The effect is plain throughout: there are nearly no labels, and the handful I saw named at most a culture and century. The organization of the collection in the galleries is only vaguely defined by time and place, and rather more by visual harmony: an 18th-century Russian lampstand finds its place beside a Turkish textile and a Japanese basin, while the "Spanish Cloister" is wallpapered with tiles from Mexico (right) and oriented toward its show-stopping highlight, a huge painting by John Singer Sargent. Roman sarcophagi, meanwhile, are sprinkled throughout both the Cloister and the Courtyard (above). This is no ordinary concept of museum display! It is a treat to feel Mrs. Gardner's touch in every arrangement, and to imagine her making it all "just so" for her salon guests.
In laying out her art museum in Boston, which opened in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner sought to ellicit an emotional response in her visitors. Rather than teach them something intellectual about the works on view, she prioritized aesthetic impact. And she was able to realize this vision completely, being the sole visionary and financier of the museum—not to mention a seemingly headstrong personality.
Sometimes her touch seems more enthusiastic than professional, as in the tapestries that have been bent in order to fit into a corner (below), or the row of pictures hung on the short side of a cabinet, as if to use every possible inch of vertical space.
The great achievement of this display concept is letting viewers really look at the pieces, make associations, think creatively and personally about what they are. We cannot be distracted by text or multimedia stations; we have to just look at the objects. And if the immense variety and quantity of objects can be overwhelming, this is in part a result of the ceaseless acts of imagination prompted by these pieces—just what Mrs. Gardner was going for.
The three latest episodes of the podcast Working (tagline: "Slate interviews Americans about their jobs") are dedicated to the work processes in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of them, "Working at MoMA: How Do Exhibition Designers Do Their Jobs?," features a conversation with Lana Hum and Mack Cole-Edelsack, the Director and Senior Design Manager respectively of MoMA's Exhibition Design & Production Department. (I was lucky enough to meet Lana Hum in 2014 as part of the Center for Curatorial Leadership/Mellon Foundation Seminar in Curatorial Practice.) It's a fun conversation to listen to: both the interviewees and interviewer (Jordan) have smart things to say and seem to be having a good time. A few novel points jumped out at me:
I look forward to hearing the other two episodes about MoMA's operations!
What does it mean when an art museum plans to expand into a sweeping green park space—with no art? That is precisely what the North Carolina Museum of Art is doing, according to a recent New York Times article. The large outdoor extension is emphatically not a sculpture garden, says the museum director, Lawrence J. Wheeler, but rather "a unifying idea of what people perceive as a museum and what they perceive as a park." This is one more step in the direction of museums as sites of experience above all else. It raises the question: If parts of the world such as parks can become parts of museums, what has a museum become? If a museum's ultimate role is to serve the community, then a park space is ideal; but what then differentiates a museum from a park, a library, a parking lot—or anything else of value to the community?
Last week the six powerful arches of the Kimbell Art Museum (Forth Worth, TX) entered my life as if a Piero della Francesca background had infiltrated my TV screen. Although they make only a brief cameo in the documentary film My Architect, which centers on the architect Louis Kahn (you can see clips of it here), their design is elegant, unusual, and—especially in light of these two qualities—astonishingly simple. From the outside, their length and clean lines seem to exaggerate their recession into space, as if perspective holds unusally strong sway over this building. From the inside, meanwhile (shown in the Kimbell's photo gallery), the barrel vaults are cunningly transformed into pointed arches by unbroken banks of lights, curving outward like a pair of mile-long petals opening down the length of each vault. The slabs of cement walls stand just out of line with the bottoms of the vaults as if independent structures. All in all, the architecture manages to harness the strength of brutalism and the grace of classicism simultaneously. The space it creates for the art is remarkable: understated, unprepossessing, a perfect backdrop—and yet utterly captivating you once you start looking at it.
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.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.