Don't we all want to touch museum objects sometimes? Even as a veteran display analyst and card-carrying art historian, I can sometimes hardly keep my hands to myself. And what about visitors who need to perceive by touch—the blind and sight-impaired? Very slowly, museums are starting to install displays that are accessible to these groups. At the Berlinische Galerie, a recent exhibition of paintings and works on paper used a new technology to make an important painting touchable: the painting was reproduced (3-D printed?) with all its surface textures, and mounted horizontally in a pedestal by a bench in front of the original. In addition, the reproduction was given extra relief in order to make the two female figures stand out from the background; their arms and shoulders were slightly raised, their chins made pointy. Visitors of any sort—sighted or not, with kids or not, art historian or not—can revel in the chance to finally put their hands on a masterpiece!
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.
The upper floor of Hamburg's Archaeological Museum doesn't plunge the visitor into an immersive landscape as the lower floor does (subject of the last post). Rather than turning windowless walls into a black cave, this floor uses walls of windows to leverage its position on a park and pedestrian walk, bringing inside the natural light and greenery.
In one section of this airy space is an exhibit highlighting artifacts found around the museum. Arranged on a transit map of the area (similar to this room of Berlin's Friedrichshain-Kreuzberg Museum), the objects each have a grab bar near them like those in a bus or tram—complete with the red STOP button! When you push the button, a voice from the speaker in the pedestal first announces the name of the transit stop and then tells you about the artifact found there. It's a playful and effective way to show the visitor that history really comes from the places she commutes every day. Announcing the name of the stop reinforces this, as well as the transit theme itself. And ask any five-year-old: who doesn't love pressing those buttons!?
In one gallery of Berlin's Natural History Museum, all the video installations are plain white. They illuminate the taxidermied bison like the lights for a fashion shoot, but otherwise betray no special function. But if you grab a playing card from the big bin at the entrance, and you look through the little circle of polarizing filter that occupies half of the card, suddenly the white screens spring to life! Each one plays a captioned video about animals, some of which are also shown in taxidermied form nearby. Through the filter you can watch the video as usual—or watch the people around you as they realize, squint, look, and learn! It's a cute trick to get people to stop and engage in a concentrated way with video material. I certainly would have breezed past a lot of these screens if not for the polarizing gimmick to draw me in (on a visit last weekend during the 20th iteration of the Long Night of the Museums).
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.
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).
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!
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:
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 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.