A current special exhibition at the Altes Museum in Berlin called "Fleisch" (Meat) focuses on the cultural significance of meat. Ranging from the religious rites of animal sacrifice to the lustful gaze directed at nude female bodies, the theme is perhaps overstretched; but as an interdepartmental intitiative it is exemplary, and its design is beautiful. The most striking component is industrial-grade rebar lattices painted a fleshy pink, serving as the mount for signage and pictures; these are attached with simple S-hooks reminiscent of meathooks. It's a simple, cost-effective device which here also highlights the theme of the show—very tasteful!
In the exhibition Repliken Wissen = Replica Knowledge, currently in Berlin's Tieranatomisches Theater, all of the objects are original—and none of them are. The exhibition displays modern replicas of Minoan and Mycenaean art in order to point out that replicas, far from being simply reproductions of some much more interesting "originals," have their own stories to tell. Their lifetimes may not be as old as that of the archaeological objects they copy, but they are complex, thrilling, and illuminating in their own way. Displaying multiple replicas made from the same model (such as the drinking cups above) highlights this theme of copying.
One of the display techniques that cleverly underscored this message consisted of pools of plaster under the objects on the glass shelves. These slightly irregular blobs form a much-needed opaque backdrop and injection of color to frame the pieces, which, many in shiny metal, would otherwise melt into a sea of reflections in the glinting vitrines. Moreover, the plaster pools (as curator Felix Sattler explained on a tour) recall the process of molding and pouring plaster replicas of the ancient objects. Thus the theme of the show is reinforced by its display. Definitely worth a visit, as is the Theater building itself; it's up through the end of March.
An exhibition on Chinese antiquities currently in Berlin's Neues Museum uses a couple of display tricks worth noting. One consists of long banners stretching from the first few display cases up to the two-story-high glass ceiling—a wonderful use of the cavernous space! It's simple, cheap, and very eye-catching. The black banners are printed with the name "Egypt" in several languages; the red ones with "China." In this way the banners serve as the introduction to the second display tactic that caught my eye: throughout the exhibition (no photography allowed beyond the atrium, sadly), the Chinese objects are always placed on red risers or red squares as a background. The Egyptian objects get the same treatment but in black. Because the exhibition is arranged by theme rather than culture (e.g., how each culture respectively approached currency, votive offerings to gods, and so on), the red and black color-coding is a very useful visual cue for which culture produced any given object.
Arranging objects in a gallery so that they communicate with each other (and with the visitor caught in their crosstalk) can take many forms. A unified color scheme among the individual vitrines can do it, as can a monochrome or gold color to the objects themselves, or a similarity in shape. The above pairing of paintings in Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie highlights the similarly rosy tone of both pieces, but in an especially cunning way. The lefthand painting, August Kopisch's Pontine Marshes at Sunset, depicts a red sun sinking over the crimson wetlands like an ember. It smolders in the dome of clouds above it, a furnace between the eerie lunar landscape and the jaundiced sky. Lengthening toward the right, the red oval seems to cast its light upon the next wall—where it falls upon the straggling family painted by Eduard Magnus in his Return of the Palikares. The low sun cloaking this scene in pink lies just off the canvas to the left, allowing us to imagine that it might be the very same sun that sets over the Pontine marshes. Not only the warm color, then, connects the paintings, but the very light source itself; it calls for the two pieces to be looked at together, dynamically.
Placing objects into an exhibition space requires thinking about them in a new way. While a individual piece might be the focus of art-historical research, when it enters a space shared with other objects, suddenly all the pieces become part of an interaction. Each piece plays with the other objects in the space and with the visitors. And the game is no longer just art-historical but also strictly formal (form-based)—in the sense that objects inhabiting a common space can be compared and contrasted simply in terms of their appearance, which for a single object would be impossible. Parallels and harmonies emerge; so too variations and dissonance.
This is especially obvious in a gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (above). The objects in this room (part of the exhibition of the permanent collection) are all monochromatic, a unifying factor across the media of painting, metal sculpture, wood sculpture, and photography. What's more, the compositions of all the larger works have a strong vertical element: the paintings send up powerful black brushstrokes, while the two sculptures point long fingers skyward. The viewer's eye bounces from one to the next, drawing her in for a closer look into the black-and-white vortex.
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.
