The effect is plain throughout: there are nearly no labels, and the handful I saw named at most a culture and century. The organization of the collection in the galleries is only vaguely defined by time and place, and rather more by visual harmony: an 18th-century Russian lampstand finds its place beside a Turkish textile and a Japanese basin, while the "Spanish Cloister" is wallpapered with tiles from Mexico (right) and oriented toward its show-stopping highlight, a huge painting by John Singer Sargent. Roman sarcophagi, meanwhile, are sprinkled throughout both the Cloister and the Courtyard (above). This is no ordinary concept of museum display! It is a treat to feel Mrs. Gardner's touch in every arrangement, and to imagine her making it all "just so" for her salon guests.
In laying out her art museum in Boston, which opened in 1903, Isabella Stewart Gardner sought to ellicit an emotional response in her visitors. Rather than teach them something intellectual about the works on view, she prioritized aesthetic impact. And she was able to realize this vision completely, being the sole visionary and financier of the museum—not to mention a seemingly headstrong personality.
Sometimes her touch seems more enthusiastic than professional, as in the tapestries that have been bent in order to fit into a corner (below), or the row of pictures hung on the short side of a cabinet, as if to use every possible inch of vertical space.
The great achievement of this display concept is letting viewers really look at the pieces, make associations, think creatively and personally about what they are. We cannot be distracted by text or multimedia stations; we have to just look at the objects. And if the immense variety and quantity of objects can be overwhelming, this is in part a result of the ceaseless acts of imagination prompted by these pieces—just what Mrs. Gardner was going for.
My presentation on Friday led to a vibrant discussion—the most gratifying possible outcome of a talk! We discussed how displays of ancient art can achieve certain effects together with its visiting audience. Particularly in view of the warm reception it received, I hope that this presentation might spark further ideas in the online community; so here are the slides and talking points to look through as you like. I hope that the conversations will continue to grow and multiply, invigorating our museums and our communities.
This Friday is a very special day: I'll be giving a talk about museum displays of ancient art! In particular, how they can benefit from an injection of multivocality, uncertainty, complexity, non-traditional narratives, and other conversation starters. Please come and join the discussion! Complete information about the event is here.
Ancient Images, Modern Projections. Displaying Complex Narratives in the Museum
by Dr. Stephanie Pearson, Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and New York University Berlin
on 23 November 2018
at the conference Image studies and museum practice: the image as the focal point of research versus the image as exhibited object. A conference run by the Ancient Objects and Visual Studies programme at the Berlin Graduate School of Ancient Studies
in the Abguss-Sammlung Antiker Plastik der Freien Universität Berlin
Schloßstraße 69b, 14059 Berlin
A lot of objects are at home in the dark. However, in art museums, we are used to illuminating objects in the same even, "objective," investigative manner in which we also write the labels (my critique of the attempt to be objective, and my suggestions for other tactics, are laid out e.g. here and here). How would it be to put on a whole exhibition about objects in the dark? Not utter darkness, but a recreation of the low-light conditions in which they were originally used.
A photograph on the ICOM member page (above) got me thinking about this, offering a stunning example of how this idea might play out. A beautiful piece of Islamic tracery or woodwork illuminated from the inside shows its form infinitely better than if it were put under standard museum lighting. Look at the gorgeous pattern it casts over the visitors and walls!
Roman sarcophagi are another genre that would benefit hugely from such a display. Their figures in relief would have danced in the lamplight of the tombs. The dramatic lighting of a sarcophagus in the archaeological museum in Antalya, Turkey gives some idea of how this enlivens the object, but really the lighting has to be flickering orange to achieve the right effect.
Lamps themselves look very different when they are their own sources of light than when lit from an external source. The Idolino in Florence, who once held a functional lamp in his hand, may have looked like a real person trying to find his way in the dark!
Religious items too would be abundant in this display, as they are so often used in enclosed spaces—temples, caves, household niches, etc. This would be a really fun show to put together!
Walls of text are daunting. We all know it; so why is it so hard to get away from them? Well, it's hard to reduce the things we want to communicate to little bite-sized chunks. But those nibblets are infinitely more digestible! Just look at this example from the archaeological park in Xanten, Germany. Here the signage is consistently structured into a few nuggets so small that even an overheated, weary visitor like yours truly could bring herself to concentrate for just a darn minute. Despite being a museum veteran, I often have to trick myself into reading signage: "Ok, just that one sentence next to the picture. And maybe that one standing by itself right at the end." That is precisely the sort of self-deception that the Xanten signage makes the most of! Each sign beguiled me into tricking myself three or four times over—until, without realizing it, I had read the whole thing! The easy structure with lots of empty space for your eyes to rest (and your brain to think there isn't too much work involved) makes a huge difference. This is just one of the wonderful visitor-friendly aspects of this park. Three cheers for Xanten!
Recently the Berliner Zeitung published an interview with me in their series of "Berliner Weltverbesserer" ("Berliners Bettering the World")—a title I can only hope to aspire to! I'm especially proud to be one of the first humanities scholars interviewed for the series. Archaeology can stand up to nanotechnology in bettering the world! That is my view, anyway, as I try to show in this short text about what I find important about my research. The understanding of other cultures is something I try to underscore in my work, since I think it helps us to better understand and respect our modern multicultural world. Greek, Roman, and Egyptian interactions 2000 years ago can tell us a surprising amount about our intercultural interactions today!
