the speaker in the pedestal first announces the name of the transit stop and then tells you about the artifact found there. It's a playful and effective way to show the visitor that history really comes from the places she commutes every day. Announcing the name of the stop reinforces this, as well as the transit theme itself. And ask any five-year-old: who doesn't love pressing those buttons!?
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:
Divine#Design, an exhibition running through October at the Antikensammlungen and Glyptothek in Munich brings contemporary fashion into dialogue with ancient sculpture (somewhat like the exhibit in Aidone, Sicily described in a recent post). Students at the AMD Akademie Mode & Design were invited to create clothing inspired by the highlights of the antiquities collection. The juxtaposition of old and new is meant to raise questions about the social relevance and effect of clothing, makeup, and hairstyle. For perhaps the first time, an antiquities show has earned a slideshow in Vogue magazine! Flipping through the slides shows the many ways the students responded to the ancient objects: in texture ("swallowtail" folds in a hemline), color (lots of whites and beiges), content (a real snake posed beside a head of Medusa), and form (a petticoat cage shaped like a vase; a "fat suit" to imitate musculature). The sheer imagination of these designers brings new life to the collection.
As if a cave-turned-gallery weren't cool enough, what if the cave is in a fantastical Cappadocian fairy chimney? It sounds (and looks!) straight out of Dr. Seuss, but it's real: the Cappadox art festival comprises dozens of art installations in and around these otherworldly stone towers. As Emma Stone in Hyperallergic reports, the installations range from single sculptures to multimedia ensembles. The piece pictured above fits particularly well into the rock-hewn environment; a space once used for graves and chapels now houses these vaguely steampunky arachnocreatures. It's a superb way to spotlight both the living, breathing contemporary art and the (UNESCO-listed) historic cultural site.
The brand-new archaeological museum at Pully (near Lausanne) is dedicated to an ancient Roman villa discovered at this site, overlooking Lake Leman. Fragments of fresco that decorated the villa's walls are exhibited in cases dedicated to certain themes—shown here is "Aux bains," "At the baths." Displayed within are pieces of fresco from the villa's bath complex, which was painted with marine scenes in keeping with the watery function of the rooms. Not only is the graphic design of the panels clean and bright, but the cases feature a cute pedagogical concept: small stickers on the glass are shaped like speech bubbles, some with tails pointing to fresco fragments as if they were talking! In the photo above, a painting of a fisherman seems to call out, "It's fresh, my fish is fresh! The fishing was good today." The bubbles at the top right introduce an authentic Roman recipe for fish sauce, quoting an ancient author, while the small bubble at left asks, "Did you know that fish farming was invented by the Romans?" It's a playful way to draw attention to individual objects, and particularly well-designed to engage young museum visitors.
The archaeological museum at Aidone, Sicily presents a juxtaposition of very old (6th century BC) and very new (2009) that is at once provocative and instructive. The decision to display the remains of two remarkable ancient Greek statues in a reconstruction by contemporary Sicilian fashion desigenr Marella Ferrera is symbolic, underscoring the equal value of (and even a unity of) Sicily's ancient and modern heritage. In Ferrera's concept, the marble heads, hands, and feet of the statues of goddesses Demeter and Kore/Persephone are affixed to metal wire armatures swathed in transparent rust-red cloth. (Some tweaking has been done over the years; an earlier version used a pale off-white cloth and included a stalk of grain in Kore's left hand. At the time of the first installation, Ferrera's human models were similarly swathed in her Winter 2009 collection.) The result is much more striking than the exhibit for the statues in Virginia, where they were housed until a repatriation claim in 2007 lead to the return of the statues in December 2009. What is more, Ferrera's "in-corporation" of the heads and extremities creatively recreates the original context of the statues: as acroliths, these statues had stone heads, hands, and feet, but their bodies were carved in in wood which no longer survives. Setting the remaining stone pieces back into bodies gives the viewer a proper sense of the powerful physical presence of the original statues—an important factor in their function as figures of worship.
