How the space of museum is used is particularly interesting to me, because of my experience in the field of sociology. With the ability of the space to be used in different ways, and how layout, architecture and design of the gallery can affect a visitor’s experience (often without them knowing) is something that I find to be of importance. Space is a broad subject and often involves place, and with the gallery I discussed in my presentation, the Manchester Gallery of Costume, it was cause for discussion.
The Gallery of Costume is located in Platt Fields Park in Manchester, just off the busy Wilmslow Road. In the past this building had been a residential hall and during the 17th Century had been home to a textile merchant and his family. It contains costumes, mainly British, from this time period to the present day and is still collecting. Over the year they also run special exhibitions, which have included collections from Ossie Clark, Yves Saint Laurent and Christian Dior, with ‘Wedding Fashions 1914-2014’ being the current exhibition.
The locality of the gallery was a topic which caused discussion during my presentation, mainly because of its unique position and the connotations of this. The gallery is in the park, which has to be knowingly approached from the road and entered into, however it is visible from the road which may encourage others to visit, rather than those who have made the conscious effort to visit. This raises the question of how accessible the gallery is to visitors and its position in the city when considering the location of the other galleries and museums. Most of these institutions are located in the city centre within a small radius of each other, which I discussed as having created a ‘cluster of cultural capital’ which has been discussed by Bourdieu in his work. This means that each gallery or museum becomes more accessible because of their location and the ease of travelling from one to the next, visitors are persuaded to enter. On the other hand, this concentration of cultural capital could be seen as intimidating to an ‘ordinary’ individual if they do not possess a high amount of capital. This becomes a benefit to the Gallery of Costume and its setting. It could be considered that the gallery is an area of lower cultural and educational capital; it is next to a busy road, in what is mainly an area frilled with restaurants and retail, and therefore becomes more accessible as it is not as intimidating to enter; one needn’t possess as much capital as may be needed in the city centre. I feel that this issue is important and accessibility needs to be debated, especially to create more interest in the galleries and raise visitor figures. There are good cases for each side of the argument, but personally I feel that the Gallery of Costume is much more accessible than those in the city centre.
Going back to the original discussion of the space within the gallery, this building had been adaptively re-used and so the architecture and history of the hall itself plays a part in the experience of the gallery. This hall seems a suitable space to hold this gallery and the objects within it, because of its past as a textile merchant’s home and the Georgian architecture means there are high ceilings, not dissimilar to ones that you would find in a purpose built space. There has been some attempt at a ‘white cube effect’ to focus on the objects, but it would be impossible to ignore the interior architecture and due to its classification as a listed building it cannot so it has been incorporated. In the dining room there is a display case detailing the hall’s history and in the rooms holding costumes from the earlier periods the architecture gives some context to the pieces.
Lefebvre discusses the ‘reproduction of space’ and how space is a social product that is continuingly being reproduced in different uses and forms and this is a phenomenon that is present within the gallery. Whilst conducting my research, I found a number of groups using the space in different ways, some were using it to study objects, a family were using the tea room as a social space, some had come to see the exhibits and there was even a couple on a date. This means that the space is reproduced for every individual and is seen in many different contexts.
Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space (1991)
Pierre Bourdieu, The Forms of Capital (1986)
As part of my MA in Museum Studies I presented a PowerPoint on the subject of museum object meanings and the different effects mounting methods could create on the visitor, in particular with aesthetically focussed mounting. I chose the Anglo Saxon Sutton Hoo hoard, which was excavated in 1939 and resides in the British Museum, and from it in particular the helmet.
A rare piece of English Anglo Saxon history, the helmet was discovered among other weaponry and jewellery in a ship burial mound at Sutton Hoo. Herbert Maryon, the archaeologist who excavated the mound, reconstructed the helmet from small shattered pieces to form a helmet that he thought was closest to the original appearance. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Robert Bruce Mitford modified Maryon’s reconstruction, producing a possibly more accurate headpiece that took into account factors such as hair and inside padding [fig. 1]
So with a piece of history as important and rare as this helmet, how could I exhibit this best within a museum? And how could the display choice affect how the museum visitor interprets it?
What remains essential to the reconstructed helmet is its rarity and intricate formal detailing, so what could be effective in its display could be to aim for an aesthetic approach to exhibition, where an object takes centre stage and has its own space to emphasise its formal qualities, creating awe and what Walter Benjamin described as an ‘aura’. Focussing spotlights solely on the objects, having it on a separate plinth away from others, having minimal text so as to not distract from the object are all possible aesthetic ways of exhibition.
