The first clue that the curators at The Huntington Library have thought long and hard about the presentation of their History of Science exhibition (which curator Daniel Lewis kindly showed us) is in the entryway, pictured above. The blue, curving wall on the right is a subtle mechanism for attracting people through the door—what is this surface? what is written on it?—and guiding them into the first gallery. Imagine a large flat wall panel in its place: it would produce a very different effect!
Curves define the first gallery space as well. These beautiful curving vitrines were conceived to echo the "heavenly sphere" that is the subject of this room, dedicated to astronomy. (Yes, the ceiling is vaulted too!) Dr. Lewis installed low cases so that the visitors can get up close to the books, as if they were holding them. But since this means that people bend over the cases to look inside, the lights had to be specially mounted inside the cases so that the viewer's head wouldn't interrupt a light source shining from overhead. Detailed planning that bespeaks years of experience. . . or unusual design foresight.
The next room also employs a great device for luring viewers close to the books. Dedicated to the central role of observation and illustration to the development of natural history, the walls are a vivid red that highlights the beautiful reproductions of book illustrations hung in a sort of collage style. To convey a progression through time, the earlier drawings are hung at left, followed by later lithographs, color lithographs, and prints. The ensemble is not only beautiful but inspires curiosity in the books below, which contain further illustrations and, of course, text. The presentation functions on both the level of immediate impact (beautiful wall design) and closer encounter (approaching the objects and delving into the information presented). As the curators plan to reinstall this exhibition in the coming years (it certainly doesn't show its age; it is already nine years old), I look forward to seeing what they come up with for the new incarnation.
Given that the mechanics of museum exhibitions can make all the difference between an effective show and an ineffective one, reviews of museum exhibitions are surprisingly hard to come by. In the scholarship on Greco-Roman civilization, at least, exhibition catalogs are much more commonly reviewed than the exhibitions themselves. This is a shame because exhibitions can communicate just as powerfully as books—and sometimes, of course, more so. They are an invaluable tool of scholarship that can propel research forward as well as public interest in it! Taking them seriously is a win for scholars, museums, visitors, everyone.
So three cheers for the resumption of museum exhibition reviews in the leading U.S. journal of Mediterranean archaeology, the American Journal of Archaeology. In the newest issue, Josephine Shaya evaluates the recent renovation of the Museo Arqueológico Nacional in Madrid, Spain. An online photo gallery accompanies her article. The same issue, in fact, includes a review of an exhibition catalog that illustrates how productive the synergy (or unity?) of brand-new scholarship and groundbreaking exhibition can be: Power and Pathos (Getty Museum, 2016) by Jens M. Daehner and Kenneth Lapatin.
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.
Placing objects into an exhibition space requires thinking about them in a new way. While a individual piece might be the focus of art-historical research, when it enters a space shared with other objects, suddenly all the pieces become part of an interaction. Each piece plays with the other objects in the space and with the visitors. And the game is no longer just art-historical but also strictly formal (form-based)—in the sense that objects inhabiting a common space can be compared and contrasted simply in terms of their appearance, which for a single object would be impossible. Parallels and harmonies emerge; so too variations and dissonance.
This is especially obvious in a gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (above). The objects in this room (part of the exhibition of the permanent collection) are all monochromatic, a unifying factor across the media of painting, metal sculpture, wood sculpture, and photography. What's more, the compositions of all the larger works have a strong vertical element: the paintings send up powerful black brushstrokes, while the two sculptures point long fingers skyward. The viewer's eye bounces from one to the next, drawing her in for a closer look into the black-and-white vortex.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.