One of the displays that I especially liked houses a piece of gold jewelry. While the exact function of the piece is unknown, it was probably the central element on a longer chain, whether a belt, necklace, or other adornment. Its workmanship is superb: the granulation of tiny gold spheres soldered onto the piece is on par with the best work from Etruria, the masters of this technique. (Here is a nice short video about gold granulation by the Met Museum.)
On a study trip with students recently, I got to visit the wonderful historical museum in Écija, Spain - the Museo Histórico Municipal housed in the beautiful Palacio de Benamejí. Both the town and the museum are less well-known than they should be; they are not only beautiful, but full of treasures waiting to be discovered! As archaeologists we were thrilled by the artifact collections and the exciting excavations that took place under the main plaza, once the Roman forum. In addition, the museologically oriented among us delighted in the presentation in the museum. Thanks to a tour by museum director Antonio Ugalde, we got an in-depth look at the history of the area from the prehistoric to the late Roman periods. The school groups that come through here can hardly know how lucky they are!
Including a hugely enlarged photo of the piece (see below) is a good way to help viewers appreciate the detail. At the same time, it's important to lure them to look at the piece itself rather than stopping at the picture alone. This is done by the special case and lighting on the gold piece: the case is a cone shape projecting from the wall, highlighting the tiny treasure in a way that lures you irresistibly to take a closer peek. The conical bubble draws you in like a magnet! It is helped by the single light from overhead, lighting it in a golden glow. We were pulled toward it like a moth to the flame.
Museum displays can do so much more than simply present information. They can get us thinking about some of the most important questions there are: What do we really know? How can we know that? How can we find out more? To my mind, encouraging people to ask these questions is one of the most important tasks of a museum. (I'm a broken record!) That's why I was thrilled to see a display in the Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin that aims in this direction—the second of two hands-on displays that struck me. A gorgeous plate from 16th-century Iran offers the starting point. It is painted with a zodiac, leading to questions about its function—which have led to multiple hypotheses, which so far have yielded no definitive answer. How to show this uncertainty in the museum texts? (Another favorite topic of mine!)
The Museum of Islamic Art in Berlin is proud of its carpet collection. Rightly so: not only are the carpets special in themselves, but they have a tumultuous history. The permanent display that opened last year (well, permanent until it shuffles around again for the reopening of the Pergamon Museum) conveys some of how the objects came to the museum—many through private collectors involved in the "oriental" research popular in late 19th- and early 20th-century Germany—and how they fared in World War II. While the carpet exhibition is fairly traditional in its display, a couple features stood out to me. One is pictured above: large panels demonstrating three different weaving techniques. Thick colorful plastic cord is used instead of the usual fine threads to make the technique more visible. Visitors can turn each panel to see both sides and thus discover the difference between kilim and pile rugs. Namely, kilim (left) are woven such that both sides are flat, while pile rugs (with symmetrical or asymmetrical knots, center and right) result in one side being bristled with the ends of the knots poking out. It's one of the few hands-on displays in the museum, and certainly fun to play with! It's vaguely reminiscent of the weave-it-yourself activity in the Museum of European Cultures in Berlin, but better suited to the far greater number of visitors passing through the Pergamon Museum.
I'm a sucker for exhibitions about making exhibitions! And who doesn't love a peek behind the curtain into the inner workings? A show at the Gemäldegalerie in Berlin until the end of this month focuses on the "Labels of an Exhibition"—how they changed over time and what this tells us about changing priorities. Reminds me of other shows, about nose jobs and frame games of the past...
Just across the canal from Berlin’s Museum Island is a stately building that has just joined the museum family. The Haus Bastian was designed by architect David Chipperfield, like the Neues Museum and the brand new James-Simon-Galerie that it faces across the water. The Bastian family long used this lofty building as a gallery of modern and contemporary art—last year I got to see its last show, which included Wim Wenders’ photographs and Dan Flavin’s lights. Now, however, the family has donated the building to Berlin’s state museums for use as an educational center. It celebrated its opening two nights ago with a first glimpse at the spaces and materials available for experience-hungry kids, families, adults, and teachers.
One of the current programs is titled "One to one? Pictures and Copies" (Eins zu eins? Von Bildern und Abbildern). Kids are invited to partake in "Project Days" exploring form through clay and plaster impressions, sometimes of their own bodies. The project materials include little busts of Nefertiti (above), miniatures based on the Neues Museum’s blockbuster portrait of the ancient Egyptian queen. Exhibiting multiple tiny white copies of the portrait is a playful way to draw attention to its physical characteristics: these Nefertitis are not like the original, not the face to launch a thousand posters and coffee mugs—but physical things with certain lines, curves, and volumes. (Replicas were also used in stimulating ways in this show.) The arrangement of the busts in various positions emphasizes this even more. In groups of four, they form a pattern that obscures the uniqueness and importance of The One Irreplaceable Treasure. Upside-down, the busts turn into weird forms like Wall-E or a large rubber stamp with an offset handle. Playing with museum objects like this builds visual skills and creativity—just what this center hopes to do in many other ways as well. I’m eager to see how this endeavor proceeds.
