By Jason Foumberg
Museum exhibitions, like books and paintings, are alternate realities. They offer an escape to the past (at the history museum) or into someone’s imagination (art museum). How convincing is the virtual experience? That is the job of exhibition design.
Evocative lighting, soundscapes, hands-on interactives, props and backdrops are all standard components of a contemporary blockbuster exhibition. Sometimes these elements verge on the theatrical, as if museum visitors are on stage with the artwork and artifacts.
It’s easy to be skeptical about exhibition design. Must special effects be a part of every show, much like 3D glasses at the movies? Does the simulation occlude a real encounter with facts and knowledge? Several current exhibitions in Chicago answer these questions with some of the most cutting-edge designs in recent memory.
Six years ago, the Loyola University Museum of Art displayed a large, plastic replica of Jerusalem’s Western Wall. Visitors were encouraged to leave prayers on scraps of paper and insert them in the wall’s simulated cracks. It would seem that no one would fall for this artificial experience—there is only one Western Wall. But the thing was jammed full of paper prayers, as if faith makes even the bogus sacred.
I recalled the aftertaste of Loyola’s fake wall as I toured “Scenes from the Stone Age: The Cave Paintings of Lascaux,” currently on view at the Field Museum. Here, five full-scale reproductions of 20,000-year-old cave paintings—and the cave walls, too—are on display. The dramatic lighting mimics torch light. An eerie, ethereal soundtrack plays overhead. What sounds gimmicky is actually a perfect simulation.
The caves at Lascaux, in southwest France, closed to tourists in 1963. The fiberglass reproductions are impressively realistic. If you stay and look at the reproductions for longer than five minutes, you’ll believe that you’re onsite, underground, in the caves. The exhibition seamlessly mixes real artifacts, such as a Paleolithic woman’s skeleton, with reproductions. At the exhibit’s end is a video explaining the cave paintings’ iconography. Most of the exhibit’s visitors huddled around that small television, like cavemen around a fire.
In most cases, visitors want the real thing, especially in art museums. The Art Institute of Chicago’s new blockbuster, “Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity” excels at supplementing virtual experiences (paintings) with a funhouse-like framework. There are rounded-glass cases reminiscent of department stores, elegant couches instead of the typical museum benches, and mirrors reveal backsides of costumes but also transpose the costumes atop the reflected images of paintings.
Even though all exhibitions have a design—the tall white walls and big, airy galleries of the Roy Lichtenstein show in the same space several months ago was also a kind of design—the Impressionism show turns up the volume. In one gallery, fake grass and recorded birdsong accompany plein-air paintings. Now that Jay-Z and Marina Abramovic can happily dance together, it doesn’t seem too odd that older-than-a-century masterpieces should get dressed up in a glitzy, grandiose design. Last year, the AIC’s “Fashioning the Object: Bless, Boudicca, Sandra Backlund” exhibition set the stage for this type of experiential intervention. It may be the new wave in attracting more and diverse crowds, especially those used to being constantly entertained.
The strategy of viewer participation in an exhibition falls flat, surprisingly, in two shows that deal with that exact topic. “Spontaneous Interventions: Design Actions for the Common Good,” at the Chicago Cultural Center, and “Where If Not Us? Participatory Design and Its Radical Approaches,” at the Graham Foundation, attempt to tackle the topic of community activism, placemaking and “participatory design,” with retrospective exhibitions of DIY strategies. Ironically, both exhibitions are terribly unengaging.
It’s a happy accident or part of our zeitgeist that these two exhibitions are open concurrently. Certainly, the topic of community-driven activism is timely and important; however, since they are essentially object-less topics—the real work is done out in the field to improve our homes and habitats—what’s left are documents and project statements and lots of texts. Both exhibitions are reading-room-style shows, like specialized libraries. If you have three hours to spend sitting around a quiet gallery to learn about these topics, perhaps there’s no better place than the Graham Foundation’s elegant reading room.
Both exhibitions attempt interactive components, but they are too simplistic. For instance, the Graham Foundation’s show has poster-sized wall labels that viewers can transport to any room in the galleries. At the Cultural Center’s show, viewers pull down hanging posters to reveal solutions to common city problems (“few play spaces” gives way to “playground in a box,” and so on). These two exhibitions highlight the difficulty of cramming ephemeral practices like performance or activism into an exhibition space.
Finally, one perfect moment in contemporary exhibition design is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art. Everyone knows that museum galleries are no place to read comic books. Sure, they’re art, but wouldn’t you rather be curled up at home with your favorite Daniel Clowes graphic novel? The MCA has replicated that experience with individual, cushy cubby-holes for museum visitors to crawl into and devour Clowes’ books in quiet. It’s an ideal escape on a humid summer day.