In the contemporary art wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the current exhibition Seeking Stillness employs an unusual type of wall construction to underscore the main theme. A sheer mesh wall separates off a small space directly at the beginning of the exhibition, creating a niche that is self-contained yet still visible from the outside. The red walls and lighting are luminous, and visually differentiate the small space from the surrounding gallery. Inside, the oil paintings of Christ seem to glow; the atmosphere borders on the religious. In exploring "spaces of contemplation," therefore, this exhibition creates exactly the sort of environment (and mental state) which inspired the exhibited objects and the theme as a whole.
This beauty of a display is in the Harvard Semitic Museum. Never before had I seen such creative use of a single color of paint applied to a wall to enhance an array of objects. The objects in question are ancient amphorae, perfect for a wall-mounted display because they are large — taking up a good amount of the large vertical space — and tough, requiring no special climate control or protective glass case. Taking the extra step to paint them into an ancient ship is a truly inspired move that works on several levels:
One of my favorite museum galleries on a recent trip to Boston was the atrium-like core of the "Encounters with the Americas" galleries in the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology at Harvard University. The diagonal arrangement of display cases is a wonderful way to slow down the visitor, to encourage her to pause and look: the lack of a straight axis through the room offering a clear line of sight to the next room hinders the common mode of jetting right through the gallery, hardly glancing to either side along the way. The effect here is of course helped by the quite sizable piece of beautifully carved stone blocking the trajectory. Erecting the smaller stone pillars on the diagonal too adds some movement to these otherwise heavy, static pieces.
Subdivisions in the gallery are achieved in part by large explanatory panels, similarly set on the diagonal, acting like half-walls to guide the visitor into differently-themed spaces. (And hooray for the copious information on those signs!)
A final nice touch is the use of antique wooden display cases outfitted with new blue risers. The risers are almost a sort of minimalist artwork in themselves, and certainly freshen up the older cases without being distracting.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.