This weekend sees the opening of the new Ancient Middle East gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Cause for celebration on several levels: it is an immense coup for a museum too often brought up in talk of financial crisis; it highlights the importance of this material at a time of extreme crisis in the Middle East; and, most relevant for this blog, the new gallery forefronts a nice modern display concept for some very old material. The creamy gray palette of the walls, floor, ceiling, and cases offers a clean backdrop for the variegated shapes and colors of the objects. The lighting is masterful: it is stronger on the objects than in the rest of the room, yet still diffuse rather than spotlit—hard to achieve, but worthwhile! The cases also do a nice job of hiding the light sources, while the ceiling contains a few discrete lines of track lighting. Clear plastic signboards with black lettering signpost the side galleries (apparently organized by material: metalwork to the left, ceramic to the right). The Neo-Babylonian mushussu relief provides a lovely centerpiece. To my mind, the overall effect of the gallery is very pleasing; I hope someday to see it in person.
Within the city-sized complex that is the Deutsches Museum in Munich, one gallery is devoted to ceramic technology. This room houses a model of an ancient Roman pottery production center, an enormous vat for transporting acids, and many smaller wonders of ceramic that we encounter (mostly unknowingly) in our everyday lives. The ceramic knife and roller skate wheels are mounted with small pieces of clear plastic onto a clear plastic sheet standing vertically in the back of the display case—a good way to make the display more legible and interesting than simply laying out the objects on a tabletop. They seem to "float" in front of the very colorful orange backdrop.
Octopuses were my favorite cephalopod until I learned more about cuttlefish. Many more people now have the chance to get excited about these remarkable little undersea hovercrafts in a new special exhibition at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Tentacles. Brand-new and quite lavish, this exhibition features rich colors on every wall, several video screens masquerading as aquaria, and of course tanks of the live wonders themselves. This vaguely hemispherical tank was striking for the contrast between pearly white cuttlefish and supernaturally sparkly black "sand." The sand has clearly been chosen to set off the bright white of the animals. They gleam against it.
The funny thing is, they also bury themselves in it: fluttering a single delicate fin, they dig into the sand and bivouac in the depression, tossing a sprinkling of sand onto their backs. Naturally, they do this to hide from predators. But no predator would be fooled by a glaringly white fleshy nugget sitting atop a black dinner plate! Although in the wild cuttlefish burrow into tropical sand as gorgeously white as they are, for the sake of the exhibit the chosen sand is black. It's an instance in which altering the actual natural context of the "object" on display helps the visitor better appreciate it aesthetically, although not conceptually (as in these examples); the intricate beauty of the camouflage that nature has wrought is subordinated to the visual WOW factor of white-on-black.
To conclude this brief series of posts on the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg, let's return to the Aegean blue galleries of ancient art. This room struck me for two reasons. First of all, such a cluster of display cases (at right in the photo) rising up to a pinnacle is not very common. It seems to me a nice way to provide some height to what could otherwise be a row of cases stultifyingly alike in size, shape, and disposition. The way it incorporates a strong vertical element reminds me of the upright burial in the Neues Museum in Berlin: an economic use of space as well as an interesting break from the usual case distribution.
The other aspect I liked about this room is the high ledge along the lefthand wall. Supporting a set of Greek funerary monuments, it acts like the original base that would have elevated these objects far above the ancient viewer's eye level (as in the example of the Dexileos stele, a replica of which can be seen here in the original context). Like the columbarium in the Altes Museum in Berlin, this gives the museumgoer a better idea of the original display context of these objects than if they were set at ground level or in a case. The trade-off is that their details are not easy to see from this distance and angle; but this seems a fair trade, in that it makes excellent use of large marble objects that don't need the climate control or protection that a case provides.
Don't fret, your eyes are not going half-fuzzy: this is the next innovative display idea from the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg. In a special exhibition on provenance (itself very nicely done, with all the right questions and answers about provenance written into the wall and object texts), this case stood out for several reasons. First of all, the construction-worker orange color under the silver objects. Like the bright purple in the Cabinet of Curiosities display or the cerulean blue in the Greek galleries, I'm not convinced that the color enhances the objects; but it does a fabulous job of acting like a tractor beam to reel in the viewer. Bright! Shiny! Must get closer!