Peeks behind the scenes are the best! Everyone loves a glimpse behind that institutional facade, whatever the institution. Museums are no different (see Wiseman's film on the National Gallery), and conservation in action is an increasingly popular way to give visitors a little look-see.
This case in the beautiful Ny Carlsberg Glyptoteket, Copenhagen is fondly knows as the Nasothek—the gallery of noses. (Although there are a few ears in there too.) These facial parts were once added onto ancient portrait sculptures in the modern period in order to fill in the missing parts. This was common practice in past centuries, when ancient art was considered best when flawless. Noses, as a protuberant and thus frequently knocked-off piece of sculpture, were restored by the dozens.
Nowadays, however, the principle of object care has changed. Instead of restoring ancient sculpture to make it look perfect, museums consider their primary task to preserve what they have as best they can. This means no more gluing on modern additions, rhinoplastic or otherwise. In fact, it can even mean removing those additions from previous centuries. This was the Glyptoteket's decision, resulting in a lot of loose noses rattling around in a storage box somewhere. Why not display them in a striking array and thereby tell a bit of the history of modern receptions of ancient art? Still better with a Roman portrait head next to it, its own nose and brow additions removed, thus telling most of the story at the very first glance.
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.
With this display — one of the many excellently-signed ensembles in the Museo Archeologico di Milano — the museum has accomplished two difficult but worthwhile tasks. First of all, it presents Roman costume in a physical yet not actually tangible way. Seeing these reconstructions of ancient clothes is a fun inroad to imagining life in that period, and this is helped by the fact that the clothes are standing before you rather than drawn on paper or a screen. Placing the mannequins in a doorway (or beside it, as in the case of the male figure) atop the mosaic floors sets them away from the reach of visitors, improving their longevity. Which brings us to the second point: the use of figures enlivens the otherwise very flat and space-hogging mosaic floors, as well as drawing attention to the fact that the floors used to be walked on and once formed part of a house. Simple but important points, presented here in a simple but effective way.
An exhibition based on a single object can be wonderfully pointed, but it can also hard to stage — especially when the single object is an enormous (albeit fragmentary) pediment from an ancient Greek temple. The Amazzonomachia exhibition that took place in the Palazzo dei Conservatori, Rome, in 1985 faced precisely this problem: how to exhibit a large set of sculptures lined up in a row, as they would have been in the original pediment, without producing a deadening effect? Marble statues standing in a row are not exactly an invigorating sight. Especially when fragmentary, they can appear painfully static and unengaging. To encourage a viewer to come closer and spend time with the objects, the Amazzonomachia design had to introduce an element of variety into the layout, lending a touch of movement to the ensemble.
The designers arrived at a very clever solution (shown in the plan above). They set the entire pediment (D) at an angle relative to the gallery, so that the sculptures do not simply line one side of the long space. This also presented the viewer with a more frontal view when she entered from the short side of the gallery, rather than an end-on view down the long sculptural lineup. Building on this idea, the pediment was set on a trapezoidal base (E) of which one long side parallels the gallery wall — thereby incorporating it seamlessly into the space, rather than allowing it to look arbitrarily, bizarrely skewed. The base itself is cunningly engineered to serve several purposes: it unifies the objects into their original grouping; it emphasizes the objects by elevating them above floor level; and the three steps leading up to the pedimental sculptures invite the viewer to approach, climb up, get closer. The cherry on top is that its trapezoidal shape echoes that of the ancient triangular pediment, as if projected here onto the ground. This final subtle touch would likely not be noticed by a visitor in the room, but may well have produced an unconscious kinesthetic impression that would reinforce the concept of the show.
(The catalogue for the show is here, while several photos of the sculptures can be seen here.)
The Trier Landesmuseum came onto my radar recently, and in browsing their website I grew excited about the photos of their permanent collection display. The exhibition presents "a circular walking tour through the entire history of Trier and the Trier region – from the Stone Age to the Roman city, from the Franks to the last Trier Electoral Prince." Apparently it won an award for its design, and I can see why! From the band of purple backdrop for precious miniatures to the half-recessed cases (artworks in themselves), the design is truly beautiful. I hope for the chance to experience it in person to see how it works for the collection.
Note on the award (from the museum's website):
“red dot: best of the best” Award 2011
The permanent exhibition of the Trier Landesmuseum was awarded one of the most prestigious international prizes for design, the “red dot: best of the best”, in the autumn of 2011. The exhibition received the prize in the category “communication design” for an especially bold, innovative, modern design.
Ancient Roman funerary urns were made to long outlast their cremated contents, and indeed survive today in the thousands. Italian museum in particular house an incredible number of these urns: the Museum of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome come to mind, as well as the lower floor of the Capitoline Museums. Because the marble chests are compact and often unassuming, they might be displayed on the ground outside (as at the archaeological museum at Aquileia) or in glass cases on the side of a gallery (The Metropolitan Museum in New York). Decorated with a profusion of miscellaneous imagery and an inscription in Latin or Greek, they are not the most accesible objects in a gallery of ancient art; they require some close looking to be properly appreciated.
This all serves as background to say that the Altes Museum in Berlin has hit upon a brilliant display technique for a selection of its urns. In reconstructing the arched niches of a columbarium, the tomb in which such urns were placed for burial, the display case here not only recreates the original context of the pieces but encourages the viewer to take a closer look at these elaborate objects. Framing them like this really draws the eye in a way that a simple display case (let alone a spot on the sidewalk!) does not. What's more, this case allows the urns to be stacked three high — making them more imposing as well as saving precious gallery space.
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.