Displaying the collection

By | October 27, 2016

How to display your museum collection? It is the never-ending question for galleries throughout the world. How art is presented can make an enormous difference to how it is perceived, remembered, and accepted by the audience. I remember a particular piece from “The Great” exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales – it was a painting by a Scottish artist, William Dyce, Francesca da Rimini. The audio guide revealed the story of lovers described by Dante in his epic poem “The Inferno”. Francesca, married to an elderly and deformed Gianciotto, falls in love with his younger brother; the ill-fated lovers are discovered and murdered by Gianciotto. The canvas was damaged and part of it removed – ironically this part contained Gianciotto. This could have passed for a beautifully composed love story if it wasn’t for the mysterious hand sneaking in on the left of the canvas. It leaves a menacing sense of the couple being watched. I was mesmerised.


William Dyce, “Francesca da Rimini” (1837). Photo by National Galleries of Scotland.

One thing I found frustrating was that this painting was displayed above head level. To accommodate the large number of works in the room, paintings were hung ‘Salon style’ in multiple rows in a circular fashion. The viewers could enjoy the Salon setting while resting their feet on the round seats in the middle. Theoretically, reclining on the seats would provide the best view of the exhibit, accommodating for its cumulative height. But what I really wanted to do is come up close to it, intrigued by the hand creeping onto the left edge of the canvas…

The frustration at not being able to see the painting up close and personal kept me circling the room and trying to observe it from different angles in an attempt to avoid the glare off its surface that persisted if I stood right underneath it. Needless to say, I can’t remember anything else from that particular room! Francesca da Rimini had me obsessed.

It occurred to me that it was probably this obsessiveness that helped the work really stick in my mind. I wonder if it would achieve the same emotional response if it had been placed at eye level, and I didn’t have to ‘work for it’. The limitation of the display, however negative, actually achieved a strikingly positive result! Even as I think of it now, I want to get closer to it… Argh!

The point is that the way curators choose to display the art can have a make-or-break effect on how the work is perceived, received AND remembered. In reality the choices of height, number of works, background colour, even smells, sounds and temperature in the room can make that difference.

Recently I came across a photograph of a European art display at Museum of Art Sao Paulo: mounted on glass plates which are anchored on the floor, it created a completely fresh perspective on the art.

Photo by Dick Drent

Photography by Dick Drent

The glass easels are designed by Lina Bo Bardi, had been used previously, have have been recently reinstalled after 20 years of absence. (Arch Daily has a fantastic article with architectural drawings of the easels for technically inclined readers.) Not lined up against the walls, the paintings come face to face with the viewer placed directly into the 3-dimensional space of the gallery. You could walk between and around the paintings, and even see the backs of paintings – not a luxury normally accessible to museum goers, yet appealing to a certain niche of art enthusiasts.

The flexibility of navigating through this space encourages us to accept the art on a different level: no longer distant and fixed to a wall, but as a fluid entity living here and now. Bo Bardi wanted to create a clear space where no predetermined routes were laid out and the viewers could take their own journey through the art, unrestricted by hierarchies often attributed to art genres. This display reminded me of walking through a cemetery – white headstones represent something living that has passed, while the work suspended right above echoes ‘Star Trek’ transportation into the world of the artists long gone. Without trying to recreate the past, we see the work through an ultra-modern perspective, while really being with the work.

A museum’s job is to engage – a job very well done in the case of Museum of Art Sao Paulo! But why? Two reason: it’s fresh AND it forces us to experience the art differently. (Not to mention ultra modern and crispy clean way of displaying the art!) The fact that the work is not necessarily separated by genre or artist emphasises the sheers volume of what today is referred to as ‘old art’. It commands attention from those super-contemporary art lovers who push it aside as irrelevant. It can also be quite an eye-opening experience for viewers unaware of the volume and scope of art from the previous centuries. So perhaps the point is not to find the place for this art in our lives, but rather to find our place among these works?.. After all, today is the product of yesterday. This is the same with art.

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Please share any interesting exhibits you have seen in the comments below. We would love to hear about them!


9 thoughts on “Displaying the collection

  1. Rhondda

    Hello, exhibition design is a very important part of an exhibition development and is left in major museums and galleries, to the design department not necessarily to that of curatorial. Curators select the works to tell the overall narrative and nominate works that tell the same sections of the story to be displayed together however credit for your art gallery experience should fall with the design team.

    1. HelenG Post author

      Dear Rhondda,
      That is very true, it is the combined effort between the curatorial and the design counterparts of the museum staff that contributes to the experience of the viewer. It is wonderful to see large museums ‘thinking outside the box’ when it comes to displaying the art that is often seen as ‘old’. I hope the exhibit will bring new audiences to see this art. I also hope that seeing this will challenge other museums to think about, and to present their collections, in new ways.

  2. Marimer Cebollero

    At the MAPR (Museo de Arte de Puerto Rico), the collection remained in chronological order for more than 10 years. Then, a Venezuelan curator was hired and , upon examining the works, including the ones in storage, he decided to re-hang the works by themes. His removed position (he was just acquainted with our history) let him perceive the cultural themes, that showed up regardless of the time frame in which the works were created. As a docent, I am excited to talk about these themes and I strive to make the visitor feel our collective reality.

    1. HelenG Post author

      Dear Marimer,
      Thank you for your comments! It is always exciting to hear about how museums choose to display their collections and how it changes the way we perceive the art. A fresh perspective can make a big difference! (If you have some links you’d like to share here that would be welcome too.)

        1. HelenG Post author

          Thanks Marimer, I love the colour of the pop up wall too – gives it a fresh look and removes monotony of traditional ‘white wall’ displays.

  3. Ron Grauer

    I must admit the hand creeping into the scene is fascinating…a stroke of genius. Only wish I could come up with one of those great additions for every painting. A trick, I know, but what else is there to painting besides illusion. So this illusion , as you said, adds a tremendous amount of mental food to digest at one’s leisure.
    The other part of your post that I loved was the vertical “glass wall” technique
    at the exhibits. What a striking effect. Not to distract from the art, especially in that case, but the addition of something stimulatingly new to remove the “oh well another art exhibit” and to realize there is almost always something in front of you that is worthy of a smile and an exclamation…and incidentally, look at that painting of Van Gogh, I never stopped long enough to notice her eyes.
    Thanks, stimulating. RonG

  4. HelenG Post author

    Dear Ron,
    Thank you for sharing here! Indeed there so much to gain from the old artworks that are sometimes cast aside today as irrelevant by hardcore contemporary art lovers. Being able to present the older masters in a stimulating way can re-invigorate the interest in their work, and hopefully bring new audiences into these museums. It is great to have art accessible digitally as it is today, but it does not beat standing face-to-face with a portrait and sharing that glance. Art is a very physical concept, and I love the three-dimensional aspect of this exhibit.

  5. Pingback: The relevance of ‘old art’ – BrushWord: Art Blog

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