The second feature that struck me is the use of stickers on the glass walls of the case. As in the bubble effect in the Egyptian gallery, here too it seems that vinyl stickers were smoothed onto the panes in order to direct the eye in certain ways. Here the stickers are more subtle than the circular cut-outs: they are clear and just barely textured so as to give the glass a frosted appearance. Cut into large triangles and laid at irregular angles, they create an almost hallucinatory effect as you look into the case. The photo below shows how the stickers echo the geometric gray printed background on the back and base of the case, while the upper photo illustrates the sometimes dizzying effect of looking at an object half-obscured by fog. Yet I loved it, despite feeling vaguely disoriented. As an optical illusion of sorts, it asks the viewer to look closely to figure out just what she's seeing; and in so doing, it gets her to stay put, scrutinize, change viewpoint, look again. That is a great achievement. And in my experience, even if my attention was first focused on the case, it certainly shifted to the objects.
Some of the oldest material in the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg is displayed in one of the freshest ways. Stepping into the first gallery of Egyptian art feels a bit like entering an underwater world: the walls are a deep turquoise-blue, the lights are dim, and there are luminous bubbles floating before your eyes. Or so it seems! The bubbles are actually circular windows in the wall that look onto one huge recessed case. The back wall of the case is painted light yellow, which in the dark room practically glows. Like the bright purple cases in the Cabinet of Curiosities, these spots of color attract the eye and draw the visitor in for a closer look.
What's more, this display made me realize that circles are not a shape we often see in museums. I suppose this is partly dictated by the fact that glass display cases almost have to be rectilinear (and although advanced plastics can be molded into all sorts of shapes, I don't know if they are being used in display case technology). It seems to me that using circles to give the eye a break from linear geometry and to highlight certain objects could be implemented with normal cases, too: how about a big vinyl sticker with a circular cut-out in it, stuck onto a glass display case? As a kid I loved playing with the thin, translucent plastic shapes that stuck to windows and easily peeled off again; could we translate that technology?
Continuing the thread from last time, this post takes us again to the Museum of Arts and Crafts in Hamburg for a look at another of its colorful displays. This bold black-and-purple gallery presents a "cabinet of curiosities" in which the objects are grouped according to aesthetic criteria rather than geographic or cultural origin or the like. Part of the aesthetic effect in this Kunstkammer is achieved not just by the objects but the display: the strongly contrasting colors and recessed cases are very eye-catching. The radiant cases drew me toward them, a moth to the flame. (A similar concept of colorful cubes sunken into a black wall appears in the Neues Museum in Berlin.) What I find so smart about the flashy display concept in this instance is that it actually advances the theme of the room: like the original Kunstkammer, it elevates aesthetic effect to the highest priority. This space demands to be experienced on an aesthetic level first and foremost. Indeed, you can hardly do otherwise — because in keeping with the original Kunstkammer concept, the only text in the entire room is the name of the room printed on the wall!
Last week I had the pleasure of going goggle-eyed at the Museum für Kunst und Gewerbe (Museum of Arts and Crafts) in Hamburg. Room after room in this museum offered new, bright, lively ideas for displays that had me alternating smiles with scooping my jaw off the floor. Needless to say, I was very excited and merrily snapped photos of a few of my favorites. Today we see the first of five (yes!) highlights.
The large display case at right in the photo above houses ancient Greek objects that represent aspects of Classical Greek warfare. I liked the use of this theme to unify a set of varied objects differing in size, material, and shape, from small clay vases to imposing bronze armor. And although I'm not sure that the radiant blue augments the objects per se, I love that it adds a splash of vibrancy to a set of objects that is otherwise largely bichromatic (red and black/gray).
More striking, however, is the juxtaposition of the large case at right with the smaller one at left. It holds a relief from Benin, Africa. (Although the relief looks minuscule, this is just an effect of the photograph: the relief is several meters farther from the camera. In reality it is a bit bigger than the bronze breastplate at right.) The Benin relief was made approximately a millennium later than the Greek pots, yet it too depicts warefare — in a remarkably different way. Together, the two cases in this room draw connections across time and space to show how very different cultures can share a common social convention (if we can call war a social convention) as well as a desire to express it visually. How they each express it, and why their means of doing so should differ in some ways and align in others, is the basis of precisely the sort of cultural comparison that I think enriches our human experience. It sparks insight, demonstrates connectedness — a profound result from a simple but insightful display concept.
The Trier Landesmuseum came onto my radar recently, and in browsing their website I grew excited about the photos of their permanent collection display. The exhibition presents "a circular walking tour through the entire history of Trier and the Trier region – from the Stone Age to the Roman city, from the Franks to the last Trier Electoral Prince." Apparently it won an award for its design, and I can see why! From the band of purple backdrop for precious miniatures to the half-recessed cases (artworks in themselves), the design is truly beautiful. I hope for the chance to experience it in person to see how it works for the collection.