Sandra Dudley goes into more detail about display in her ‘Encountering a Chinese horse’ essay. For Dudley, when witnessing an object it is all about the initial encounter. She says when she first saw the Chinese horse, “I would have been distracted by text, would have been drawn to read it first, and would not have had the opportunity to experience and sensorially explore the artefact’s physicality for its own sake.” Despite the size obviously being different in the Chinese horse and the Sutton hoo helmet I do think that experience of amazement and wonder could be used to single out the helmet.
However, problematic issues that arise from an aesthetic approach to exhibition are that the factual and educational side to a museum is being downplayed, and, in particular with the helmet, the singular becomes more important than the collective, therefore some may forget the helmet was part of a bigger interconnected hoard relatable to one Anglo Saxon king. Should the objects from the hoard be competing for attention from the visitor?
Currently the helmet resides with the rest of the Sutton Hoo hoard on display in the British Museum, in a room that was recently refurbished. Alongside the original sits a replica helmet [fig. 2]
made in the early 2000s by the Tower Armouries. The replica raises an interesting issue of display in the way that the proximity to each other might affect the attention given to either helmet. The two helmets, old and new, are on separate plinths yet in the same glass case, and the newer shinier replica dazzles under the spotlights arranged towards it.
In a class discussion after the PowerPoint questions were raised about the particular place of the replica and what objects are seen immediately when entering the room at the British museum. The room itself has 3 entrances, two of which have the helmets as the first seen thing, this is interesting as depending on what route is taken the visitor either sees the reconstruction or the replica and could base their image of the Anglo Saxons and Sutton Hoo on a pristine object strong with intricate iconographic panels, or the original enigmatic rarity itself [fig. 3]
From researching and creating this PowerPoint I came to realise the difficulty in exhibition mounting to portray an object to its full potential whilst balancing interest, resonance and educational value. However, what I find appealing about an aesthetic approach to display is that it provides wonder and curiosity, a transfixing of the eye and, hopefully, the mind, which I find central to the lasting power of objects.
 Dudley, Sandra (2012) ‘Encountering a Chinese Horse’ in Dudley, Sandra, Museum Objects, London and New York: Routledge. pp. 3
19th October 2014
The aim of this presentation was to describe and analyse a museum object, exploring how different approaches to its interpretation could be mounted in a museum and what effects these approaches would produce.
I based my argument on Susan Pearce’s statement that ‘one object may have many lives’ (1992: 17). I wanted to suggest that rather than ‘having many lives’, van Gogh’s painting Two Crabs could be given new lives through its interpretation in a museum. The work of such a famous artist comes with many ready-made preconceptions, and so I wanted suggest some new ways of seeing.
Firstly, I analysed and compared the effects offered by the National Gallery’s permanent display and its 2014 exhibition Making Colour. My research found that different narratives created by the museum encourage the viewer to see the object in different ways, providing previously ignored or unconsidered “lives” for the painting.
While the Making Colour exhibition drew my attention to the materiality of the painting and its place within the technological and scientific development of paint, the museum’s permanent collection places the painting within coherent socio-historical framework; that is to say, next to the work of other artistic giants of post-impressionism.
I argued that the former display offered an innovative “new life” for the painting, by drawing the viewer’s attention to the theory behind its aesthetic, through the means of scientific analysis. The latter mode of display, whilst offering more traditional epistemological processes through an encyclopaedic display, threatened to undermine the individual work by placing it within such a broad historical framework and mounting it next to more internationally famous works, such as the artist’s own Sunflowers. I came to the conclusion that the narrative of both displays, while having their issues, offered credibility and authenticity to the work. I proposed that the Making Colour exhibition, in particular, offered an innovative new life for the painting by placing it within a very different context to that of the museum’s usual narrative.
I continued by debating the advantages and disadvantages of a purely aesthetic approach to display, which could be used in the future in an attempt to engage the viewer in an emotional encounter with the painting. While Steven Conn states that museum objects often ‘need help’ (2010: 26), with regard to their display in a museum, I contested that it is perhaps the viewer who needs help when connecting with a work of art and when realising, interpreting or imagining new lives for an object. In this sense, an aesthetic display – a display consisting of just the ‘real thing’ (Pearce, – 1992: 15-35) is limited in its approach to bring an object to life.
