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.
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!
SFMOMA's video about their "Send Me" program (link below).
I'm too excited about this news to omit it from this blog on the grounds of not being a display technique. Anyway, as a highly interactive medium to generate visitor interest in the collection, it is part of a synergy with actual displays—and, crucially, it works outside the museum as well as inside. So what is this all about? A recent article in the New York Times reports that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is reaching potential visitors via a text message program. Texting the museum at 57251 with the request "Send me ---" will retrieve an automated response of a photo of an artwork at SFMOMA captioned with its creator, title, and year. In a twist of modern hilarity, the "---" can be a word or, yes, an emoji. This has led to fascinating data on visitors' desires and interests:
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.
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?
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?"
An article in the New Yorker alerted me to a current exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum, specifically in the newly-reopened Costume Institute. It takes as its focus the fashion figure Jacqueline de Ribes and presents her clothing designs in a number of displays, all lovely—but the one that particularly caught my eye is shown above (and linked through the picture; just click on it to see the original slideshow). Using reflective metal (aluminum?) as the backdrop and flooring for these dresses is a simple yet extremely effective way to emphasize the colors and reflect light upon them without distracting from them. As a display solution, in fact, it has much in common with the clothing designs themselves: it is deceptively simple, quite cunning, and above all elegant.
A current exhibition at the Getty Center highlights precisely those things we usually don't look at in exhibitions: frames! It's a wonderful subject for a show, touching on questions of taste, stylistic development, craftsmanship, and even the psychology of frames as a concept—for instance, how do they achieve their goal of setting off something else without showing off themselves? Or, taking a look at these ostentatious Louis Style frames, are they in fact meant to show off? The answers to these questions are as intriguingly socially-, historically-, and culturally-dependent as any question about the art within the frames. (You can see a behind-the-scenes slideshow of the Getty exhibition here.) One of my all-time favorite articles in the New Yorker (subject of a previous post) addresses frames in the modern museum, reflecting on the considerations in picking the right frame for a piece, who makes the aesthetic decisions and how, and of course who makes the frames.
A recent silly post on The Poke (tagline: "time well wasted") offers an unexpectedly valuable glimpse into the heads of museum visitors. Among other things, it shows that visitors may have the most fun in a museum by using the exhibits to their own humorous ends. It's not exactly "making fun" of the objects, but using them to generate a laugh—something that the hard-working staff responsible for the exhibits might see as disrespectful, but which I would like to suggest is instead a useful jumping-off point for reconceiving how to make engaging displays. For example, a few themes reappear several times in the Poke article: people like imitating statues and paintings to comedic effect, whether by pointing out a resemblance to themselves or by creating a new context for the object (e.g., a music video by Beyonce!). It's also entertaining to add a funny attribute to the object: a hand puppet on a statue's hand, a cell phone positioned as if a portrait is taking a selfie, a modern caption to an old painting.
It seems to me that all of these interactions with objects could be turned from "pranks" (as they are presented by the very format of the Poke article) into sanctioned museum activities that leverage these visitors' energy and creativity, particularly when it comes to picture-taking. For instance:
Running across this article 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.
A recent New Yorker article raises an interesting question of display: How can you fill a whole museum with exhibits exclusively about something microscopic? This is the task of Amsterdam's Micropia, a museum devoted to "invisible life"—that is, microbes. Among Micropia's solutions to this challenge are (as reported by the New Yorker, although the author does not focus on the display challenge in particular):
Once upon a time in Berlin, there was a colossal statue of Lenin. His head alone weighed 3.5 metric tons. The statue was dedicated in 1970 (Lenin's 100th birthday), dismantled under the new regime in 1991, and condemned to be buried in a nearby forest, where it still lies to this very day. Now it is meant to go into a permanent exhibition; that is, it was meant to, until the Senate suddenly and mysteriously decided to forbid it just two weeks ago. (All of this is reported in an excellent Berliner Zeitung article.) Once the Senate ends its summer recess and comes back to the issue on September 23, I will be following this story, hoping that it ends the way it should: with this amazing piece of art on show, teaching visitors about the vicissitudes of power and the concomitant struggles over putting objects on display!
Impeccable timing! This news story came out in Deutsche Welle just after I wrote the last post, and highlights precisely the same idea of viewer engagement as discussed there. In this case it's not a victory podium but a chair to stand on, and it invites you to stand on it by virtue of the three chairs next to it with people (statues) standing on them. These people all "stood up" for what they believe in, and spoke out—so here's your soapbox: what will you speak out about?
One of the most inspiring ideas on display that I've seen recently was produced and beautifully documented by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). An innovative team at the museum wanted to put science in the path of everyone in town, and decided that small exhibits at transit centers would reach the best cross-section of community members. Through many trials, redesigns, and retrials, they came up with two stellar ideas for engaging the public with scientific material. They explain their motivations, processes, and results in a wonderfully informative booklet that is free to download (below; also available here, for example): these are people who really put their words into action!
Today's post is inspired by a New York Times article about the booming number of visitors to a few national art museums and the measures the museums are taking in order to accommodate such crowds (and protect the objects). While not specifically discussed in the essay, one of the issues bundled up with this phenomenon relates directly to this blog: How can a museum effectively display its collection for a whopping 9.3 million visitors per year (Louvre), or 6.7 (British Museum), or 5.5 (Vatican)?
One solution is the "Venus de Milo" approach pictured above: a capacious room containing a single blockbuster object, allowing many visitors to stand and circulate throughout the large space. Extra elbow room is especially important when so many visitors are using audio guides that lead them to spend one or more minutes looking at the object.
Another solution is the "Rosetta Stone" setup pictured below. Here the stone is displayed in the center of two intersecting galleries, protected by a glass case. This places the object in relation to the other materials nearby — in this case, other Egyptian works in stone — and therefore nicely contextualizes the piece. A concomitant drawback is the relative lack of space for the many visitors interested in such a famous piece. It's a difficult problem of spatial engineering which, if the predictions in the NYT article can be believed, will only become more pressing.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.