Sometimes even the simplest hint of context can make an object come alive. In the National Archaeological Museum in Sofia, Bulgaria, the collection of gold is fantastic—yet if the objects stand in isolation, the way they were used in the past (and the very fact that they were used at all!) can get lost. One solution to this problem is seen above. The medieval gold objects are put into context immediately with a simple line drawing: they were attached to a belt, serving as ornament among the useful everyday objects like a pouch and a knife. It is richly informative in one glance, and far better than a more complicated reconstruction like, say, a full-body dummy!
Museum display is just the last step in an ancient object's long life. This is the topic of a student workshop I'll be leading on Saturday in Berlin's Pergamonmuseum. Das Panorama. What is selected for display? What is researched, and how? What gets left out? How is the "knowledge" that the museum finally decides to communicate created? All of these are subjective processes, despite the impression that the "knowledge" presented in museums is singular, objective, and perfectly known. As Ian Hodder famously said, "Interpretation begins at the trowel's edge"—at the moment of excavation. (And, I argue, actually before that, since excavations are sited and carried out based on decisions as well.)
As part of our exploration we'll closely examine the museum labels. I was inspired by those in the interim Pergamonmuseum because they often express a certain uncertainty or scholarly debate about the objects, which I found refreshing. Not just refreshing: it brings us to think critically, one of the most important things a museum display can bring us to do! (But I repeat myself.)
All Berlin higher-ed students are welcome! The details (in German, as the event will be):
Unsicherheit und Debatte in Museumstexten: Wissen zur Antike gemeinsam bauen
Sa / 8. 6. 2019 / 15 – 17.30 Uhr
Treffpunkt: Pergamonmuseum. Das Panorama, Besucherinformation
Keine Anmeldung erforderlich. Die Teilnahme ist für Studierende kostenfrei.
Das Format TISCHGESPRÄCH findet im Rahmen von ABOUT THE MUSEUM statt, einer Initiative des Referats Bildung, Vermittlung, Besucherdienste. Weitere Informationen: studierende.smb.museum und auf Facebook: ABOUT THE MUSEUM.
A permanent exhibition in the Zitadelle Spandau puts not only honorific statues but display itself in the spotlight. Unveiled: Berlin and Its Monuments thematizes the city's long history of erecting statues of various personalities, only to remove them later when the political landscape changes. What deserves to stand on public display, and when? Looking at these statues from the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries makes clear how changeable the landscape of monuments is.
In 2015, the city decided to raise Lenin from the dead (below) and bring his head into this exhibition. Now it is exhibited on its side (bottom), emphasizing its fall from grace and current status not as an item of honor but a fallen relic.
Another wonderful trick of display at Halle's State Museum of Prehistory (Landesmuseum für Vorgeschichte) are the fossilized skeletons displays in poses and places as if they were alive. A mammoth (above) crashes through the wall into the room housing his bones on a light table. A prehistoric mammal climbs a display case (below left) like a monkey up a tree, while some early elk (below right) soar through the air into the light well. A large grazing animal (bottom) stands chest-deep in dry savannah grass. (The striking display of axe heads in the background featured in the last post.) It is not only much more fun to look at these "living" animals, but educational—for the movement is part of the animal! When reindeer fly...
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 pleasing aspect of the Landesmuseum Hannover's galleries are the framing devices for the objects. Archaeological objects in particular can be small, withered, corroded, or otherwise unimpressive; sometimes they need a little help to get their due. These gold partitions affixed to the cases of gold jewelry and precious objects from Bronze-Age Germany (Lower Saxony, to be precise—of which Hannover is the capital) serve this end. With their color and concentric-circle design, they draw attention right away—and perfectly echo the objects in the cases! Both the spiraling gold wire of the jewelry (below right) and the circles on the astrological discs (below left) become more obvious with this big visual hint. What is more, the cutouts in the gold screens offer a peekaboo with the objects that makes looking more fun (just like the dividing wall from this post!).
A similar but distict tactic can be seen in the architectural frames erected around other artifacts. These serve not just to highlight but also to contextualize the objects. A house-like construction (below left) emphasizes that these objects came from a domestic context. For the grave goods, a wonderfully sculptural and minimalist tumulus points to the original context. They are restrained indicators, but so large and physical that they might even work subconsciously...
Yesterday I finally made it to Museumsdorf Düppel in Berlin, an open-air museum that has been on my to-do list for years. It centers on an absolutely charming reconstruction of the 12th-century village excavated there primarily in the 1970s. The houses with reed roofs and mud walls are impressive for their craftmanship, as well as the feeling they give you of standing really and truly in a medieval village. The lightly damp, gray, freezing weather enhanced the effect. Hats off to the capable people who made it possible to live in such conditions, constructing surprisingly cozy houses and fashioning their own clothing, tools, candles, food, and on and on. Truly impressive!
As a supplement to the village, the small interpretive center is a gem. "Klein aber fein," small but fine—the description fits perfectly. One of the displays that caught my eye for being both economic and effective is the timeline: a series of small lit vitrines sunk into the wall boasts a series of colors, each vitrine framed by a different hue. These correspond to the colored bands on the timeline above, which stretches from 10,000 BC to the present day. Each vitrine holds a miniature diorama of the landschaft around the village in the indicated time period (a title for the whole wall would help convey this: Changing Landscapes, or some such). I went gaga over the grace of the dioramas—constructed of cardstock cut-outs with simple pencil drawings, they are outrageously simple yet communicative works of art.
My presentation on Friday led to a vibrant discussion—the most gratifying possible outcome of a talk! We discussed how displays of ancient art can achieve certain effects together with its visiting audience. Particularly in view of the warm reception it received, I hope that this presentation might spark further ideas in the online community; so here are the slides and talking points to look through as you like. I hope that the conversations will continue to grow and multiply, invigorating our museums and our communities.
This Friday is a very special day: I'll be giving a talk about museum displays of ancient art! In particular, how they can benefit from an injection of multivocality, uncertainty, complexity, non-traditional narratives, and other conversation starters. Please come and join the discussion! Complete information about the event is here.
Ancient Images, Modern Projections. Displaying Complex Narratives in the Museum
by Dr. Stephanie Pearson, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and New York University Berlin
on 23 November 2018
at the conference Image studies and museum practice: the image as the focal point of research versus the image as exhibited object. A conference run by the Ancient Objects and Visual Studies programme at the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies
in the Abguss-Sammlung Antiker Plastik der Freien Universität Berlin
Schloßstraße 69b, 14059 Berlin
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!
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!?
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.