Finally I suggested some new modes of display which a curator might employ when interpreting the object for exhibition. In doing so I recommended a look into semiotics, particularly with regard to symbolism. If an object, in Leach’s terms, is a symbol when it is associated with elements outside of its intrinsic history (in Pearce, 1992: 15-35), then it might be illuminating for an audience unfamiliar with the painting to see it beside the works of art from outside Europe that influenced and informed 19th century Western artistic ideals. We too often create a divide between East and West in museum display. It is perhaps well known that Orientalist painting had its heyday during the very century in which van Gogh worked, but would we have ever thought to group van Gogh’s work with that of the Orientalists? The National Gallery’s website states that the painting was perhaps inspired by Hokusai’s Japanese print, Crabs, demonstrating that van Gogh’s work drew influences from outside Europe.
I also suggested that van Gogh’s work be used in a museum as a sign for a particular period in the artist’s biography, to trace back the artist’s creative output to that of his character – art is often inseparable from that of its creator and it might be of academic interest to use the object as a sign of the real person. We could, for example, display the painting next to its counterpart, Crab on its Back, and explain alongside the works that van Gogh painted them as a means to familiarize himself with painting after being released from the asylum at Saint-Rémy and that one year later, it’s believed that he shot himself.
The conclusion of my presentation was that in the case of this particular painting, creating a narrative, or offering the means for the viewer to create a narrative, is favourable to a purely aesthetic mode of display. I also suggested that, paradoxically, an aesthetic approach might not be the most aesthetic way to display the painting, as a narrative can draw our attention to its formal, material and aesthetic beauty.
Due to the short nature of the presentation I was unable to go deeper into my research and so suggested further points for consideration of the topic, including but not limited to the use of a frame (both the physical object and the metaphorical frame of the museum), notions of accessibility, and further debates around aesthetic and historical display.
Pearce, Susan, (1992). ‘Objects Inside and Outside Museums’ in Pearce, Susan, Museums, Objects and Collections: A Cultural Study. Leicester: Leicester University Press.
Conn, Steven, (2010) Do Museums Still Need Objects? Philadelphia: University of Penn Press.
“I like this place and willingly could waste my time in it” The Folger Shakespeare Library and Its Place in Washington DC. By Courtney Brombosz
I had the opportunity to discuss the connection between museum and space to my seminar class by looking at the Folger Shakespeare Library in Washington, D.C. It revealed a strong understanding of museum space and how it is more than what you physically see; the space need to be functional, serve a purpose, and support its surrounding communities. The Folger Shakespeare settles comfortably into Capitol Hill with its notable neighbours: The Library of Congress, The Capitol Building, and the U.S. Supreme Court. Its interior evokes an Elizabethan homestead to reflect the vast collection consisting of not only Shakespearean literature, but also his contemporary writers, art, poetry, costumes, stage props, ceramics, and much more. The outward appearance doesn’t visually compete with its surrounding Capitol Hill environment, but instead compliments its doorstep with a white marbled exterior.
This library brought the beginning of a cultural insight and explorations not available before for the nation’s people. Washington D.C. was the last choice that Henry Folger had for opening his library. In the 1920’s, there was a push to put Washington D.C. on the map alongside notable European cities and Mr. Folger saw an opportunity to be patriotic and give back to the country. His collection is the most extensive of its kind and has fostered some of the greatest research done in the field of the early modern world.
It was exciting for me to hear what English students thought about having a collection of materials, all originally from their country, situated in the Capitol of the United States of America. Seeing as there is much debate with English Heritage being taken to other countries, it surprised me that it wasn’t something that was brought up in discussion. Rather, they indicated they were not impressed with the oak panelling inside the building. Before presenting, I had never taken the chance to think about how someone from England, or any other European country for that matter, would perceive the library’s interior on their visit. It does call forth the similar interior design you could find in many parts of the United Kingdom. However, I argue that it is an awe-inspiring vision to see an American man who felt compelled enough to create a temple for an English author he never met, let alone a library he never saw completed.
