On Exhibiting

‘There is no essential museum. The museum is not a pre-constituted entity that is produced in the same way at all times. No ‘direct ancestors’ (Taylor, 1987:202), or ‘fundamental role’ (Cannon-Brooks, 1984:116) can be identified. Identities, targets, functions, and subject positions are variable and discontinuous. Not only is there no essential identity for museums […] but such identities as are constituted are subject to constant change as the play of dominations shifts and new relations of advantage and disadvantage emerge. ‘Truth is of the world: it is produced by virtue of multiple constraints’ (Foucault, 1977)’ (Hooper-Greenhill, 1992 pp. 191).

The first museum ever created was founded in 1925, and it is believed of having been curated by the princess of Babylonia, Ennigaldi – ‘her collection contained wonders and artifacts as ancient to her as the fall of the Roman Empire is to us’ (Wilkins, 2011). The discovery witnesses how the study of history, together with the need of conserving and exhibiting the past, have always surrounded humans’ interests. Museums and exhibition always contributed in the shaping of knowledge. It is through artworks, in fact, that for centuries authorities spread culture among the population and mainly through the sense of sight they contributed in shaping the society’s perception of the world. 

As expressed in the initial quote, museums have never been fixed entities but have instead evolved, together with humankind, and adapted to the public and their needs. ‘Museums, in common with all other social institutions, serve many masters, and must play many tunes accordingly. Perhaps success can be defined by the ability to balance all the tunes that must be played and still make a sound worth listening to’ (Hooper Greenhill, 1992). While Modernism erected the notion of museums as temples, ‘spaces for meditation and interiority‘, today, with the entrance of technology in our everyday lives, which contributed to the development of a new kind of interaction among people and culture, reformulating the old concepts of exhibition design appears fundamental.

The process of exhibiting follows the same pattern of building a discourse and design is the tool through which shaping messages. ‘The total application of all plastic and psychological means more than anything else makes exhibition design an intensified and new language’ (Bayer, 1961). Being always the creation of a single or multiple curators the structure of an exhibition results to be always influenced by the preconceptions and backgrounds of the people who collaborated to its realisation. Museums, likewise people, express statements: ‘there is no exhibition without construction and, therefore, appropriation. […] It seems axiomatic that it is not possible to exhibit objects without putting a construction upon them.’ (Baxandall, 1991).

The veil of authority incarnated by museums, and more widely by cultural institutions, has although starting to diminishing thanks to the introduction of new media‘Knowing and knowledge have become three-dimensional, all-involving, and all-encompassing. The main themes of knowledge are people, their histories, their lives, and their relationships’ (Hooper Greenhill, 1992). While using different means of communication, the primary objective of contemporary museums and exhibitions is to create a multi-sensorial and interactive experience by reproducing the pure essence of knowledge, that is interaction and infinite exchange and regeneration.  

In this scenario, the visitor, like a wanderer through the multiplicity of knowledge and expression, is immersed at 360-degrees into the cultural environment; museums are thus ‘three-dimensional [constructions], and visitors physically move through them’ (Macdonald, 2007). Exhibitions are social events and ‘good exhibition design’ must be structured on the awareness of the sociality component, essential also to the artistic expression. ‘Mutual or public visibility is an important feature of the museum experience. […] In a museum people expect an experience in which, to some degree, at least, the experience is shared or, as they put it, collaborative’ (ibid., 2007).

The radical evolution of exhibition design’s procedures was started by the avantgardes of the 20th century which, affected by the technological development of those times, looked for new ways of displaying art through the introduction of media of mass communication and started to formulate exhibition design as a new media itself.

Some of the first attempts of interactive and collaborative exhibitions were proposed by the artist and designer Friedrick Kiesler (1890-1965). The International Exhibition of New Theater Technique (1924) proposed a new technique, invented by the Kiesler himself, called ‘L and T system‘, which constituted of ‘a new language of form composed of freestanding, demountable display units of vertical and horizontal beams that supported vertical and horizontal rectangular panels’ (Huhtamo, 2002). The structure permitted the viewers to completely immerse in the artistic environment while shaping their perception of space and time – ‘the T-type structures had cantilevers that allowed the viewer to adjust the images and objects to his or her eye level and viewing pleasure’ (ibid., 2002). 

International Exhibition of New Theater Technique, 1924

The viewer becomes, therefore, an intrinsic component of the exhibition and participates actively in the formulation of the meaning of the entire exhibition, which would be incomplete without him. The core of the system invented by Kiesler is based on the belief that art, like life, is fluid and in continuous evolution. ‘The traditional art object, be it a painting, a sculpture, or a piece of architecture, is no longer seen as an isolated entity but must be considered within the context of this expanding environment. The environment becomes equally as important as the object, if not more so, because the object breathes into the surrounding and also inhales the realities of the environment no matter in what space, close or wide apart, open air or indoor’ (Staniszewski, 2001). Kiesler’s designs also overcame the prohibition of touching artworks and broke the sense divinity with which art is usually scattered. Avantgardes reintroduced and gave dignity back to tactility, which is always considered the more primitive of the five senses, by allowing the viewers to ‘change the nature of the art object itself, or by changing the conditions within which art is perceived and consumed’ (Huhtamo, 2002).

The key idea is integration. Here the exhibits are no longer seen as separate entities put on display in any space. Instead, they are considered integral elements of a total environment that envelops the visitors and encourages them into a dynamic relationship with the space and all its dimensions and elements. The environment comprises different media and channels of communication. Instead of a passive spectator in front of static exhibits, the visitor is meant to turn into an active participant’ (ibid., 2002).

In conclusion, although today we can have access to all knowledge just through a click, people still find necessary the idea of reuniting in a shared space – the museum – exhibited for experiencing art, culture and emotions. That is because the essence of human being, no matter which technology we design, is anchored to sociality which has been, since the beginning of the time, the tool through which growth, both cultural and technical, had been possible. Therefore, museums, as cultural and democratical institutions, must be at the centre of governments’ interest since they can add economic, social and educative value and must be designed basing on the society’s pattern itself – a collaborative and ever-regenerating organism.




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