Another beautiful and effective display concept at Aedes Architecture Forum (if less mind-blowing than the subject of the last post) belongs likewise to the show FARAWAY SO CLOSE. A Journey to the Architecture of Kashef Chowdhury / URBANA, Bangladesh. Here the architect Chowdury's drawings, models, and materials (or photos of them) are laid out on drafting tables lit by arm lamps, as if you were looking over his shoulder as he works. It is an intimate way to experience the material, far more so than if it were hung on a wall, let alone pressed behind glass. The openness of the display couldn't directly translate to a bigger venue, where the chance that pieces would go missing is higher, or to an exhibition with originals that would be severely damaged by being touched. But it is such a lovely way to encounter the material on human terms, I wonder if it couldn't be adapted to more venues. Peeking into the artist's studio is, after all, endlessly alluring.
Berlin's Museum of European Cultures (Museum Europäischer Kulturen), whose ethnographic collections spread over an impressive range, currently has an exhibition on wool. I was eager to see it primarily because the subject seems a hard sell for the public; how can it be presented in a lively way? Secondly, cloth culture looms large (ha!) in both of my main projects right now. Luxury textiles in the ancient Mediterranean are one touchstone of my book-in-progress; and textile production as a female activity is a current focus of my gender studies research, connected to my role as Women's Representative in two departments.
The exhibition turned out to have several tricks up its sleeve. (The puns just won't stop!) I quite liked the rack of woolen knitwear hung from the ceiling (above) as a way to invigorate the space and use that lofty ceiling. The wall graphic of a thread connecting the exhibition exponents is a good idea, although I admit I only noticed it too late—among other things, it visually links demo videos to otherwise inscrutable woolworking devices which I noodled over a while before realizing that the explanation was just a step away.
My absolute favorite part of the show, however, is the DIY weaving station (above; detail below). This was the perfect way to solidify some knowledge of the weaving process. Hands-on activities are underused educational devices for adults! We all have a bit of kinesthetic learner in us. Using the provided tablets loaded with demo videos of knitting, weaving, crocheting, and embroidering, I got a 1-minute overview of some weaving techniques and tried it out immediately. As you can see (below), my interest was in interweaving two colors of yarn. It's harder than it looks...
This experience was enriching in several ways. I gained new respect for the skill and physical labor involved in weaving, and the fact that women worldwide have been charged with this incredibly taxing and important task for thousands of years. (This podcast episode from Classics Confidential, Weaving Women's Stories, is another fabulous way to gain appreciation for that!) In doing this tiny bit of weaving myself, I also realized how meditative weaving can be, how it keeps the hands and a part of the brain busy while allowing other parts of the brain to wander. The image of Penelope weaving every day takes on new meaning; this woman had a lot of time to think over her life, her husband, her suitors, her island kingdom. Relationships between women could be built up in the time spent spinning wool together, as demonstrated by two Hungarian grandmothers in a video in the exhibition. Suddenly the age-old (patriarchal, need it be said) associations of women spinning and knitting, plotting and gossiping makes more sense. Spinning yarns, embroidering tales—how enlightening!
The three latest episodes of the podcast Working (tagline: "Slate interviews Americans about their jobs") are dedicated to the work processes in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. One of them, "Working at MoMA: How Do Exhibition Designers Do Their Jobs?," features a conversation with Lana Hum and Mack Cole-Edelsack, the Director and Senior Design Manager respectively of MoMA's Exhibition Design & Production Department. (I was lucky enough to meet Lana Hum in 2014 as part of the Center for Curatorial Leadership/Mellon Foundation Seminar in Curatorial Practice.) It's a fun conversation to listen to: both the interviewees and interviewer (Jordan) have smart things to say and seem to be having a good time. A few novel points jumped out at me:
I look forward to hearing the other two episodes about MoMA's operations!
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!
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.
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.
Well-designed signage is a rare and precious gem. In a museum, signage can set the tone for a visitor's entire visit: because if she starts by buying a ticket, checking her coat, using the bathroom, and then finally entering the gallery she most wants to see, she's already had to locate at least four separate areas of the museum, probably by following signs. And if that process was easy—i.e., well-signed—she'll ideally be in a fine mood; but if it was difficult, she may enter the galleries feeling grumpy or frazzled, and that will color her experience of the whole museum.
So kudos to Berlin's Kunstgewerbemuseum (the museum of decorative arts and design) for putting writing on the wall that no one can miss, and winning a design prize along the way. The eye-catching size and color of the signage creates a certain aesthetic effect that not all museums would want, but it accords well with the all-parts-visible idea behind Rolf Gutbrod's 1960s building.
Even award-winning signage has two potential weak points, however. First, it has to be wriiten in a certain language—here German, which some visitors may not understand. Second, there is a compelling argument (nicely presented in an airport example in the addictive design podcast 99% Invisible) that the architecture itself, not just signage, should help guide the people in it. But since purpose-built buildings are not in the cards for most museums (and even if they are, wayfinding is only part of their mission), it's worth taking signage seriously.
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.
Golden Bead Curtain: Asian Art Museum
Another element that struck me in the American Alliance of Museum's 2015 list of prizewinners in exhibition design and label-writing—beyond the two labels highlighted in the last post—was a diaphanous golden curtain. It appears in the AAM's photo of a gallery in the exhibition Gorgeous, which showed at the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco in 2014. Although it received no special mention by the AAM (this gallery was singled out for a label, not exhibition design per se), it is a remarkable feature. Is it tinsel? No, it hangs much too orderly for that. Strings of beads? Perhaps. But this is no bead curtain from a 70's hemp shop: it is slippery and glowing, enticing the visitor to approach this warm, silky wall. It serves as a divider in the space while also allowing a view through into the next—both providing structure and luring the viewer further. Considering that bead curtain technology has been around for millennia (see this bead net dress from c. 2400 BC), it's almost surprising that this technology doesn't crop up in museums more often (although fragility must go some way toward explaining this).
Yesterday I had the pleasure of visiting the St. Louis Art Museum for the first time. Its gorgeous setting, collection, and signage and display (hurrah!) sent me swooning. To my mind, its success is all the more impressive because of the vast diversity of its objects and galleries that could easily lead to an incohesive experience. Like so many founded in the late nineteenth century, this museum's collections cover a lot of ground: "What began as a collection of assorted plaster casts, electrotype reproductions, and other examples of 'good design' in various media rapidly gave way to a great and varied collection of original works of art spanning five millennia and six continents." (Excerpt from the handbook as quoted here.)
How to give the visitor a coherent experience of an encyclopedic collection? Some variety from gallery to gallery is of course expected and even refreshing, but too much could be jarring. One way to finesse the transitions struck me between the ancient Roman gallery and the adjacent hall of European paintings. A visitor coming from the latter toward the former would see the view in the photo above: a stunning Roman bust and warm red walls drawing her in, and two figural paintings on the blue walls to either side. The genius here is the juxtaposition of figures: two chubby babes at left (a good Roman subject, moreover!) and a dour-looking man at right flank the bust in the middle. The marble and painted men even turn towards each other, as if they would converse were at least one of them not so grouchy.
Entering the reverse way, from the Roman to the European gallery, we see the view below. Marble portrait heads are set off by the red wall, and beyond them a gathering of painted women echo the figures in both subject and shape: two solemn women at right, and a group of two and three figures at left. It's a subtle and effective way to smooth the transition from one room to the next while still allowing them their own distinctive characters.
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.