An exhibition on Chinese antiquities currently in Berlin's Neues Museum uses a couple of display tricks worth noting. One consists of long banners stretching from the first few display cases up to the two-story-high glass ceiling—a wonderful use of the cavernous space! It's simple, cheap, and very eye-catching. The black banners are printed with the name "Egypt" in several languages; the red ones with "China." In this way the banners serve as the introduction to the second display tactic that caught my eye: throughout the exhibition (no photography allowed beyond the atrium, sadly), the Chinese objects are always placed on red risers or red squares as a background. The Egyptian objects get the same treatment but in black. Because the exhibition is arranged by theme rather than culture (e.g., how each culture respectively approached currency, votive offerings to gods, and so on), the red and black color-coding is a very useful visual cue for which culture produced any given object.
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.
This unusual touch surely gave a smile to many visitors to the special exhibition Il Nilo a Pompei at the Museo Egizio in Turin, Italy. In keeping with the theme of this show—how Egyptian culture was taken up by Romans in Pompeii—the standard fire escape signs were replaced by these Egyptian-inspired ones! A whimsical bit of humor that gives a glimpse of the real (fun!) people behind the exhibition. Director Christian Greco cheerfully admitted to being quite amused. This balance of fun and scholarly is characteristic of the museum's seriously impressive public outreach campaigns.
Every year the American Alliance of Museums confers awards for great exhibition design and label-writing (among other categories.) The 2015 lists are out! You can see the former here as a quick list and the latter here in a more expansive format with photos and descriptions. Of the many worthy entries, my personal favorite was a label by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts for the Zulu beer pot pictured above. (You might want to check it out in the MIA's beautiful online catalog, which is not only sleekly designed but includes audio clips and free image downloads.) As reproduced on page 6 of the AAM report, this label brings out the object's visual qualities and social importance at once—certainly deserving its prize.
My second-favorite label appears on page 9: an outdoor panel at the La Brea Tar Pits. It even has something in common with the beer pot label: vivid opening lines. Who could refuse to read further after "The stinky dead mastodon was irresistible" or "How is brewing beer like growing babies?"
Once a month the Käthe-Kollwitz Museum in Berlin offers a lunchtime tour by the director, Dr. Iris Berndt, and yesterday's provided the extra motivation for my first visit to the museum. Standing in the first room of the ground-floor galleries, waiting for the tour to assemble, I was struck by the "word cloud" on a wall right next to the entrance. Like the automatically generated word clouds on the Internet, this collection represents thought trends in a wide set of "users" (clustered around the name of the artist, nicely emphasized with extra lighting). But unlike the digital word clouds, these words have been carefully selected to educate. As Dr. Berndt explained, they all represent concepts widely understood to apply to the great German artist Käthe Kollwitz—but several of them are problematic or even false. By marking these four terms with question marks—Feminist? Jewish? Communist? An artist who depicts suffering?—the display indicates that these preconceptions need to be reexamined and possibly discarded. This seems to me a very simple yet effective way to ease a visitor into the experience to come: several key themes are named right at the beginning, setting the tone for the subsequent galleries and helping a visitor to frame the individual objects; and just as importantly, it introduces the idea of questioning stereotypes, clichés, and pat explanations. For such a complex, richly-textured life and oeuvre as Kollwitz's, this strikes just the right first note.
It's a tricky task to make nature itself into an exhibition. Nature walks (in botanical gardens and model farms, for instance) often rely not on a group of objects or other predetermined set of material, but on an unpredictable troupe of actors who may or may not be on stage that day. What a challenge to present material that the visitor might not even get to see! But certain display tactics can help smooth over the possible unevenness of this living exhibition. The Anne Kolb Nature Center in Hollywood, Florida centers on a boardwalk that winds through a section of mangrove habitat. (It also has a lovely visitor's center which, when I visited, included a display of contemporary art on spiffy movable walls.) At the start of the walk, large signs with vivid pictures of the animals (above) introduce the visitor to the point of the exhibition: to VIEW the plants and animals. Further, to help the visitor engage—and to help them see the critters tucked away in their hidey-holes—the Center offers a handout with a checklist of the plants and animals one might encounter on the walk. This is an easy, effective, low-cost way to encourage visitors (especially kids) to really look, and even to try to identify the things they see. It would be fantastic as an app for mobile devices too.
A successful display does not need a fancy new design idea or technology to be successful (indeed, sometimes those can really go awry!). Some of my favorite displays are very simple; their strength lies in being extremely well-conceived in terms of how they achieve their few basic goals. One great example is the signage at the Domäne Dahlem in Berlin, a charming set of fields and cottages meant to teach the visitor about old-time farming and artisanal trades. The signs scattered around the grounds are excellent in several simple but important respects:
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.
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.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.