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.
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.
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.
What do these two photos have in common? True, both were taken inside museum galleries—even if the location is obscured in the lower photo by the throngs of people, completely lacking in the top photo. The main point in common is the large dark object on display in both galleries: the Rosetta Stone. The "stone" in the top photo, taken in the Deutsches Museum in Munich, is actually a plaster cast of the original; the original stands in the British Museum, shown in the lower photo. The crowds illustrate the value we place on authenticity—but could it also be symptomatic of the different display concepts? The cast of the Rosetta Stone in Munich is certainly no crowd magnet, but it is also not set up to be one: rather, it is a supporting actor in the gallery on writing and printing technologies. In the British Museum, by contrast, the Stone is displayed right at the entrance to the ancient art wing (creating traffic problems), telling visitors (as well as expecting them to know already) that it is a highlight. Cues like this definitely affect the way visitors clump and move among the displayed objects.
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.
Photos of informational wall panels must be a minority among all photos taken in the British Museum. (They would be dwarfed by photos of the Rosetta Stone alone!) Yet this informational panel deserves a moment of stardom. It adorned one of the walls in the tiny gallery just to the right of the British Museum's entrance, a space for temporary exhibitions which at this partiular moment housed the Mildenhall Treasure. Urging the visitor to "Find out more," it presents various events and objects in the museum where the visitor can further engage with the themes in the gallery:
Although the dense text may repel some viewers, the wealth of information all in one place is an admirable way to expand the visitor experience beyond a single gallery — at the same time as highlighting and interconnecting the museum's other offerings.
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.