Yesterday saw the finale of an ambitious multi-year project in the National Museums of Berlin meant to probe the issues in displaying ethnographic collections today. This "Humboldt Lab" took place in Berlin's Ethnological Museum and raised some fantastically interesting questions—like the problem of displaying sacred objects not meant to be seen, the subject of an earlier post on this blog. The publication accompanying the seven "trial" exhibits constructed as part of the Lab is lovely too; I look forward to reading it. (For anyone interested in ordering a copy but undecided on which language, go for the original German—the text is much more readable than the English translation.) Although I'll be sad to see the old museum close (below is a view of the sleek South Pacific galleries, reopened in 2004), it will be exciting to see how the museum moves ahead with the results of this unique petri-dish opportunity!
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.
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.
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?
It took a visionary to put a vicious over-life-size gorilla statue in the entrance foyer of the Krannert Art Museum. Far from the most welcoming face to usher you into the beautiful glass entry, the gorilla is nevertheless one of the most powerful, memorable, even beautiful works in the collection. Its display here is therefore notable for several reasons, not the least of which is the way it straddles the line between luring and possibly intimidating visitors. Art can be scary, people! Come in and find out how! Personally, I love this bold address.
But what makes this display not only edgy but smart are the two ancillary pieces alongside. I don't mean the pendant sculpture by the same artist, which stands nearby: I mean the artist's smaller-scale practice piece and the thorough signage alongside. The tabletop version of the statue provides lovely harmony with the gargantuan final product, and shows that the artist had to carefully consider his monster — it wasn't just a nightmarish flight of fancy. Moreover, the signage explains much of the reasoning behind the artist's choice and portrayal of the subject. This is much needed, since the piece might at first look like a King Kong knock-off or, as the sign explains, an offensive piece of sexism and racism. Addressing these misconceptions right off the bat, while not making them the center of the interpretation, is a smart move. Knowing more about how this piece was painstakingly made and exhibited over many decades, as well as how it incited controversy, heightens our appreciation for the big bronze lout — as well as introducing us to the power of art. It's the perfect way to begin a museum visit.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.