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 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.
Once a month the Käthe-Kollwitz Museum in Berlin offers a lunchtime tour by the director, Dr. Iris Berndt, and yesterday's provided the extra motivation for my first visit to the museum. Standing in the first room of the ground-floor galleries, waiting for the tour to assemble, I was struck by the "word cloud" on a wall right next to the entrance. Like the automatically generated word clouds on the Internet, this collection represents thought trends in a wide set of "users" (clustered around the name of the artist, nicely emphasized with extra lighting). But unlike the digital word clouds, these words have been carefully selected to educate. As Dr. Berndt explained, they all represent concepts widely understood to apply to the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz—but several of them are problematic or even false. By marking these four terms with question marks—Feminist? Jewish? Communist? An artist who depicts suffering?—the display indicates that these preconceptions need to be reexamined and possibly discarded. This seems to me a very simple yet effective way to ease a visitor into the experience to come: several key themes are named right at the beginning, setting the tone for the subsequent galleries and helping a visitor to frame the individual objects; and just as importantly, it introduces the idea of questioning stereotypes, clichés, and pat explanations. For such a complex, richly-textured life and oeuvre as Kollwitz's, this strikes just the right first note.
An article in the New Yorker alerted me to a current exhibition at The Metropolitan Museum, specifically in the newly-reopened Costume Institute. It takes as its focus the fashion figure Jacqueline de Ribes and presents her clothing designs in a number of displays, all lovely—but the one that particularly caught my eye is shown above (and linked through the picture; just click on it to see the original slideshow). Using reflective metal (aluminum?) as the backdrop and flooring for these dresses is a simple yet extremely effective way to emphasize the colors and reflect light upon them without distracting from them. As a display solution, in fact, it has much in common with the clothing designs themselves: it is deceptively simple, quite cunning, and above all elegant.
This weekend sees the opening of the new Ancient Middle East gallery at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Cause for celebration on several levels: it is an immense coup for a museum too often brought up in talk of financial crisis; it highlights the importance of this material at a time of extreme crisis in the Middle East; and, most relevant for this blog, the new gallery forefronts a nice modern display concept for some very old material. The creamy gray palette of the walls, floor, ceiling, and cases offers a clean backdrop for the variegated shapes and colors of the objects. The lighting is masterful: it is stronger on the objects than in the rest of the room, yet still diffuse rather than spotlit—hard to achieve, but worthwhile! The cases also do a nice job of hiding the light sources, while the ceiling contains a few discrete lines of track lighting. Clear plastic signboards with black lettering signpost the side galleries (apparently organized by material: metalwork to the left, ceramic to the right). The Neo-Babylonian mushussu relief provides a lovely centerpiece. To my mind, the overall effect of the gallery is very pleasing; I hope someday to see it in person.
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.
How about a display idea related to our recent switch onto daylight savings time? This room in Palazzo Massimo, Rome is one of my favorite places in the Eternal City. Not only does it house a gorgeous set of ancient Roman wall paintings (already a gold star in my book), but it is usually fairly empty and thus peaceful. Adding to this oasis of calm is the special lighting: reflected against the ceiling, it is beautifully diffuse—and what's more, it changes to replicate the time of day. It slowly, almost imperceptibly shifts from a low-light, slightly bluish tone through a warm bright midday and into a rosy sunset before repeating. The whole cycle takes around four or five minutes. It's an innovative way to bring the walls to life as well as create a meditative atmosphere.
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.
To balance the last post on diffuse lighting, in this post I want to revel in a gorgeous example of an unusually dark gallery lit with highly precise spotlights. In the Carnegie Museum of Natural History is a spectacular hall of minerals and gems. The shining glass cases, lighting, and black carpeting and walls all help make the objects appear precious, almost hallowed — they have an aura. Encased in glowing octagonal pods, they somehow even seem otherworldly. And while it's true that many of the specimens are themselves sparkly, impossibly pointy, or otherwise eye-catching, it's the display that really contributes to their inexorable pull. Talk about exhibition design amplifying the best qualities of a collection: you can hardly resist approaching the case for a better look at these, well, precious gems! Which leads to the question of keeping this glass free of nose- and fingerprints...
Inspired by a comment on the last post, I'm devoting today's post to diffuse lighting. Many scholars love the stuff, while many designers these days seem to agree that it is boring. Bring in the spotlights! While very strong, direct, single-source lighting certainly produces a dramatic effect — and can be quite successful (a blog post for another day) — diffuse lighting has its own merits. It allows the viewer to see details that might otherwise be lost in shadow. And in some cases, it better recreates the more even, natural lighting in which an object was likely originally seen.
Palazzo Massimo in Rome, one of my favorite museums of all time, has installed in a few of its galleries a versatile system that produces very diffuse light. It relies on a series of screens mounted to the ceiling, positioned on pivots that allow them to be turned any which way. Bright lights are pointed at the screens rather than the objects. The result is an evenly-lit room ideal for photographing — thanks too to the filtering shades on the windows. Because the photo above hardly does justice to the actual effect, I include another one below of a visitor in this same room admiring the sarcophagi. Aren't those marbles beautiful, bathed in that light. (The potential irony being that if sarcophagi were viewed by candlelight in tombs, the original viewing conditions would be better imitated by spotlights! But to experience that sort of atmosphere, you can just walk down the hall to the room of the Portonaccio Sarcophagus.)
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.