Note on the award (from the museum's website):
“red dot: best of the best” Award 2011
The permanent exhibition of the Trier Landesmuseum was awarded one of the most prestigious international prizes for design, the “red dot: best of the best”, in the autumn of 2011. The exhibition received the prize in the category “communication design” for an especially bold, innovative, modern design.
Continuing the train of thought from the last post, today I want to share another method by which the Neues Museum in Berlin has chosen to exhibit its objects vertically. The concept seems simple, yet the effect is striking. In the case pictured above, shards of glass have been clipped into special wire holders that stick up from the plinth like flowers — although given the geometry of the pieces, they almost resemble cosmic debris shooting into space! With large, heavy lumps of glass providing visual weight at floor level, the projecting fragments provide a gorgeous contrast in weightlessness. As a way to use the full space of a case, from bottom to top, this is very clever. Moreover, it brings these rather humble pieces of history to life: by contrast, can you imagine the effect if they were simply strewn across the floor of the case? It would probably be stultifying. Instead, here we have a carefully choreographed play of shapes, colors, and space. The stunning effect is worth far more than the simplicity of the idea would let on; and what's more, the concept can be executed on the cheap: although this version is highly refined, a similar idea could practically substitute wire coat hangers. (Alright, just check with the conservators first!) For context, you can see this case in its ensemble of ultra-modern cubic peepholes in the photo below. (Subject for another post, this black box-with-hidey-holes approach.)
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.
Communicating complex scientific information in a compelling way can be a challenge. This display at the Civico Museo Archeologico di Milano does a beautiful job of breaking down a wealth of fairly abstruse information into four color-coded sections. With bright colors, digestible texts, and an inviting skeleton (always a draw!), the exhibit effectively explains what information can be gathered from ancient bones. At the top is an introduction to the fields of physical anthropology and epidemiology, and to the specific themes elaborated below. Below, labels describe several physical characteristics that can be determined from bones; and in a wonderful example of show-me pedagogy, the bones that are most indicative for each characteristic sit beside the label. So at left, in the red stripe, is a paragraph about "Race" and an explanation of how the length of the femur can aid in an identification. In yellow is "Maladies," including degenerative, nutritional, and traumatic varieties, each represented by a bone marked with an orange dot at the most indicative site. "Age" is detailed in blue, again juxtaposed with the representative bones. Green discusses "Sex" with the help of two pelvic bones and two skulls, a male and a female. That the complete skeleton sitting in the corner is color-coded to match the single bones and themes is the icing on the cake: an excellent clarifying illustration. In every respect, this exhibit fulfills what its title promises: it intelligibly introduces "The skeleton in the service of archaeology." And in a lively manner at that — a true feat, given the lifeless subject!
Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the St. Louis Art Museum for the first time. Its gorgeous setting, collection, and signage and display (hurrah!) sent me swooning. To my mind, its success is all the more impressive because of the vast diversity of its objects and galleries that could easily lead to an incohesive experience. Like so many founded in the late nineteenth century, this museum's collections cover a lot of ground: "What began as a collection of assorted plaster casts, electrotype reproductions, and other examples of 'good design' in various media rapidly gave way to a great and varied collection of original works of art spanning five millennia and six continents." (Excerpt from the handbook as quoted here.)
How to give the visitor a coherent experience of an encyclopedic collection? Some variety from gallery to gallery is of course expected and even refreshing, but too much could be jarring. One way to finesse the transitions struck me between the ancient Roman gallery and the adjacent hall of European paintings. A visitor coming from the latter toward the former would see the view in the photo above: a stunning Roman bust and warm red walls drawing her in, and two figural paintings on the blue walls to either side. The genius here is the juxtaposition of figures: two chubby babes at left (a good Roman subject, moreover!) and a dour-looking man at right flank the bust in the middle. The marble and painted men even turn towards each other, as if they would converse were at least one of them not so grouchy.
Entering the reverse way, from the Roman to the European gallery, we see the view below. Marble portrait heads are set off by the red wall, and beyond them a gathering of painted women echo the figures in both subject and shape: two solemn women at right, and a group of two and three figures at left. It's a subtle and effective way to smooth the transition from one room to the next while still allowing them their own distinctive characters.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.