Displaying a pair of soccer star Mo Salah's shoes in the middle of a gallery of ancient Egyptian sculpture—as reported in this article in The Guardian, screenshot above—is a display tactic all of its own. Capitalizing on World Cup fever is just one element. What's more, the incursion of such a colorful, everyday, clearly modern material into a room full of old, imposing, monochromatic statues is eye-catching. In this case it's also a powerful statement about cultural heritage: keeper Neal Spencer says that "The boots tell a story of a modern Egyptian icon, performing in the UK, with a truly global impact." The same could be said of the ancient colossi surrounding the shoes. As museums are increasingly confronted with dissatisfaction about cultural colonialism and claims of presenting a "global heritage," such displays trying to engage the debates are on the rise. Successful or not, the fact that they engage at all is a first step toward improving how we teach and learn about culture through objects.
Recently the Berliner Zeitung published an interview with me in their series of "Berliner Weltverbesserer" ("Berliners Bettering the World")—a title I can only hope to aspire to! I'm especially proud to be one of the first humanities scholars interviewed for the series. Archaeology can stand up to nanotechnology in bettering the world! That is my view, anyway, as I try to show in this short text about what I find important about my research. The understanding of other cultures is something I try to underscore in my work, since I think it helps us to better understand and respect our modern multicultural world. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian interactions 2000 years ago can tell us a surprising amount about our intercultural interactions today!
Given that the mechanics of museum exhibitions can make all the difference between an effective show and an ineffective one, reviews of museum exhibitions are surprisingly hard to come by. In the scholarship on Greco-Roman civilization, at least, exhibition catalogs are much more commonly reviewed than the exhibitions themselves. This is a shame because exhibitions can communicate just as powerfully as books—and sometimes, of course, more so. They are an invaluable tool of scholarship that can propel research forward as well as public interest in it! Taking them seriously is a win for scholars, museums, visitors, everyone.
So three cheers for the resumption of museum exhibition reviews in the leading U.S. journal of Mediterranean archaeology, the American Journal of Archaeology. In the newest issue, Josephine Shaya evaluates the recent renovation of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, Spain. An online photo gallery accompanies her article. The same issue, in fact, includes a review of an exhibition catalog that illustrates how productive the synergy (or unity?) of brand-new scholarship and groundbreaking exhibition can be: Power and Pathos (Getty Museum, 2016) by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin.
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.
The German Archaeological Institute recently announced a new museum opening in Wukro (Wuqro), Ethiopia. This museum houses archaeological finds from the area, with one highlight being the 8th- to 6th-century BC sanctuary of a moon god. The altar and channel for libations is reconstructed in the museum (above). Just as striking as this reconstruction is the architecture of the museum building itself: it dosn't just recede into the background, but acts as part of the display. Its massive stone walls accentuate the objects more powerfully than the usual flat painted wall surface; they are a beautiful extension of the display.
To find out more: this document (in German) explains the museum project, including diagrams of the building, and this website presents nice pictures of the galleries, signage, and festive opening ceremony.
An online (or more broadly, a digital) platform is a great solution to the layers of information embedded in any exhibition, from the large-writ headers to the digging-deeper details for specialists and the especially interested. Formatting these layers so that they are both accessible and beautiful is a challenge—one that The Metropolitan Museum met with gusto in its #metkids project. This website, although meant to introduce children to the museum's collections, is a delight for any age. The cheery red background and lively graphics are pleasing to the eye, and the simple arrangement of text with clear headers makes information easy to find. Further info can be found by clicking the terms highlighted in yellow, another easy visual cue. This site seems like a good point of reference for anyone thinking about digital presentation, be it stand-alone or supplementary to a physical (brick-and-mortar? We need a term for this) exhibition.
A recent silly post on The Poke (tagline: "time well wasted") offers an unexpectedly valuable glimpse into the heads of museum visitors. Among other things, it shows that visitors may have the most fun in a museum by using the exhibits to their own humorous ends. It's not exactly "making fun" of the objects, but using them to generate a laugh—something that the hard-working staff responsible for the exhibits might see as disrespectful, but which I would like to suggest is instead a useful jumping-off point for reconceiving how to make engaging displays. For example, a few themes reappear several times in the Poke article: people like imitating statues and paintings to comedic effect, whether by pointing out a resemblance to themselves or by creating a new context for the object (e.g., a music video by Beyonce!). It's also entertaining to add a funny attribute to the object: a hand puppet on a statue's hand, a cell phone positioned as if a portrait is taking a selfie, a modern caption to an old painting.
It seems to me that all of these interactions with objects could be turned from "pranks" (as they are presented by the very format of the Poke article) into sanctioned museum activities that leverage these visitors' energy and creativity, particularly when it comes to picture-taking. For instance:
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!
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.
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.