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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  1. You've hit upon a great lens through which to evaluate exhibition design.

    "Rhythm" is certainly a word that has come up in discussions with art curators. Afterall, a good curator makes a point of stepping back from the wall to assess the composition of the hang. But the qualities that need rhythmic organization are multitudinous, size and color being the most obvious. One curator with whom I was working years ago obsessed on the even distribution of female artists. Inclusion was not a problem, but when one room became all male, and another all female--by chance-- we had to reconsider the layout. Otherwise, attention would be drawn to unintended associations.

  2. Love the 'bunch of old brown things' analogy!

    At the Handwritten exhibition at the National Library of Australia - they displayed old volumes of illuminated manuscripts (so difficult to display dynamically) as if they were golden flying volumes in a dark sky. It really seemed to connect with the romantic way that visitors might connect with these objects. It also brought a new element to the exhibition and to the objects themselves.

  3. There's also the mood-setting that you can accomplish when you "break the color barrier" on the walls. To me, a lively (though sophisticated) color pallette says "welcome" to our family audience.

    Definitely check out the new Art of the Americas wing at the Boston MFA. Colored walls! It does not detract from the art for me, at all. Plus the architects and designers paid sharp attention to another rhythym: gallery walls vs. windows. Just when you're hitting gallery fatigue, you move on to an (enclosed) exterior space, a view outside and lots of natural light!

  4. Thanks for all the great comments!

    @Jason It is interesting to go back through an installation to try and ferret out those unintended patterns.

    @Alli and @Betsy I think so many museum experiences and designs are "flat" (in the object display sense) and "boxed in" (what's wrong with windows?!?!) that it's great to point out counter-examples.