5 things that make a good exhibition

Have you ever wondered what are the key components of an exhibition? And how can we tell if a particular exhibition is actually a good one? My idea of what an exhibition consists of changed substantially when I began working as a Museum Assistant myself.  Up to then I would probably notice that a picture is crooked, the light reflects badly in a varnished surface of a painting, but not really more than that. Today I’d like to present you with my personal list of 5 things that make a good exhibition. Let’s begin, shall we?

The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka, 2015-2016, Belvedere Museum Vienna; foto © Belvedere Museum Vienna via http://belvedere.at/

#1 | idea

It is almost impossible to create a good exhibition without a good idea for it. The idea determines everything: selection of objects, type of architecture and design, range of publications. The idea of an exhibition is like a caption of an image: it determines the way it can be interpreted. Let’s take a look at an example. This is one of the most famous paintings by Vincent Van Gogh:

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, 50.2 x 103 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam

Now take another look at this picture, but with a slightly different caption:

Vincent Van Gogh, Wheatfield with Crows, 1890, 50.2 x 103 cm, Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam. It is believed to be the last painting created by Van Gogh before his death.

Makes a difference, doesn’t it? All of a sudden the sky seems darker, the crows more ominous, and whole composition more hectic and gloomy. It’s exactly the same with the idea of an exhibition. A particular set of objects can be presented from many different perspectives, depending on the intentions of the curator. A good idea is unique, non-cliché, although very often it can be surprisingly simple. Moreover, a good idea can make up for a not-so-unusual selection of objects. Take a look at two unique exhibitions based on exceptional concepts:

Requiem for the staircase, 24/10/2001—27/01/2002, CCCB (Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona)

Us and Them. An intricate history of otherness, 16/03/2011—05/06/2011, International Cultural Centre in Krakow (ICC)

#2 | highlights

Famous artworks or rare objects, especially those hardly ever presented to a wider audience, are one of the key components of a great exhibition. However, this particular component is highly dependant on the others, such as the idea of exhibition, its narrative and design. Moreover, a highlight of an exhibition does not necessarily have to be a remarkable object. It can just as well be a less known version of a particular artwork, presented alongside its famous brother — what’s important here is the context, the relation between objects. Two years ago I was lucky enough to visit a wonderful exhibition of Rembrandt’s late works held by the National Gallery in London. What was the most astonishing about this exhibition, was the opportunity to meet different versions of the same plate or painting, and get some idea of how did Rembrandt’s working process look like.

#3 | design

The way that the exhibition is designed, composed, and mounted is extremely important. I find it truly terrifying how easy it is to ruin a great selection of objects with poor design, bad lighting, wrong color on the walls, et caetera. Good exhibition design is like good make-up. It covers what should be covered, and brings out the beauty. I had an opportunity to visit a great deal of well-designed exhibitions, only to mention Renaissance Faces. Masterpieces of Italian Portraiture (2011, Bode Museum, Berlin), Edvard Munch. Love, Death, and Loneliness (2015—16, Albertina, Vienna), Bosch. The 5th Centenary Exhibition (2016, Museo del Prado, Madrid), the permanent collections of MAK Museum in Vienna, Victoria & Albert Museum in London, Museu del Disseny in Barcelona, or Fabergé Museum in St. Petersburg, Russia. Sometimes the exhibition design is just a sort of a neutral entourage for the displayed objects, sometimes it can be expressive and meaningful, introducing vivid colors or unusual architecture, and therefore participating in telling the story hand in hand with the exhibits.

#4 | narrative

Contemporary exhibitions, no matter if they present an artistic, historical, or scientific content, become more and more focused on story telling. It is not easy to create a good narrative, especially having in mind that it should appear within the exhibition space in at least two languages. A good narrative is concise, easy to focus on and comprehend even when one is surrounded by a crowd of other visitors. It should invite the visitor to look for some more information about the topic of the exhibition, maybe even purchase a catalog. I believe it’s really important to remember that the narrative is also a visual element of the exhibition, and therefore it should be designed in a way that it won’t compete with any of the objects. Object labels that are too big, or create an unnecessary contrast (ex. white labels on a black wall), can affect badly even the best selection of works.

One of the most beautiful exhibition narratives was one created for the exhibition The Women of Klimt, Schiele and Kokoschka (22/10/2015—28/02/2016, Belvedere Museum Vienna). Creators of the exhibition came up with an idea to introduce a first-person narrative into the display. As a result, women depicted by the most prominent Austrian artists were telling their stories, often very intimate ones, themselves. This small detail defined the character of the whole exhibition, changing it from a simple display of portraits into a deeply moving, interdisciplinary experience.

#5 | catalog

Last, but not least, a catalog. Not only it plays a very important role in promotion of the exhibition, but it also gives an opportunity to expand the topic presented at the display. Therefore, it should be created with care for both the quality of scientific and documentary content, and the quality of design and print. Sadly, exhibitions pretty often have a strictly limited budget, with just some small portion of it dedicated to the design and print of publications. I’ve seen many stunning exhibitions accompanied by poor quality catalogs. However sometimes it is a necessary evil — a catalog has to be low-cost or there will be none — at other times it is just pure insouciance. A couple of months ago I visited the Star Wars Identities exhibition in Vienna, and I can’t believe that a budget of such a huge event (generating incredibly high profits) wasn’t able to afford a better quality catalog. After all, a catalog is often the only material thing that remains after the exhibition is over.


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