This unusual touch surely gave a smile to many visitors to the special exhibition Il Nilo a Pompei at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. In keeping with the theme of this show—how Egyptian culture was taken up by Romans in Pompeii—the standard fire escape signs were replaced by these Egyptian-inspired ones! A whimsical bit of humor that gives a glimpse of the real (fun!) people behind the exhibition. Director Christian Greco cheerfully admitted to being quite amused. This balance of fun and scholarly is characteristic of the museum's seriously impressive public outreach campaigns.
Given that the mechanics of museum exhibitions can make all the difference between an effective show and an ineffective one, reviews of museum exhibitions are surprisingly hard to come by. In the scholarship on Greco-Roman civilization, at least, exhibition catalogs are much more commonly reviewed than the exhibitions themselves. This is a shame because exhibitions can communicate just as powerfully as books—and sometimes, of course, more so. They are an invaluable tool of scholarship that can propel research forward as well as public interest in it! Taking them seriously is a win for scholars, museums, visitors, everyone.
So three cheers for the resumption of museum exhibition reviews in the leading U.S. journal of Mediterranean archaeology, the American Journal of Archaeology. In the newest issue, Josephine Shaya evaluates the recent renovation of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, Spain. An online photo gallery accompanies her article. The same issue, in fact, includes a review of an exhibition catalog that illustrates how productive the synergy (or unity?) of brand-new scholarship and groundbreaking exhibition can be: Power and Pathos (Getty Museum, 2016) by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin.
The German Archaeological Institute recently announced a new museum opening in Wukro (Wuqro), Ethiopia. This museum houses archaeological finds from the area, with one highlight being the 8th- to 6th-century BC sanctuary of a moon god. The altar and channel for libations is reconstructed in the museum (above). Just as striking as this reconstruction is the architecture of the museum building itself: it dosn't just recede into the background, but acts as part of the display. Its massive stone walls accentuate the objects more powerfully than the usual flat painted wall surface; they are a beautiful extension of the display.
To find out more: this document (in German) explains the museum project, including diagrams of the building, and this website presents nice pictures of the galleries, signage, and festive opening ceremony.
An online (or more broadly, a digital) platform is a great solution to the layers of information embedded in any exhibition, from the large-writ headers to the digging-deeper details for specialists and the especially interested. Formatting these layers so that they are both accessible and beautiful is a challenge—one that The Metropolitan Museum met with gusto in its #metkids project. This website, although meant to introduce children to the museum's collections, is a delight for any age. The cheery red background and lively graphics are pleasing to the eye, and the simple arrangement of text with clear headers makes information easy to find. Further info can be found by clicking the terms highlighted in yellow, another easy visual cue. This site seems like a good point of reference for anyone thinking about digital presentation, be it stand-alone or supplementary to a physical (brick-and-mortar? We need a term for this) exhibition.
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!
This weekend sees the opening of the new Ancient Middle East gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Cause for celebration on several levels: it is an immense coup for a museum too often brought up in talk of financial crisis; it highlights the importance of this material at a time of extreme crisis in the Middle East; and, most relevant for this blog, the new gallery forefronts a nice modern display concept for some very old material. The creamy gray palette of the walls, floor, ceiling, and cases offers a clean backdrop for the variegated shapes and colors of the objects. The lighting is masterful: it is stronger on the objects than in the rest of the room, yet still diffuse rather than spotlit—hard to achieve, but worthwhile! The cases also do a nice job of hiding the light sources, while the ceiling contains a few discrete lines of track lighting. Clear plastic signboards with black lettering signpost the side galleries (apparently organized by material: metalwork to the left, ceramic to the right). The Neo-Babylonian mushussu relief provides a lovely centerpiece. To my mind, the overall effect of the gallery is very pleasing; I hope someday to see it in person.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.