The building of a large drainage pipe under Berlin's Mauerpark is a triumphant example of how simple display concepts can be transformative. Rather than making yet another annoying construction zone in the city, and this one right in at the entrance to the most popular park, the organizers decided to make it an attraction in itself. They achieved this by erecting a wooden wall around the main building area and decorating it with fun and informative panels. The biggest and most iconic is the cartoon cross-section of the pipe itself (above). The pipe introduces itself through a speech bubble: "I'm a drainage pipe with a 4.4-meter diameter"! More detailed panels describe the water system in depth. Around the corner, a spin wheel with exercise challenges on it ("do 5 pushups!" etc.) is a further attraction. Most surprising of all, you can see it all and learn more on a beautiful modern website devoted to the project! Way to go, Berliner Wasserbetriebe.
A new sort of art exhibition opened in Berlin about a month ago (running until January 28). From Monet to Kandinsky - Visions Alive is a similar presentation to last year's Van Gogh Alive exhibition in the same space (mentioned in this post on art as sensory experience). Using a combination of multiple projectors, sophisticated animation, and music in surround sound, the developers offer a way to experience art quite different from a gallery visit. The focus here is on sensory impact, not traditional pedagogy; all information about the artists whose work is shown is limited to a room on either side of the display space, each hung with a daunting set of text-dense posters. Really the viewer is meant to linger in the main exhibition space, a single large room with many folding chairs and bean bags—an invitation to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds.
The exhibition consists of moving images of paintings projected onto all four walls (and onto a freestanding, screen-clad A/V tower, at left in the photos here). Music plays. Various paintings by a single artist are shown on the multiple walls, at varying degrees of "zoom." The real variety, though, comes with the animation: every painting has been reworked into a psychedelic moving image. Lillies from Monet's waterlily series have been cut from their paintings and now tumble lightly from ceiling to floor over a background of other Monet gardenscapes. Mondrian's squares gain shadow and thus depth, first flickering on like so many lit windows in an apartment building at night, then becoming hundreds of wooden blocks tumbling through outer space like celestial child's toys. Klimt's spirals and gilded squares break free of their canvases and swirl like confetti. After 60 minutes the film starts over again; and to my own surprise, I found that I could have gladly stayed for another round, so complex and beautiful is the imagery.
Not only nice for the eyes, but food for the brain. For although text in this room is limited to a short phrase from the artist projected over the door, the animation shows a firm knowledge of the artworks and artists. The animators were not just strutting their technical stuff; they implemented effects to enhance the art according to its content or even the artist's biography. Thus Van Gogh's painting Wheatfield with Crows is the last of his works to be shown (to the sound of cawing as the birds float over the horizon), just as it was the last work he ever painted. Toulouse-Lautrec's segment opens with silhouettes of the heads of various spectators he painted, as if seated in a theater, a spotlight playing across them as their voices titter—underscoring the importance of spectatorship and nightlife to the artist's repertoire. The many Van Gogh self portraits that morph into one after the other after the other emphasize the artist's obsessive nature, perhaps visible in the repeated attempts to capture his own likeness.
By the end, I was enraptured. Quite a shift from my initial skepticism; I'm embarrassed to admit that at first, I was horrified by what seemed like an overly showy spectacle at the expense of an apparent substance (ahem, text?). How lucky that my companion convinced me to stay and relax into the colors and sounds—which indeed turned out to be wonderful, but also by far not the only merits of this exhibition.
As if a cave-turned-gallery weren't cool enough, what if the cave is in a fantastical Cappadocian fairy chimney? It sounds (and looks!) straight out of Dr. Seuss, but it's real: the Cappadox art festival comprises dozens of art installations in and around these otherworldly stone towers. As Emma Stone in Hyperallergic reports, the installations range from single sculptures to multimedia ensembles. The piece pictured above fits particularly well into the rock-hewn environment; a space once used for graves and chapels now houses these vaguely steampunky arachnocreatures. It's a superb way to spotlight both the living, breathing contemporary art and the (UNESCO-listed) historic cultural site.
A display that blurs the boundaries between art, life, and even display itself is a wonderful and paradoxical thing. The Art Institute of Chicago achieved this by reconstructing the room depicted in Van Gogh's painting The Bedroom—and then listing it on AirBnB for interested renters! As a promotional tool for the Institute's Van Gogh exhibition, this is a cunning tactic; but more than that, it is an exemplar of how the content of an exhibition can inspire (or even become) the display method—and how both can give rise to an unusually vital visitor experience.
What does it mean when an art museum plans to expand into a sweeping green park space—with no art? That is precisely what the North Carolina Museum of Art is doing, according to a recent New York Times article. The large outdoor extension is emphatically not a sculpture garden, says the museum director, Lawrence J. Wheeler, but rather "a unifying idea of what people perceive as a museum and what they perceive as a park." This is one more step in the direction of museums as sites of experience above all else. It raises the question: If parts of the world such as parks can become parts of museums, what has a museum become? If a museum's ultimate role is to serve the community, then a park space is ideal; but what then differentiates a museum from a park, a library, a parking lot—or anything else of value to the community?