Through Monday you can still catch the wonderful show My Dearest Sweet Love: Christopher Isherwood & Don Bachardy at the Schwules Museum in Berlin. What a wonderful compliment to the experience of reading Isherwood's books. What's more, Bachardy's paintings are truly stunning; the male nude series (here are some examples from 2002) took my breath away. He paints with such economy, capturing complex muscles in scant brushstrokes. His use of color also blew my mind—and he must paint very quickly, since the many colors that bleed into one another could only do so if all wet at once. I wanted desperately to buy a catalog of the show, but sadly there isn't one.
What I was able to take home with me, however, was an idea on display! In the exhibition LOVE AT FIRST FIGHT! Queer Movements in Germany since Stonewall (through fall 2020), the display is based entirely on simple clothes racks. They were spray-painted in red, a nod to the protests and homemade signs of the movements in the title. The racks were used in three ways:
This is an incredibly simple and effective means of display, not to mention cost-effective; IKEA sells clothes racks like this for under $10! Three cheers for the Schwules Museum and these two wonderful exhibitions. I'll definitely be coming back for future shows.
I'm delighted to have discovered a short essay, newsletter, and indeed entire company devoted to themes like those I explore here! The director of KOCMOS design firm in Leipzig wrote a great piece with the title "What does good exhibition design have to do with changing perspectives?" (Was hat gute Ausstellungsgestaltung mit Perspektivwechsel zu tun?). In it, he sketches the power that exhibitions have—if they are effectively built--to communicate and make us reflect on our own lives. I couldn't agree more (also thinking back to my lecture on this topic), and am looking forward to the newsletter to learn more about how KOCMOC uses design to achieve these very worthwhile goals.
Last week I was treated to a special tour of the current Mantegna + Bellini show at Berlin's Gemäldegalerie, thanks to a generous friend and colleague over at ART-THINKING. Because it was a whirlwind of intense looking and learning, I didn't take any pictures until the last second—upon leaving the gallery, seeing the sign above. The design of the sign is good, using a happy face to communicate nonverbally. The encouragement to share images using the museum's hashtag is a clever way to crowd-publicize. More than that, I was impressed that the curators managed to get permission from all of the loaning institutions to allow visitors to photograph these incredible artworks! They deserve extra cheers for that.
This beautiful show is still open for five more days, closing June 30.
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.
This is where cunning display tactics come in handy. The museum erected a series of freestanding interior walls to serve the needs of art display within the architectural shell (and constraints) of the castle. Many of the walls even have lighting rigged along the top, providing closer and more dirigible light than anything hung from the mile-high ceiling could:
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.
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.
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!
A lot of objects are at home in the dark. However, in art museums, we are used to illuminating objects in the same even, "objective," investigative manner in which we also write the labels (my critique of the attempt to be objective, and my suggestions for other tactics, are laid out e.g. here and here). How would it be to put on a whole exhibition about objects in the dark? Not utter darkness, but a recreation of the low-light conditions in which they were originally used.
A photograph on the ICOM member page (above) got me thinking about this, offering a stunning example of how this idea might play out. A beautiful piece of Islamic tracery or woodwork illuminated from the inside shows its form infinitely better than if it were put under standard museum lighting. Look at the gorgeous pattern it casts over the visitors and walls!
Roman sarcophagi are another genre that would benefit hugely from such a display. Their figures in relief would have danced in the lamplight of the tombs. The dramatic lighting of a sarcophagus in the archaeological museum in Antalya, Turkey gives some idea of how this enlivens the object, but really the lighting has to be flickering orange to achieve the right effect.
Lamps themselves look very different when they are their own sources of light than when lit from an external source. The Idolino in Florence, who once held a functional lamp in his hand, may have looked like a real person trying to find his way in the dark!
Religious items too would be abundant in this display, as they are so often used in enclosed spaces—temples, caves, household niches, etc. This would be a really fun show to put together!
