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!
A revelatory multisensory exhibition is on view now at the Aedes Architecture Forum in Berlin. The show FARAWAY SO CLOSE. A Journey to the Architecture of Kashef Chowdhury / URBANA, Bangladesh takes wooden models of the architect Chowdhury's buildings, designed to meet the climatic challenges of Bangladesh, and hangs them from nearly invisible cables. Hovering against the black walls like UFOs highlights the otherworldly nature of the buildings' shapes; it emphasizes the literally out-of-the-box thinking behind the designs. A polygonal snailshell (above right), walls in concentric circles with aligned or offset entrances, or whole islands with central pools engineered to beat the constant floods—these are forms of elevated creativity.
This experience meshed well with the symposium next door on museums in urban space, Extrovert Interior: Publicness and the Contemporary Museum. Asking how the museum mission is being relocated increasingly outside a single building (museum-in-a-box programs for schools, mobile museums on wheels and water, biennials in unexpected venues), the program was a poetic inverse to the exhibition's bringing-gravel-inside idea. All in all a very stimulating day at Aedes, and certainly not the last. I'm already looking forward to their next show, on Archi-Tectonics (Netherlands/New York).
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!
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!?
Remember the "talking statues" in London? Now the same folks (Sing London) have extended their project to Berlin. As they did in London, they are equipping numerous commemorative statues around town with audio clips that a visitor can access through small signs in front of the statue; snap the QR code and you're ready to listen. Two colleagues and I tried out the Lise Meitner statue and found it worked flawlessly. The voice actor brought a vibrant personal touch to the statue—a great way to bring it to life. One useful aspect of this concept is that such audio accompaniment can be overlain on any preexisting object; it does not have to be developed at the same time as the object installation. All that has to be added to the physical display space is a QR code (or a link to another technology—like Blinkster, used in Berlin's Ethnological Museum).
Airport exhibitions have the benefit of one thing that other exhibitions can only dream about: a captive audience! But they also have to address some challenges particular to their location. An exhibition on musical instruments titled "Wonderful Winds" at the St. Louis International Airport caught my eye because it is situated on a raised island right where arriving passengers turn the corner between the gates and the baggage claim. Its design is sleek and minimalist—I wonder if airport security regulations impose certain requirements on lines of sight?—and the wall space is small enough that a single wall panel fills the usable surface. The warm lighting and intense color of the back wall create a welcoming atmosphere and encourage you to step inside. Reduced to a few cases and a single wall panel, this exhibition contains all the necessities and is well-pitched to its audience—passengers and welcoming parties with a few minutes to spare, lured into this oasis amidst the usual airport ruckus.
One of the most frequent recommendations made by young visitors for improving museum galleries is to add music (at least, in one recent idea competition held by the Berlin Museums). Bringing music into a display is not just a way to entice a generation that craves nearly nonstop aural stimulation; it can enhance the display and the visitor experience across the board. One example that struck me is shown above, in the Musée de Marrakech in Morocco. I hadn't even noticed the instrumental music playing in the central courtyard until seeing the sign above, which informs the visitor, "You can buy this music on CD in the bookshop." What a nice idea! It draws attention to the music, increases the visitor's sensory perception of the whole space, and (ideally) generates revenue in the shop. What's more, the music suits the display and even the museum as a whole insofar as it too is a product of cultural heritage, which is the focal point of this museum.
While the traditional mode of displaying an object in a museum has been to put it in a glass case, bringing an object out of the case — and therefore into the visitor's physical space — can make it much more powerful. Removing even a transparent barrier like a glass box makes the object instantly more immediate: it now inhabits our world, rather than some removed one whose distance in both time and space seems to be symbolized by the vitrine.
Making objects more accessible in this way has its own complications, of course — not least in that they become quite literally tangible! Not all objects can stand up to a curious visitor's stroking finger or spontaneous sneeze. Precisely this problem was debated between the curators (who wanted the case gone) and conservators (who were concerned about protecting the object) at The Metropolitan Museum, when Navina Haidar hoped to remove the vitrine from around a fabulous incense burner in the shape of a lion. In both that instance and the one pictured above, in the Neues Museum in Berlin, a large base below the object resolved some of the difficulty. The oversized base keeps people from approaching too closely while still allowing them to experience the object "up close and personal."
In addition to the caselessness, two more factors add enormously to the Neues Museum's display of two Bronze-Age trumpets. One is that the base serves doubly as an audio station: by pressing a button on the front, the visitor is treated to a haunting chorus of blaring trumpets. Hearing the tones they would have emitted feels like a substitute for holding them and playing them yourself; it is a wonderful sensory experience.
The second notable factor is that the trumpets are suspended rather than mounted to the base. Their twisting shapes lend themselves perfectly to such an ethereal effect, as if they were being propelled into the air by their bronze flagella. Many of the displays in the Neues Museum's newly-renovated galleries were conceived with a vertical rather than horizontal format in mind, which is not only space-saving but visually arresting. A future post will explore some of the other creative designs.
A recent article in the New York Times discusses an initiative to make public statues more interesting and accessible to the people walking by them on the street. By using a smartphone to scan a code or swipe a chip at the base of the statue, a viewer instantly receives a call — and upon answering, hears an audio track about the statue. In first person, no less, and voiced by a famous actor! (Patrick Stewart is mentioned, among others.) What a clever way to rouse to life these hulking yet often overlooked pieces of public art. The project was conceived and installed by Sing London, an organization that "produces city wide events in which the wider public can engage... Ultimately our projects set out to make cities feel happy places to be." In its mission to engage city inhabitants (and passers-by) in collective cultural experiences, Sing London reminds me a bit of Creative Time in New York (although it isn't focused on the realm of visual arts as the latter is). Certainly with this project, it has harnessed technology in a creative way to reinvigorate honorific statues — an art form that can otherwise feel quite distancing.
An astounding number of museums sprinkle the Berlin landscape. By the city's own count, there are over 170. While some of the museums on that list are extremely well-known and heavily frequented — foremost being the Pergamon Museum, with some 1 million visitors per year — many are small, quirky, and practically undiscovered. Neighborhood museums belong to this genre. Off the radar for most tourists, these museums focus on the history and culture of the immediate locality (Kiez); they must be a dream for school groups, and offer the curious visitor too an unusual glimpse of local life.
Of the 20 Kieze in Berlin, more than 11 have their own dedicated museum. One of these, the Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum, occupies several refurbished stories of a building in the geographical center of the Kiez. The third floor (or fourth, in the American system) is entirely devoted to a beautiful big map of the area marked by easy-to-read landmarks and colorful numbered circles. The clean white walls, ceiling, floor, and pillars lend an airy feeling, and the room almost feels empty — until you step into it and use it for what it was intended. Borrowing a set of headphones and an iPod, the visitor is meant to walk around the map listening to local Berliners tell their stories linked to specific locales. The stories have been grouped into ten themes, each marked by a different color and labeled on the wall: from "work" and "eating" to "belief" and "suffering," the themes are both straightforward and richly textured. The visitor can opt to follow a certain color to hear stories related by theme, or select a path of stories all told by the same person, or wander the map at will choosing stories of any color or location. It is a marvelous trick of kinetic learning, made even more effective by gorgeous graphic design.
That the stories are personal and told by inhabitants of the Kiez rather than actors, specialists, or museum staff makes them very compelling. In fact, the introductory panel invites visitors to make an appointment to record their own stories in the museum's audio studio! So as it turns out, this spacious white room is filled with only half of a display: the other half comes from the visitor bringing in her own exhibition content, her personal history. Local engagement couldn't get any more local and engaging.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.