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.
This unusual touch surely gave a smile to many visitors to the special exhibition Il Nilo a Pompei at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. In keeping with the theme of this show—how Egyptian culture was taken up by Romans in Pompeii—the standard fire escape signs were replaced by these Egyptian-inspired ones! A whimsical bit of humor that gives a glimpse of the real (fun!) people behind the exhibition. Director Christian Greco cheerfully admitted to being quite amused. This balance of fun and scholarly is characteristic of the museum's seriously impressive public outreach campaigns.
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?
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.