My presentation on Friday led to a vibrant discussion—the most gratifying possible outcome of a talk! We discussed how displays of ancient art can achieve certain effects together with its visiting audience. Particularly in view of the warm reception it received, I hope that this presentation might spark further ideas in the online community; so here are the slides and talking points to look through as you like. I hope that the conversations will continue to grow and multiply, invigorating our museums and our communities.
This Friday is a very special day: I'll be giving a talk about museum displays of ancient art! In particular, how they can benefit from an injection of multivocality, uncertainty, complexity, non-traditional narratives, and other conversation starters. Please come and join the discussion! Complete information about the event is here.
Ancient Images, Modern Projections. Displaying Complex Narratives in the Museum
by Dr. Stephanie Pearson, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and New York University Berlin
on 23 November 2018
at the conference Image studies and museum practice: the image as the focal point of research versus the image as exhibited object. A conference run by the Ancient Objects and Visual Studies programme at the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies
in the Abguss-Sammlung Antiker Plastik der Freien Universität Berlin
Schloßstraße 69b, 14059 Berlin
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!
Of course, two decisions have to be made before the question of display tactics even arises.
Then, and only then:
This last question raises further questions about intended audience, etc.—the subject of immeasurable spilled ink already, and still flowing (good thing; we need the flood). The first question, about whether to display at all, is equally complex and has been addressed in a small way even on this blog. Let's turn to the second question.
What is displayed has as much impact on the message of the exhibit as how it's diplayed. (Yes, all exhibits have a message, whether conscious or not. My students seem to grasp this better than many professionals.) The Museo Egizio in Turin is currently co-hosting an exhibition that makes this clear in the most laudable self-critical move I have ever seen a museum make. Please send other examples if you know of some; in my experience, this is unique. This archaeology museum has decided to highlight the problems of where its objects come from, under what circumstances of colonialism or other duress they were acquired, and what role or right a museum even has to create knowledge around them.
How does it achieve this very tall order? By exhibiting works of contemporary art that raise these issues. Above (screenshot from the museums' Facebook site), a piece by Liz Glynn in her series "Surrogate Objects for the Metropolitan" imitates some of the look of a Greek vase while also announcing its collage-like materials as if for a humble craft project. It thus questions the value of Greek vases—after all, many were simply the red plastic cups of their day—as well as the way the museum literally puts them on a pedestal, and the effect this has on what we think of them, how we value them.
A piece by Ali Cherri in the Turin exhibition positions a taxidermied hawk triumphantly spreading its wings over a table full of archaeological objects. This is a powerful image to highlight the potential predatory nature of dealing in antiquities. For an archaeological museum to champion awareness of these issues is as surprising and new as it is exemplary. It is a typically inspiring move by museum messiah oops I mean director Christian Greco. Hopefully he will inspire many, many other museums to follow suit.
The brand new special exhibition at the Plaster Cast Collection in Berlin features this piece, a cast of an ancient sculpture depicting two wrestlers. Just the head of one wrestler and his hand intertwined with the hand of his opponent is preserved. The fragmentary preservation adds to the drama of the piece, as it leaves the modern viewer to decipher what is going on in this tiny excerpt of tumult. The display heightens this even more, with the stark white of the piece brightly lit against its dark pedestal; the effect is a further disembodying of these twisted human parts. The display fits the piece, as the Germans would say, wie die Faust aufs Auge: literally, "like a fist in your eye"— that is, like a glove.
Divine#Design, an exhibition running through October at the Antikensammlungen and Glyptothek in Munich brings contemporary fashion into dialogue with ancient sculpture (somewhat like the exhibit in Aidone, Sicily described in a recent post). Students at the AMD Akademie Mode & Design were invited to create clothing inspired by the highlights of the antiquities collection. The juxtaposition of old and new is meant to raise questions about the social relevance and effect of clothing, makeup, and hairstyle. For perhaps the first time, an antiquities show has earned a slideshow in Vogue magazine! Flipping through the slides shows the many ways the students responded to the ancient objects: in texture ("swallowtail" folds in a hemline), color (lots of whites and beiges), content (a real snake posed beside a head of Medusa), and form (a petticoat cage shaped like a vase; a "fat suit" to imitate musculature). The sheer imagination of these designers brings new life to the collection.
The archaeological museum at Aidone, Sicily presents a juxtaposition of very old (6th century BC) and very new (2009) that is at once provocative and instructive. The decision to display the remains of two remarkable ancient Greek statues in a reconstruction by contemporary Sicilian fashion desigenr Marella Ferrera is symbolic, underscoring the equal value of (and even a unity of) Sicily's ancient and modern heritage. In Ferrera's concept, the marble heads, hands, and feet of the statues of goddesses Demeter and Kore/Persephone are affixed to metal wire armatures swathed in transparent rust-red cloth. (Some tweaking has been done over the years; an earlier version used a pale off-white cloth and included a stalk of grain in Kore's left hand. At the time of the first installation, Ferrera's human models were similarly swathed in her Winter 2009 collection.) The result is much more striking than the exhibit for the statues in Virginia, where they were housed until a repatriation claim in 2007 lead to the return of the statues in December 2009. What is more, Ferrera's "in-corporation" of the heads and extremities creatively recreates the original context of the statues: as acroliths, these statues had stone heads, hands, and feet, but their bodies were carved in in wood which no longer survives. Setting the remaining stone pieces back into bodies gives the viewer a proper sense of the powerful physical presence of the original statues—an important factor in their function as figures of worship.
