Spaces for Seeing: The Importance of Exhibition Design

In case you missed it, here’s a link to my latest for The Federalist, in which I review the excellent exhibition, “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912” at the Smithsonian’s Freer/Sackler Gallery. If you find yourself in the Nation’s Capital between now and June 23rd, you really need to go see it. You’ll learn a great deal from the show, and it’s a good example of how architecture can be just as important to the success of an exhibition as the objects themselves. We may not always stop to appreciate the design elements that go into these displays, but we really should, for the men and women who work in this field can help make or break a show.

As I touched on in reviewing “Empresses”, from the moment you arrive at the Sackler’s temporary exhibition galleries, you’re aware that you’re in for something special. Rather than just immediately plunk you down in a room full of things, the designers have created a path for you to follow, beginning with a processional causeway leading to a monumental gate, which in turn gives onto a large room with a huge throne screen:

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Quite frankly, this one of the best entrances to an exhibition I’ve ever seen, since it creates both a sense of drama and of occasion: it’s as if the Empress Cixi could walk in with her attendants at any time and hold court. You understand before you even go inside that you’re going to be seeing some very unique and privileged objects. That sense of wonder continues as you proceed through the interconnected spaces, almost as if you were heading deeper and deeper into the imperial palace itself.

While the contemporary spaces at the Sackler allowed the exhibition designers to create temporary architectural elements that enhanced the objects on show, this isn’t always possible. At The Frick’s Van Dyck exhibition a couple of years ago for example, the museum left visitors with a disjointed experience. The prints and drawings were underground, in a low-ceilinged, beige-carpeted room that looked like a dirty English basement in an undergraduate flop house, while the paintings upstairs were in the grand, skylit temporary exhibition galleries on the main floor. The paintings looked perfectly at home amidst the walnut paneling and silk wallpaper, but the graphic works looked like an afterthought. Efforts to expand The Frick over the coming years should help to address this situation, but there’s always going to be a certain element of constraint when working within the confines of an historic building that can’t be permanently altered.

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Even when you have a blank architectural space to work with however, bad exhibition design can significantly detract from the experience of viewing works of art. At the Barnes Foundation’s retrospective on Berthe Morisot last year, for example, in their brand-new and architecturally featureless temporary display space, several temporary dividing walls were placed throughout the single, long gallery. The object was to create both additional vertical surfaces for display purposes, and to create temporary, smaller “rooms” where specific themes could be examined.

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Unfortunately, there was an inconsistent use of these dividing walls, so that sometimes there were paintings on both sides, and sometimes there was a painting on one side but nothing on the other. As a result, from one temporary room to the next, the visitor never knew what he was supposed to be doing. In addition, because in several instances these dividing walls were too wide for the space, they created bottlenecks all the way around the exhibition hall, so that on a busy Saturday morning, people had to step sideways past each other in order to get into the next display area.

A similar architectural blank canvas exists at the CaixaForum, a large cultural center in Barcelona housed in a former textile factory complex. Back in January when I went to see the exhibition “Velázquez and the Golden Age” there, I wondered how the paintings would look in such an industrial space, since there wouldn’t be any palatial architectural elements to set off the Spanish and Italian Baroque art. To their credit, the exhibition designers didn’t even attempt to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.

Instead, they created a space with Velázquez’ signature dark neutrals – rich blacks, velvety browns, and charcoal grays – on the walls, kept the overall lighting very low, and hung an enormous mesh curtain down the middle of the extremely long gallery space. Wide gaps at both ends of the curtain created a natural circuit for visitors to follow around the massive former factory floor, and at the same time gave a touch of mystery to the show. As you moved from one area to the next, you could see through the mesh what was going to be coming up, meaning that works which were not displayed in the same area of the exhibition hall could nevertheless still play off of one another. You can get a sense of the effect from this picture of the press conference at the exhibition opening:

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Now, don’t get me wrong: the temporary architectural elements used to define an exhibition’s space are not as important as the exhibition’s objects themselves. Yet in the same way that coffee tastes better out of a china cup than out of a paper one, art that is well presented can usually be better appreciated. That’s just something to keep in mind the next time you toddle along to a show.

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