This last post about the KWAB exhibition in Amsterdam's Rijksmuseum concerns lighting. This show got me and my partner-in-museology thinking about the potential for self-directed lighting in museum display. The impetus was this lovely, huge, embossed silver platter. Its fabulously fine relief is hard to see in any detail, not because the lighting is poor per se, but because it is static. Especially for objects that would have been handled, passed around, held up to the light, or simply displayed in a space where people could view it from different angles, the viewing conditions offered by a museum could hardly be more different. And it can be frustrating to try to make out what all those tiny relief people are doing on this silver thing; even I was inclined to give up and move on to something more decipherable. But adding a couple of pink hands as a reflecting screen (above right) changed everything—even more so when moved from side to side! The addition of not only light but color and movement made the relief eminently more legible. This is the reason that Reflectance Transformation Imaging works so well (here's the process): under different lighting conditions, especially ones we can adjust and move at will, we can perceive relief and texture much more easily.
So how about visitor-directed lighting? This could be as simple as offering visitors sheets of printer paper at the entrance and encouraging them to use it as a reflecting screen (on objects in glass cases only, if you're worried about paper and people getting near unprotected objects). But personally I think it would be exciting as a central element of a show; it could even be the main topic, "Old Things in New Light." You could experiment with little lights mounted on tracks in front of the objects, so the visitor can slide the light from side to side. Heck, grab that gooseneck lamp from your desk and mount it next to an object—there, you've got interactive, user-directed lighting! There are dozens of forms this could take, and just as many epiphanies about the objects in new light. Let's go wild and see what happens.
Another notable aspect of the show KWAB in the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam is the background painting. Walls and floors alike are painted with bold black-and-white designs carefully arranged to highlight the objects. This geniusly serves several purposes:
The painting can be used to make an object really pop out at you. The beautiful ebony armoir above (left) gains a whole new life from the white moon behind it. The sinuous curves at the top of the chest stand out against the light background, and the hovering circle gives the piece a lively dynamic—almost as if it were a nocturnal creature standing in a moonlit landscape.
The tiny silver pitcher above (right) gets an injection of energy from the white rays radiating out across the floor. They turn the pitcher into the source of a geometric explosion, and who doesn't want to look closer at that??
The same black-and-white painting technique on the walls is used in another way, namely to recreate a sense of the objects' original context. Keeping the monotone palette is a nice way to keep the "reconstruction" attempt from becoming distracting, while at the same time contextualizing objects rather unfamiliar to a modern viewer. In the photo below, the oval painting in an elaborate wooden frame is hard to imagine wanting to hang on your living room wall; but with the illusionistic swags of drapery emanating from it, it gains the elegance and appropriateness to the opulent display context it was originally meant for.
In the room below, a different pattern is used to imitate the wall decorations of the time, which in richer houses included embossed leather (!) wallpaper and wooden paneling:
3. Directing Movement
In both the room above and that shown below, the wall and floor painting is used to encourage us to move through the exhibition in certain ways. Above, a long white band leads us from the bottom right (a doorway is just off the photo to the right), along the wall of drawings, and over to the paintings at left, where the half-circle of white under the center painting encourages us to linger.
White stripes and circles similarly guide our movement between these two glass cases, this time reinforced by a subtle white curve on the rear wall:
Such a simple and effective device as these paintings seems worth keeping in mind. Certainly, painting the floor will not often be possible in an exhibition, depending on the space (the Getty Villa's marble floors...). But for the wall paintings at least, I would be curious whether the extra cost and time for installation makes them practical or prohibitive.
Until September 16, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam is showing an exhibition called KWAB. Kwab is the name given to fantastical furnishing designs featuring plant-animal fusions in the Dutch Golden Age. Refreshingly, the exhibition left the confinements of standard exhibition design and tried out some very eye-catching new things—paralleling the inventiveness of kwab design itself. The next few posts will highlight some of these elements.
Entering the exhibition brings you face-to-face with the first dramatic device: a huge video sceen showing one of the exhibited objects, filmed in a constantly-moving, close-up pan in various directions. We swirl around, up, into, over, and down the golden vase. Although I'm wary of giving viewers a screen to focus on instead of the object itself, this was a good way to highlight some of the hard-to-see details of the intricate piece. It makes you want to go into the show and find it. Also, most objects in the show are fairly small or, because they are furnishings, not particularly arresting to a visitor expecting "art" in terms of huge Rembrandt paintings—so the massive screen and close-up perspective help draw attention to objects that need it. In the Rijksmuseum, any object that isn't The Night Watch needs all the help it can get!
The feedback room of the Hamburger Bahnhof in Berlin impressed me with its way of cleanly showcasing visitor responses in multiple languages. In answer to a prompt (how would you define a certain term - values, trade, border, echo), visitors write their responses on paper sheets, some of which, presumably, then get printed onto the big colorful sheets you see on the wall. Emphasizing that the visitors respond in many languages, the museum has hung a copy of the original language beside one translated into English—overlapping, so that they are visually clearly joined.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.