Thursday, March 1, 2012

Rhythm in Exhibitions

Why is there such a desire to touch things in an art museum?  Does all that concentrated looking create a pent up demand to use our other senses?  Or do we long to get a better sense of how an artist created something, and the materials they used?  Can a museum experience be "interactive" if you don't touch anything?

I was thinking about these things after a recent visit to the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) with a group of my graduate students from Bank Street's Museum Education program.  (Yes, that's us touching sculptures in the picture above.)

Not in any way to pick on MoMA (since it's one of my favorite museums) but the galleries there (and in many other museums) often seem to lose track of the intellectual and design values of rhythm.

Rhythm in the sense of changing up and varying the sensory stimuli and patterns for visitors.  In the case of MoMA, a visitor is faced with the classic "pure white box" style gallery repeated over and over.  And within each pure white space, artworks are arranged linearly or in grid patterns on the walls or floors.  Couldn't an occasional gallery wall be painted red or blue? 

I'd contend that one reason for the amazing success of recent shows by Tim Burton and Olafur Eliasson at MoMA was (aside from the great art) that each installation deliberately broke away from the white/grid aesthetic.

And lack of rhythm in exhibitions isn't just an Art Museum issue.  My kids once remarked on a History Museum exhibition as a "bunch of old brown things" because the furniture, textiles, and documents on display were all old and brown!  The visual rhythm of "brown" and "old" became a sort of unvarying metronome that overwhelmed the ultimate content goals of the designers.  Each object in every glass case was set on sepia or earth-toned backgrounds as well.

Have some museum genres become like particular radio stations for both exhibition designers and visitors?  Tune into pristine white spaces on the Art Museum channel, and dimly lit galleries full of "old brown stuff" on the History Museum station?

Are the typical design "rhythms" of many science centers filled with bright colors, neon, and wildly varying architectural forms really conducive to thinking deeply about tricky scientific content?

How can we as exhibition creators find our "design rhythm" to help create more interesting museum spaces and content-driven experiences for our visitors?

Please share your own experiences or examples of rhythm in exhibitions (good or bad) in the "Comments" section below!

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