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!
A new sort of art exhibition opened in Berlin about a month ago (running until January 28). From Monet to Kandinsky - Visions Alive is a similar presentation to last year's Van Gogh Alive exhibition in the same space (mentioned in this post on art as sensory experience). Using a combination of multiple projectors, sophisticated animation, and music in surround sound, the developers offer a way to experience art quite different from a gallery visit. The focus here is on sensory impact, not traditional pedagogy; all information about the artists whose work is shown is limited to a room on either side of the display space, each hung with a daunting set of text-dense posters. Really the viewer is meant to linger in the main exhibition space, a single large room with many folding chairs and bean bags—an invitation to relax and enjoy the sights and sounds.
The exhibition consists of moving images of paintings projected onto all four walls (and onto a freestanding, screen-clad A/V tower, at left in the photos here). Music plays. Various paintings by a single artist are shown on the multiple walls, at varying degrees of "zoom." The real variety, though, comes with the animation: every painting has been reworked into a psychedelic moving image. Lillies from Monet's waterlily series have been cut from their paintings and now tumble lightly from ceiling to floor over a background of other Monet gardenscapes. Mondrian's squares gain shadow and thus depth, first flickering on like so many lit windows in an apartment building at night, then becoming hundreds of wooden blocks tumbling through outer space like celestial child's toys. Klimt's spirals and gilded squares break free of their canvases and swirl like confetti. After 60 minutes the film starts over again; and to my own surprise, I found that I could have gladly stayed for another round, so complex and beautiful is the imagery.
Not only nice for the eyes, but food for the brain. For although text in this room is limited to a short phrase from the artist projected over the door, the animation shows a firm knowledge of the artworks and artists. The animators were not just strutting their technical stuff; they implemented effects to enhance the art according to its content or even the artist's biography. Thus Van Gogh's painting Wheatfield with Crows is the last of his works to be shown (to the sound of cawing as the birds float over the horizon), just as it was the last work he ever painted. Toulouse-Lautrec's segment opens with silhouettes of the heads of various spectators he painted, as if seated in a theater, a spotlight playing across them as their voices titter—underscoring the importance of spectatorship and nightlife to the artist's repertoire. The many Van Gogh self portraits that morph into one after the other after the other emphasize the artist's obsessive nature, perhaps visible in the repeated attempts to capture his own likeness.
By the end, I was enraptured. Quite a shift from my initial skepticism; I'm embarrassed to admit that at first, I was horrified by what seemed like an overly showy spectacle at the expense of an apparent substance (ahem, text?). How lucky that my companion convinced me to stay and relax into the colors and sounds—which indeed turned out to be wonderful, but also by far not the only merits of this exhibition.
Arranging objects in a gallery so that they communicate with each other (and with the visitor caught in their crosstalk) can take many forms. A unified color scheme among the individual vitrines can do it, as can a monochrome or gold color to the objects themselves, or a similarity in shape. The above pairing of paintings in Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie highlights the similarly rosy tone of both pieces, but in an especially cunning way. The lefthand painting, August Kopisch's Pontine Marshes at Sunset, depicts a red sun sinking over the crimson wetlands like an ember. It smolders in the dome of clouds above it, a furnace between the eerie lunar landscape and the jaundiced sky. Lengthening toward the right, the red oval seems to cast its light upon the next wall—where it falls upon the straggling family painted by Eduard Magnus in his Return of the Palikares. The low sun cloaking this scene in pink lies just off the canvas to the left, allowing us to imagine that it might be the very same sun that sets over the Pontine marshes. Not only the warm color, then, connects the paintings, but the very light source itself; it calls for the two pieces to be looked at together, dynamically.
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.
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.
Who doesn't love a peek behind the curtains? At least when the venue is a museum, a look behind the scenes (or curtains, in the German idiom) is always thrilling. Making visible all the work that goes into readying objects for display is not only a highlight for visitors but a well-deserved kudos to the conservation teams whose hard work is rarely recognized by the public—because ideally, their work is invisible! The conservators at Berlin's Alte Nationalgalerie are now earning appreciation in a special exhibition about their three years of work restoring Caspar David Friedrich's two most famous paintings, Monk by the Sea and The Abbey in the Oakwood. Numerous series of photographs in the exhibition show the progression from yellowed, cracked, poorly-restored pieces to the radiant paintings now finally back on show. A few of the photographs even showed the conservators' coded markings and notes for planning the restoration, as well as the X-ray images they used to better understand the underdrawings and primer layers. Two full-size photographs of the unrestored paintings (seen above) allow viewers to compare the earlier with the present state (much clearer and less jaundiced!). It is an exciting story to see laid out like this—and today, at least, many people were there to enjoy it.
Overview panels can be underrated. In its recent renovation of the European Painting galleries, the Metropolitan Museum of Art shifted its "room labels" from the walls to plaques on knee-high metal stands. For space considerations, this makes sense. But if wall space is not at quite such a premium, a nice big wall panel does wonders for communicating the Big Idea. "What is this all about?" I can hear a visitor asking, making a sweeping gesture, stepping into a gallery for the first time. Individual object tags don't help answer this question, but an overview panel sure does. It is magical for its ability to unite a wide range of objects into a comprehensible narrative.
Everything I love about overview panels inheres in this example from the Saint Louis Art Museum. At the top is written the most general category, the designation of the collection: American Art. Below, the thematic title for the room: Nostalgia and the Gilded Age. But the best part? Look to either side and you immediately encounter something obviously gilded, perfectly illustrating the name. Moreover, both gilded pieces are quite large and lavish, as if lending some (literal) weight to the idea that an entire age could be gilded. And finally, the subjects of both pieces subtly underline the idea of nostalgia. The woman at right sinks into her chair, surrounded by precious items, speaking with a man (the artist) swallowed by shadows. At left, a golden winged figure in Classical robes embodies the glorification of a past age. Following the thread that connects the objects with each other and the text could hardly be easier.
This beauty of a display is in the Harvard Semitic Museum. Never before had I seen such creative use of a single color of paint applied to a wall to enhance an array of objects. The objects in question are ancient amphorae, perfect for a wall-mounted display because they are large — taking up a good amount of the large vertical space — and tough, requiring no special climate control or protective glass case. Taking the extra step to paint them into an ancient ship is a truly inspired move that works on several levels:
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.