Wednesday, 5 December 2012

"I'm a little bit special"

Until a mention by Suse Cairns on Twitter, I'd never heard of The Novium in Chichester, which was a massive oversight on my part, given I spent a chunk of my childhood obsessing over Rosemary Sutcliff's Eagle of the Ninth series (set in Roman Britain) and The Novium preserves a Roman bathhouse amongst many other things. An article in the Guardian describes the local context of the museum (and some local disgruntlement with the new, sleek, modernist building). It includes this interesting quote:
Myles Cullen, deputy council leader and project leader, is proud that a local authority has been able to build a fine public museum despite the recession. The price, literally, is abandoning free admission except for children under three ("Needs must," he said sadly).
Cairns pointed to an article on Museum iD that delves more deeply into the architecture and exhibition display. It's a fascinating mixture of flexible components and the metaphor of the specialness of collection storage spaces.
The design of the space offers the chance to ‘get behind the scenes’. Almost as if it’s been turned inside out, the design aesthetic takes elements from archives and inspiration from the stores at the Fishbourne Roman Palace, also in West Sussex. It plays on the idea of discovering the collections for the first time and getting up close to the object. Archive boxes, forming part of the display cases, and labels in faded colours recalling old-fashioned index labels both add to the sense of gaining a sneak peek into the storage of operations of a museum. Practical solutions including a bespoke, highly flexible mount system as well as cost-effective templates, which facilitate the in-house printing of graphics and object labels.
I'm excited by collection storage. I'm excited by the enthusiasm I see on people's faces when they are in these spaces. And I'm excited about the potential of what The Novium is doing.

Following on from this article, there was a rapid-fire exchange on Twitter. I know some people still find the whole concept of Twitter weird and stupid, but over the past six weeks or so, its place is my life has only been strengthened. This exchange - despite the forays into robot and Princess Bride geekery - felt to me like a condensed panel discussion, raising and stretching and challenging ideas.

Since drafting this post, another interesting reflection on exhibition design has come out. In October this year the Medical Museion at the University of Copenhagen opened an exhibition called 'Obesity - What's the problem?'. As they have recently blogged, the exhibition design was stripped back, but also deeply metaphorical - almost philosophical:

... the idea of having intentionally blank sections of wall and floor was one of the very first concepts we discussed during the development of the exhibition. The exhibition spans a very diverse thematic field, running from obesity surgery, through medical treatment, and into current metabolic research. And the actual objects are also very diverse – ranging from heavy surgical machinery to tiny biopsy samples of the human intestine. We wanted to make this complex field of themes and materials more comprehensible by making clean cuts through the exhibition material. Cuts that formally present themselves as spatial gaps, blank walls and the empty back sides of some of the display installations: all acting to divide and structure the exhibition material. 
But whilst we wanted to present the different exhibition themes as diverse installations that are formally – both visually and spatially – self-enclosed, on a more conceptual level we also wanted to make clear how each installation connects to other sections of the exhibition. Or in other words, we hoped to create the sense of singular ‘cells’ that have a function of their own, while at the same time letting the interrelations between these cells shine through. For that reason we have used translucent materials and lighting, to enable and activate the views and pathways across the exhibition space.

(The post has some photos that illustrate this point.) The problem is though that visitors think the exhibition is unfinished. They don't see "a spatial concept that also has a momentary, non-linear rhythm, based around the concept of exhibition voids that in some ways disconnect the material on display, but at the same time establish pauses that enable the visitor to reflect on the connections between this material" - they see bare walls that look like someone ran out of time to finish hanging the show. The Museion is treating this as an experiment in science communication, and 'observing' visitors and their reactions; part of me wants to say 'fix the show' and part of me wants to say 'hold fast and learn'. I'm not sure which is the right approach in this case.

This review of the Museum of Hunting and Nature just came over the transom from Nina Simon. Taxidermy, paintings, antique furniture ... it's the Alice in Wonderland of exhibition installations.

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