Archaeological objects can feel inaccessible to museum visitors for several reasons: they might be old, dirty, tiny, or unglamorous. The National Museum in Copenhagen has a breathtaking collection of Bronze-Age objects which are very glamorous indeed for a specialist, but for the uninitiated could simply seem too small to be worth the bother. What are those scratchy lines on the surface of that metal blade, anyway—corrosion? No, they are fabulously whimsical drawings about the origin of the cosmos! But you have to peer very, very closely to make out the drawings, and even then they are hard to interpret.
The solution is a beautiful short animated film that plays on one wall of the gallery dedicated to the spellbinding Sun Chariot (see video clip above). The decorations on the chariot itself, as well as on knife blades, safety pins (fibulae), and other artifacts in the room, are brought to life in a cartoon showing how the mythical sun rises and sets—drawn by a horse, swallowed by a fish, and vomited back up again. Isn't archaeology fun?
The lights in the gallery change color along with the storyline, from orange in the daytime to deep blue and black at night. It's a fanciful sensory experience that really brings these objects to life again, some 3000-4000 years after they were first made.
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!?
Hamburg's Archaeological Museum in Harburg is a gem. The first-floor gallery, pictured above, is relatively small but packed with wildly creative displays. An artificial dirt-and-rock floor (all glued down, safe to walk and scramble on) strikes the right tone for the prehistoric collections. Just so the dark ceiling, recalling a cave or perhaps the night sky. It's atmospheric, certainly; but more than that, the playfulness helps to emphasize the content rather than distracting from it. Who could expect otherwise from the creative team, Ravensberger Freizeit und Promotion, famous for their educational board games! Here are just a few examples:
The brand-new archaeological museum at Pully (near Lausanne) is dedicated to an ancient Roman villa discovered at this site, overlooking Lake Leman. Fragments of fresco that decorated the villa's walls are exhibited in cases dedicated to certain themes—shown here is "Aux bains," "At the baths." Displayed within are pieces of fresco from the villa's bath complex, which was painted with marine scenes in keeping with the watery function of the rooms. Not only is the graphic design of the panels clean and bright, but the cases feature a cute pedagogical concept: small stickers on the glass are shaped like speech bubbles, some with tails pointing to fresco fragments as if they were talking! In the photo above, a painting of a fisherman seems to call out, "It's fresh, my fish is fresh! The fishing was good today." The bubbles at the top right introduce an authentic Roman recipe for fish sauce, quoting an ancient author, while the small bubble at left asks, "Did you know that fish farming was invented by the Romans?" It's a playful way to draw attention to individual objects, and particularly well-designed to engage young museum visitors.
It's a tricky task to make nature itself into an exhibition. Nature walks (in botanical gardens and model farms, for instance) often rely not on a group of objects or other predetermined set of material, but on an unpredictable troupe of actors who may or may not be on stage that day. What a challenge to present material that the visitor might not even get to see! But certain display tactics can help smooth over the possible unevenness of this living exhibition. The Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood, Florida centers on a boardwalk that winds through a section of mangrove habitat. (It also has a lovely visitor's center which, when I visited, included a display of contemporary art on spiffy movable walls.) At the start of the walk, large signs with vivid pictures of the animals (above) introduce the visitor to the point of the exhibition: to VIEW the plants and animals. Further, to help the visitor engage—and to help them see the critters tucked away in their hidey-holes—the Center offers a handout with a checklist of the plants and animals one might encounter on the walk. This is an easy, effective, low-cost way to encourage visitors (especially kids) to really look, and even to try to identify the things they see. It would be fantastic as an app for mobile devices too.
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 successful display does not need a fancy new design idea or technology to be successful (indeed, sometimes those can really go awry!). Some of my favorite displays are very simple; their strength lies in being extremely well-conceived in terms of how they achieve their few basic goals. One great example is the signage at the Domäne Dahlem in Berlin, a charming set of fields and cottages meant to teach the visitor about old-time farming and artisanal trades. The signs scattered around the grounds are excellent in several simple but important respects:
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.