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.
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!
Another wonderful current exhibition at the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam is Fashion Cities Africa. Like the Body Art show described in the last post, Fashion Cities presents a rainbow of human creativity—and of dyed fabrics! The use of cloth in the show cleverly highlights the theme and at the same time subdivides the space into cozy sections. At the entrance (above), sheets of whitewashed plywood are used as backings for introductory images and texts. Each panel introduces a local designer of African fashion, photographed on the street as if you had just run into them personally; once again it's that intimate human connection that flows throughout the museum. The boards are hung up with thick ropes at top and bottom, a very tactile nod to the cloth-and-design theme.
The second room (or second-to-last, if you entered at the other end) is encircled with hanging yards of cloth in various patterns. With pillows and chairs inside, it offers an alluring spot to tuck yourself into—the museum version of a sofa-cushion fort! Panels outside the ring of cloth explain how the colorful patterns came originally from, for instance, Indonesia (batik cloth), reached the Netherlands through colonial exchange, and from there was sent to Africa. It's a much more complex, indeed global history than one might expect. And it stays with you much more when you can touch this stuff of history, feel it, wrap yourself in it!
*stuff: from Old French estoffe = material, furniture. The German word for fabric is in fact Stoff. There's your cocktail-party knowledge for the day!
At the show Luxury in Silk (Luxus in Seide) in the Germanisches Nationalmuseum Nürnberg, the subject of yesterday's post as well, this wall caught my eye. Clearly the arrangement of words is based on the word clouds now used on websites to visualize the most frequent search terms and clicks. But here the cloud serves to show the plethora of jobs in the 18th century that had to do with creating clothing, shoes, and jewelry ("Mode-Metiers im 18. Jahrhundert"). It's interesting to see such an aesthetic transition from an online space to a physical one.
A current special exhibition at the Altes Museum in Berlin called "Fleisch" (Meat) focuses on the cultural significance of meat. Ranging from the religious rites of animal sacrifice to the lustful gaze directed at nude female bodies, the theme is perhaps overstretched; but as an interdepartmental intitiative it is exemplary, and its design is beautiful. The most striking component is industrial-grade rebar lattices painted a fleshy pink, serving as the mount for signage and pictures; these are attached with simple S-hooks reminiscent of meathooks. It's a simple, cost-effective device which here also highlights the theme of the show—very tasteful!
Paging through Edward Tufte's book Visual Explanations (1997) is instructive not only for graphic designers, but anyone creating—or even reading!—visual displays. In a distinctly personal, engaging voice, Tufte explains what makes effective visual presentations for all sorts of information. He does not feel compelled to hide his disdain for a bad design, and he openly celebrates a good one. One example is the diagram of an ear at the top of the page above. Tufte so loathes the design at left, with its heavy lines almost indistinguishable from the ear itself and its cryptic letter labels, that he compares it to a Renaissance drawing of a man being stuck with swords (below). He juxtaposes the bad design with one he finds preferable, in which the indicator lines are finer than those delineating the ear and the nonsense letters are replaced with the names themselves. The thickness of the lines is highly significant, Tufte points out: one thickness should be used for the drawing of the ear (the object being explained), another for the indicator lines (the metalevel of our knowledge). The two grids at the bottom of the page show this again with two different thicknesses of line used in the background pattern; the diagonal lines overlying them are harder to distinguish in the lefthand example because they are nearly the same thickness as the background lines.
The facing pages shown below illustrate not only Tufte's exasperation at bad design and his acerbic wit at its expense, but also the huge range of applicability of his principles. At left is a painting by Ad Reinhardt, which Tufte uses as another illustration of how subtle differences can have great meaning (here in the shades of blue rendered in three nearly imperceptible vertical bands; Reinhardt wanted to focus the viewer's attention on these simple and subtle differences).
Art historians, of course, are very accustomed to comparing two objects (a cornerstone of the discipline since Wölfflin), but they do it differently than people who are not trained to look for certain details or to already know certain things about the objects. This can lead to the display of a group of objects which makes art-historical sense but not intuitive, repeated-image-viewing sense. In the Neues Museum in Berlin (below), one room has a timeline written on the wall behind a row of Egyptian sculptures. The intent is to show how humans were portrayed in Egyptian art over time. But the earliest objects happen to be just heads, while the later ones represent entire bodies. The repetition of heads at first, and the subsequent break with this repetition, gives the false impression that what changed around 1600 BC is that the Egyptians started depicting people with bodies. Or perhaps in a different color of stone? Meaningful similarities and differences are hard to notice because of the many other factors at play beyond just the one meant to be highlighted.
The building of a large drainage pipe under Berlin's Mauerpark is a triumphant example of how simple display concepts can be transformative. Rather than making yet another annoying construction zone in the city, and this one right in at the entrance to the most popular park, the organizers decided to make it an attraction in itself. They achieved this by erecting a wooden wall around the main building area and decorating it with fun and informative panels. The biggest and most iconic is the cartoon cross-section of the pipe itself (above). The pipe introduces itself through a speech bubble: "I'm a drainage pipe with a 4.4-meter diameter"! More detailed panels describe the water system in depth. Around the corner, a spin wheel with exercise challenges on it ("do 5 pushups!" etc.) is a further attraction. Most surprising of all, you can see it all and learn more on a beautiful modern website devoted to the project! Way to go, Berliner Wasserbetriebe.
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.