Visiting the Los Angeles County Museum of Art (LACMA) for the first time in many years, I was surprised (and admittedly, as a specialist in ancient art, dismayed at first) to find that the onetime gallery of ancient art has been disbanded. The Greek and Roman sculptures now stand in the galleries of European art—the ancient statues and vases joining the post-antique paintings, sculptures, and decorative arts (photo below). From my initial skepticism, however, I was completely converted to the curators' way of thinking: the pairing of old and new really works! It brings out similarities in the content, form, and even artistic style that would otherwise be lost; and the sheer visual variety of white statues with more colorful objects is beautiful and interesting (much more so than a room full of only white statues). What's more, bringing ancient art into the European art gallery underlines how fundamental it was to the artistic training of these later periods. This central art-historical concept can be grasped in a single glance because the pairings here so effectively highlight the parallels between the objects—as in the statue and painting below, both featuring classic male nudes in contrapposto. At the same time, the juxtapositions open up new ways of thinking about form—as in the second-century Hope Athena statue and ca. 1695 vase above, both with swirling drapery and twisting snake(like) edges.
A catalog published by the Louvre, L'Orient romain et byzantin au Louvre, underscores the power of perhaps the most fundamental matter of display: which objects are next to which. The catalog accompanied the opening of a new set of galleries featuring objects from three different departments—Greek, Etruscan, and Roman; Egyptian; and Near Eastern—now displayed together in a permanent exhibition space. The goal, the Louvre said, was that "these long-dispersed items could at last be assembled in a single space, and thereby placed in their geographical, cultural, and artistic context." It's a poweful example of how simply juxtaposing certain objects allows them to communicate in ways that they cannot individually or in other groupings.
You can read the full press release here, including the museological mission statement and a room-by-room description, while this document offers more detail, photos, and spotlights on a few objects.
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.
A beautiful display concept just surfaced (pun alert) in a new exhibition at the Basel Antikenmuseum, nicely photographed in this article. The exhibition focuses on a famous ancient shipwreck off the Greek island of Antikythera, and you can see how the exhibit design team incorporated the deep blue sea into the show: bluish light filtered into a watery pattern, objects set on beds of large white rocks, dim surrounds evoking the darkness of Davy Jones's locker. Although some of the most spectacular preserved evidence of ancient Greek art and science comes from this shipwreck, the display emphasizes that the focus here is not these star objects in isolation but the whole context of the wreck.
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.
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.
An exhibition based on a single object can be wonderfully pointed, but it can also hard to stage — especially when the single object is an enormous (albeit fragmentary) pediment from an ancient Greek temple. The Amazzonomachia exhibition that took place in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, in 1985 faced precisely this problem: how to exhibit a large set of sculptures lined up in a row, as they would have been in the original pediment, without producing a deadening effect? Marble statues standing in a row are not exactly an invigorating sight. Especially when fragmentary, they can appear painfully static and unengaging. To encourage a viewer to come closer and spend time with the objects, the Amazzonomachia design had to introduce an element of variety into the layout, lending a touch of movement to the ensemble.
The designers arrived at a very clever solution (shown in the plan above). They set the entire pediment (D) at an angle relative to the gallery, so that the sculptures do not simply line one side of the long space. This also presented the viewer with a more frontal view when she entered from the short side of the gallery, rather than an end-on view down the long sculptural lineup. Building on this idea, the pediment was set on a trapezoidal base (E) of which one long side parallels the gallery wall — thereby incorporating it seamlessly into the space, rather than allowing it to look arbitrarily, bizarrely skewed. The base itself is cunningly engineered to serve several purposes: it unifies the objects into their original grouping; it emphasizes the objects by elevating them above floor level; and the three steps leading up to the pedimental sculptures invite the viewer to approach, climb up, get closer. The cherry on top is that its trapezoidal shape echoes that of the ancient triangular pediment, as if projected here onto the ground. This final subtle touch would likely not be noticed by a visitor in the room, but may well have produced an unconscious kinesthetic impression that would reinforce the concept of the show.
(The catalogue for the show is here, while several photos of the sculptures can be seen here.)
This beauty of a display is in the Harvard Semitic Museum. Never before had I seen such creative use of a single color of paint applied to a wall to enhance an array of objects. The objects in question are ancient amphorae, perfect for a wall-mounted display because they are large — taking up a good amount of the large vertical space — and tough, requiring no special climate control or protective glass case. Taking the extra step to paint them into an ancient ship is a truly inspired move that works on several levels:
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.