Investigating the connection between the Folger Shakespeare Library’s mission and the physical spaces helped better define how these two aspects depend on each other. The presentation revealed how museum space can go beyond what we usually think of as a museum. This museum has the advantage of creating a living, working collection. The Folger Shakespeare’s Elizabethan Theatre provides a setting to present the works of Shakespeare and his contemporary authors and artists. It supports music, poetry, writing, performance, and other relevant practices to educate its audience on the early modern world. They have been able to successfully uphold their mission to “advance understanding and appreciation of Shakespeare’s writings and the culture of the early modern world” by putting it into action for its audiences. It is one thing to read Shakespeare’s work and it’s another to see it in front of you. Shakespearean actors learn about their character’s struggles and motivation by getting on their feet and working through the rich text Shakespeare has left behind. The depth and breadth of his plays has left us completely engrossed and has driven us to discover new aspects of his work even today. Not only are revelations created in the words themselves, but they are found in the vocal patterns, the emphasis of letters and sounds, and the rhythm between actors on stage.
Lastly, a very important component of this institution was its use of education practice. While there is a dedicated educational centre across the street from the main building, the education program has seeped into virtually every space of the library. From the theatre to the front steps of the library, they break down the intimidation of not only Shakespeare’s work, but the building itself to encourage others to examine Shakespeare without fear. They have instigated programs for students ages 5-18 that gets them on their feet and working with the texts. They believe the best way of learning Shakespeare is doing Shakespeare.
During the class discussion, a student asked if I felt Shakespeare would still be important in years to come, to which I couldn’t help but gush over how his work has already been important the last 400 years. Shakespeare’s plays have been translated into over 60 languages (including Klingon, the language from the TV series Star Trek) and has played an irreplaceable role in language, politics, education and art. It is suffice to say that Shakespeare’s role in classrooms is invaluable and has been made so through the reputation and location the Folger Shakespeare Library- in one of the most powerful cities in the world.
A Modern Building on a Human Scale: MA Seminar Presentation and Discussion of The Yale University Art Gallery’s Louis I. Kahn Building
What does the term “gallery space” invoke? A room stacked floor to ceiling with objects from faraway places? An ornate temple-like space? Or perhaps a plain, white room with high ceilings, showcasing a single painting. In our first week as students of museums, any initial ideas we may have had of these spaces were shaken up, and we were introduced to a wide range of architecture each reflecting many ideas and agendas. For many early institutions, such as the British Museum in London, architects harkened back to Greek and Roman structures, building Neo-classical temples with grand entries, soaring columns, and illustrative friezes. This type of museum tells the visitor that, like the Greeks and Romans, this institution is rational and has a historical awareness.
Museum theory is constantly being revised, and in the twentieth century had arrived at a modern aesthetic. These modernist museums were the antithesis of the Neo-Classical building; they drew from the Machine Age, functional and paring away unnecessary ornamentation. The “white cube gallery” was considered the optimal way to view art, with no distractions for the visitor. However, the theory intended by architects can translate differently to visitors. This was what I wanted to explore when tasked with presenting a museum space to our seminar group. I chose to look at a building that I know very well, so well that I may have lost some perspective on it. I worked within the Louis I. Kahn Building at the Yale University Art Gallery for nearly seven years and wanted to apply the theories that we are learning to try to understand where it fits into the dialogue that architects have had for centuries around art galleries.
The Louis I. Kahn Building was designed by its namesake and completed in 1953. This was Kahn’s first notable commissioned project, and he was tasked with creating a public art museum in the private Yale University. At this point, Kahn would have been aware of the challenges in designing a modernist building that was also approachable. Perhaps it was an attempt to solve this dilemma that led Kahn to develop human scale architecture for this museum. Many elements of the gallery mirror the proportions of an average male; the bricks could fit in the palm of one’s hand, the planks of the wood floor are scaled to the size of human feet, and the ceilings are low for a modernist gallery. Kahn designed “pogo walls”, movable walls that allow curators to tailor each space based on the exhibitions. Also notable is the geometric tetrahedron ceiling, which brings continuity to every floor, balancing the ever-changing wall configurations.
Several visitors to the Louis I. Kahn building have remarked that it is a cold modern building, and an unfortunate departure from the gothic revival architecture running through the rest of Yale’s campus. However many, myself included, instead find the building inviting. The human scale helps visitors to feel comfortable. As well, the movable walls yield a great deal of aesthetic power to those that work in the space. It is unpretentious architecture that acknowledges changing tastes and needs.
