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.
SFMOMA's video about their "Send Me" program (link below).
I'm too excited about this news to omit it from this blog on the grounds of not being a display technique. Anyway, as a highly interactive medium to generate visitor interest in the collection, it is part of a synergy with actual displays—and, crucially, it works outside the museum as well as inside. So what is this all about? A recent article in the New York Times reports that the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art is reaching potential visitors via a text message program. Texting the museum at 57251 with the request "Send me ---" will retrieve an automated response of a photo of an artwork at SFMOMA captioned with its creator, title, and year. In a twist of modern hilarity, the "---" can be a word or, yes, an emoji. This has led to fascinating data on visitors' desires and interests:
The first clue that the curators at The Huntington Library have thought long and hard about the presentation of their History of Science exhibition (which curator Daniel Lewis kindly showed us) is in the entryway, pictured above. The blue, curving wall on the right is a subtle mechanism for attracting people through the door—what is this surface? what is written on it?—and guiding them into the first gallery. Imagine a large flat wall panel in its place: it would produce a very different effect!
Curves define the first gallery space as well. These beautiful curving vitrines were conceived to echo the "heavenly sphere" that is the subject of this room, dedicated to astronomy. (Yes, the ceiling is vaulted too!) Dr. Lewis installed low cases so that the visitors can get up close to the books, as if they were holding them. But since this means that people bend over the cases to look inside, the lights had to be specially mounted inside the cases so that the viewer's head wouldn't interrupt a light source shining from overhead. Detailed planning that bespeaks years of experience. . . or unusual design foresight.
The next room also employs a great device for luring viewers close to the books. Dedicated to the central role of observation and illustration to the development of natural history, the walls are a vivid red that highlights the beautiful reproductions of book illustrations hung in a sort of collage style. To convey a progression through time, the earlier drawings are hung at left, followed by later lithographs, color lithographs, and prints. The ensemble is not only beautiful but inspires curiosity in the books below, which contain further illustrations and, of course, text. The presentation functions on both the level of immediate impact (beautiful wall design) and closer encounter (approaching the objects and delving into the information presented). As the curators plan to reinstall this exhibition in the coming years (it certainly doesn't show its age; it is already nine years old), I look forward to seeing what they come up with for the new incarnation.
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.
Placing objects into an exhibition space requires thinking about them in a new way. While a individual piece might be the focus of art-historical research, when it enters a space shared with other objects, suddenly all the pieces become part of an interaction. Each piece plays with the other objects in the space and with the visitors. And the game is no longer just art-historical but also strictly formal (form-based)—in the sense that objects inhabiting a common space can be compared and contrasted simply in terms of their appearance, which for a single object would be impossible. Parallels and harmonies emerge; so too variations and dissonance.
This is especially obvious in a gallery of the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles (above). The objects in this room (part of the exhibition of the permanent collection) are all monochromatic, a unifying factor across the media of painting, metal sculpture, wood sculpture, and photography. What's more, the compositions of all the larger works have a strong vertical element: the paintings send up powerful black brushstrokes, while the two sculptures point long fingers skyward. The viewer's eye bounces from one to the next, drawing her in for a closer look into the black-and-white vortex.
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.
What does it mean when an art museum plans to expand into a sweeping green park space—with no art? That is precisely what the North Carolina Museum of Art is doing, according to a recent New York Times article. The large outdoor extension is emphatically not a sculpture garden, says the museum director, Lawrence J. Wheeler, but rather "a unifying idea of what people perceive as a museum and what they perceive as a park." This is one more step in the direction of museums as sites of experience above all else. It raises the question: If parts of the world such as parks can become parts of museums, what has a museum become? If a museum's ultimate role is to serve the community, then a park space is ideal; but what then differentiates a museum from a park, a library, a parking lot—or anything else of value to the community?
Let's return to the splendid gallery of minerals and gems in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History to talk about shelving technology. (In a previous post we ogled the dramatic lighting that makes the objects sparkle like, well, jewels!) These shelves are designed on a simple principle: cables stretched from the bottom to the top of the case are fitted with small steel cylinders that can slide along them as well as clamp onto a corner of a glass shelf, allowing the shelves to be adjusted to an infinite range of heights. Here they are smartly deployed in a case with a glass front and back, so that you can look right through; the minimalist shelving helps this unobstructed view. The result is beautiful as well as clever—if not exactly transferable to earthquake country!
Last week the six powerful arches of the Kimbell Art Museum (Forth Worth, TX) entered my life as if a Piero della Francesca background had infiltrated my TV screen. Although they make only a brief cameo in the documentary film My Architect, which centers on the architect Louis Kahn (you can see clips of it here), their design is elegant, unusual, and—especially in light of these two qualities—astonishingly simple. From the outside, their length and clean lines seem to exaggerate their recession into space, as if perspective holds unusally strong sway over this building. From the inside, meanwhile (shown in the Kimbell's photo gallery), the barrel vaults are cunningly transformed into pointed arches by unbroken banks of lights, curving outward like a pair of mile-long petals opening down the length of each vault. The slabs of cement walls stand just out of line with the bottoms of the vaults as if independent structures. All in all, the architecture manages to harness the strength of brutalism and the grace of classicism simultaneously. The space it creates for the art is remarkable: understated, unprepossessing, a perfect backdrop—and yet utterly captivating you once you start looking at it.
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).
Ideas on Display
A humble space to reflect on concepts of museum display as enacted across a wide range of subjects, countries, and approaches.