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).
The recent release of a film about paintings by Goya highlights the increasing trend of using cinema as a complement to—not to say substitute for?—actually visiting museum galleries. For this film is not about Goya, nor about his paintings per se, but about an exhibition of his paintings in the National Gallery in London. This, as far as I know, is a new genre of filmmaking (although pointers to the contrary would be greatly appreciated!). It emphasizes the experiential aspect of an exhibition, somewhat like the Van Gogh Alive show that immerses its viewers in floor-to-ceiling projections of excerpted details from Van Gogh paintings—creating a surreal landscape in which experience, not the stuff of traditional exhibitions, takes center stage. The Goya film, like the others by Exhibition on Screen, does not go so far as this, but still does focus on a luscious experience of the exhibited material and its historical context (see the period reconstructions in the trailer) more than, say, Frederick Wiseman's film National Gallery, which centered on life in the museum itself. It seems a wonderful way to inspire audiences to visit museums (I'm in the camp that believes that people will mostly use resources like this as an impetus, not a substitute, for going to museums themselves). I wonder what the partnership looks like between the museums and the filmmakers, and what the audience numbers are for these films.
Just as physical aspects of display ideally promote effective communication, so can the reverse be true. So I pricked up my ears when this blog post from the vibrant We Are Museums group reported on the British Museum using the app Periscope to give a virtual tour of a special exhibition (embedded above). As a mode of global communication based on visual material, Periscope is a logical next step to Instagram: succinctly defined by the British Museum website, "Periscope is an app from Twitter which streams video direct from a smartphone to a global audience online." The user gets to select which feed she wants to watch, as if looking through the eyes of another user anywhere in the world. Although it was released 10 months ago, the WAM blog post points out that only a few museums have harnessed its potential to broaden their global audiences; but it seems likely to grow in popularity. I wonder what the very globally-oriented and social-media-wrangling Met might decide do with Periscope.
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.
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?
How can museums effectively engage their visitors? It's a huge question with myriad answers—and sometimes it seems that each answer only raises more questions. Over the past six weeks or so I've gotten to participate in some rousing discussions about public engagement in museums (one was this scintillating symposium in Cambridge) and was deeply affected by the ideas presented there. Many of them involved staging events in the museum, making the museum a hub of activity and an agent in the lives of the community. One of the most moving ideas came from our colleagues in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens, who have worked with a correctional center to create opportunities for young offenders to connect and grow with art.
Yet public engagement can work on much smaller levels. Three levels made of white plastic, for instance. I saw these steps on the sidewalk outside a restaurant, simply standing there beside the tables and stools, and thought it was a very clever way to invite a passerby to stop and engage. Nothing says "we need a person here, and it should be you!" like an empty victor's podium! Can't you imagine a group of friends vying to be #1? In that moment, they have stopped to engage and have fun as we can only hope they would at a museum display. In this case the restaurant must be hoping for a bit more face time with potential customers—but a museum could surely use this tactic for another purpose. These steps act almost like a large wooden cut-out with a hole for the face: it is practically magnetic. So purpose-made, missing only the human ingredient. And someone to take a photo of that human, of course.
One of the most inspiring ideas on display that I've seen recently was produced and beautifully documented by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry (OMSI). An innovative team at the museum wanted to put science in the path of everyone in town, and decided that small exhibits at transit centers would reach the best cross-section of community members. Through many trials, redesigns, and retrials, they came up with two stellar ideas for engaging the public with scientific material. They explain their motivations, processes, and results in a wonderfully informative booklet that is free to download (below; also available here, for example): these are people who really put their words into action!
A recent exhibition idea came to me not from a museum but a beer garden. Yes! — and whyever not? As we see the boundaries break down between museums and other cultural institutions — museums are inviting in theater companies, yoga practitioners, and Michelin-star chefs for their restaurants, all in the name of innervating their public programs — ideas for exhibition design should come from non-museum institutions as well. This one struck me as I walked through the cultural hub atop the Pfefferberg in Berlin, with an outdoor tango stage to my left and this gravel-floored beer garden to my right. Above the tables were hung several dozen glowing orbs, dangling from the tree canopy. They ranged from about 50 cm to 150 cm in diameter, in varying shades of mottled yellow-orange. The effect stopped me in my tracks. Cosmic, certainly: it's like seeing the heavenly bodies descend to within touching distance (almost!). It made me think that such a mesmerizing display could just as well serve in an art museum gallery, simply as an accent to the exhibition down at ground level. Because the orbs are so eye-catching, they would have to be deployed thoughtfully in order that the art not be outshined; but carefully placed in a dimmed gallery with a few lit cases of sculpture, for instance, they would make magic. They would encourage lingering and looking, precisely what we aim for in museums. And they would use some of that tall vertical space at ceiling height that rarely gets used anyway. Pairing the orbs with beautiful visual material seems an obvious choice; pairing them with beer is optional.
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.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.