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.
From time to time, of course objects have to go off display—to be conserved, to go traveling, to be studied. But for a visitor it's frustrating to see an empty space in the display case; so what are the options for filling it? Particularly if the object is coming back soon, replacing it may not be practical. Personally I like the simple-yet-effective photograph of the missing object with a little caption about what a great time it's having on tour (or whatever the reason it's absent; remember the spiritual objects that are not allowed to be seen?).
One variation on this predicament—and its solution—caught my eye at the archaeological site of Prima Porta, just north of Rome. The Roman villa here (the "Villa of Livia," built in the 1st century BC) has a nice big pool out in the garden that was once surrounded by columns, as well as a black-and-white mosaic floor depicting marine creatures. To protect the remains of the badly damaged floor, a wooden platform has now been built over it. But this hides the mosaic! And the traces of the columned porch! So it was decided to adorn the platform with wooden discs representing the position of the columns, and black paintings of the mosaic sea creatures still frolicking beneath the plywood. The result gives an impression of the original layout while still protecting the remains.
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.
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.
A catalog published by the Louvre, L'Orient romain et byzantin au Louvre, underscores the power of perhaps the most fundamental matter of display: which objects are next to which. The catalog accompanied the opening of a new set of galleries featuring objects from three different departments—Greek, Etruscan, and Roman; Egyptian; and Near Eastern—now displayed together in a permanent exhibition space. The goal, the Louvre said, was that "these long-dispersed items could at last be assembled in a single space, and thereby placed in their geographical, cultural, and artistic context." It's a poweful example of how simply juxtaposing certain objects allows them to communicate in ways that they cannot individually or in other groupings.
You can read the full press release here, including the museological mission statement and a room-by-room description, while this document offers more detail, photos, and spotlights on a few objects.
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.
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.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.