The discussion that followed my presentation made me question certain assumptions I had about the building. I was asked, “Did visitors find the ceiling distracting from the art work?” This is a really valid point; I have always enjoyed the sweeping drama of the ceiling, but gave pause that it could visually confuse the aesthetic of a painting. We discussed some of the challenges of human-scale architecture, such as the low ceiling limiting object size. I also received a question that was very familiar from working in the gallery, “is there a gift shop or café?” The gallery has neither primarily to make it feel accessible, with no pressure to spend money while visiting. In addition, being a downtown museum, there are already several shops and cafes close by. However, our seminar leader made an observation that turned that idea completely around. She said, “So, this is truly a temple solely for viewing.” The use of the word “temple” immediately invoked the Neo-Classical buildings that gave little thought to user-friendliness. Could this human-scale, modern cube building actually have more in common with monumental Neo-Classical galleries? Discussions, questions, and ideas such as these arise often in our seminar group, and help us to challenge our pre-existing notions of museum space. Our seminars are quickly becoming forums of new interpretations and provocative discourse.
Caitlin Zaccaro – Art Gallery and Museum Studies MA candidate at the University of Manchester.
“What is xtremuseology?”
Xtremuseology is a student-oriented initiative by the Centre for Museology, Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery at the University of Manchester that aims to encourage students to think critically about practices, behaviours and conventions of museums, galleries and other cultural and heritage environments.
“What does it involve?”
It involves participating in fun activities that aim to intervene with, enhance or disrupt and so reveal cultural conventions and their characteristics and boundaries. See the flashmob at the Whitworth Art Gallery that xtremuseologists did few years ago.
“Is this only for museum studies students?” No! Any University of Manchester (and beyond!) students are welcome to get xtremuseological!
“What am I expected to do?” Our motto is: “Turn up – have fun – share and reflect”! It’s as simple as that!
“Fab! Anything else that I need to know?” Yes, one more thing: xtremuseological events may be filmed/photographed and shared on social media, including this blog. If you participate in the events, we’ll assume that you are happy to be filmed.
“Who should I contact if I have any questions?” You can email firstname.lastname@example.org (Programme Director, MA Art Gallery and Museum Studies, University of Manchester) or email@example.com (Student Coordinator, Manchester Museum and Whitworth Art Gallery) or get in touch via Facebook or Twitter
My name Is Samira Mahmood. I am a student at the University of Manchester, currently undertaking a master’s degree in Humanitarianism and Conflict Response. I aim to become involved with a charitable organisation focused on responding to violent conflict and rebuilding conflict affected communities. My placement, Musicians without Borders use music to support individuals and communities devastated by war and armed conflict. They design and deliver creative music programmes internationally, providing innovative ways to reduce the effects of war-related stress and trauma, and to connect divided communities. In the UK, we primarily work with refugees and asylum seekers affected by war trauma. My placement with Musician without Borders, being a tight-knit organisation, allowed me to get involved first-hand in the planning, preparation and implementation of one their charity projects; Rainbow Haven.
MwB UK run another project with Freedom From Torture NW called Stone Flowers which is currently in its third year. It is a music workshop for refugee and asylum seeker torture survivors. MwB aims at overcoming the experience of trauma and their difficulty in trust, being more open and connecting with others through the participation of music. During one of their recording sessions I wrote a news piece on this project for the organisations website. They were recording a song written by Mirielle, a refugee participant, her song ‘Je Pleure’ (lyrics) was a reflection of her experience and the loss of leaving her children back home. She spoke about how much she missed her family, how proud and happy she was able to sing and hoped that she could one day show people back home, and express to them how she has been feeling. The song reflected both her feelings and how much she wanted them to reach her loved ones. To watch her singing about something so close to her heart, and see her emotional reaction whilst recording was very moving. Those that have worked with the group shared their experience of how far these singers have come; I spoke with the creative producer of Stone Flowers; Aidan Jolly:
“This year Stone Flowers has developed out of its shell; more singing, more songs, and songs that are more sensitive and personal, for example Mirielle’s song about leaving her children. This is something they would not have approached in previous years. It is moving how people are being more open and expressive with their pain through song. It is very meaningful.”
Serge Tebu, a Stone Flowers music facilitator and refugee said:
“There are a lot of talented singers within this group, and they all enjoy working together. Throwing meaning out there in their songs, so that they can be heard and working incredibly hard for their performances helps characterise and build on this bond we have with one another.”
What I have seen so far from this project, is that MwB has created a new way for survivors to voice their experiences. MwB works towards building positive emotional connections between refugees, asylum seekers and others that don’t necessarily share the same language. Writing a news piece on Stone Flowers has given me a better understanding of the sensitivity surrounding refugees and their confidence to trust and participate in such courageous activities. This has been useful, towards the Rainbow Haven project that has just begun.