In the contemporary art wing at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the current exhibition Seeking Stillness employs an unusual type of wall construction to underscore the main theme. A sheer mesh wall separates off a small space directly at the beginning of the exhibition, creating a niche that is self-contained yet still visible from the outside. The red walls and lighting are luminous, and visually differentiate the small space from the surrounding gallery. Inside, the oil paintings of Christ seem to glow; the atmosphere borders on the religious. In exploring "spaces of contemplation," therefore, this exhibition creates exactly the sort of environment (and mental state) which inspired the exhibited objects and the theme as a whole.
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.
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.