In the Gallery: Priorities Today

Article excerpt

How do visitors make sense of displays? What should curators be trying to achieve with them? Some 70 experts and students spent a day on these and related issues at the Fitzwilliam Museum, in Cambridge University, on 23 September last, to celebrate the completed rearrangement of its 'Greek & Roman' gallery. That project provoked much of the discussion but comparisons were drawn from the current development of Oxford University's Ashmolean Museum and from elsewhere in Britain and overseas (James 2009, 2010). Short lectures by Kate Cooper and Lucilla Burn, of the Fitzwilliam, and by Rick Mather, architect of the Ashmolean's rearrangements, were followed by eight panellists' remarks on technical and methodological issues; and the day was rounded off with the Museum's Severis Lecture for 2011, Dimitrios Pandermalis on 'The new Acropolis Museum: project and realization' (Figure 1).

Four issues emerged. Should the exhibit itself be the curators' prime concern? How can they best communicate with visitors in the gallery or beyond? Can curators control the course of decisions that determine the outcome; and what, specifically, is the effect of the gallery's architecture? These questions are considered here in reverse order.

Building, gallery and visitor

The building is the framework. Rick Mather claimed that his designs allow visitors to see how different rooms can be related to each other at the Towner Gallery in Eastbourne (2009) and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (2010) as well as the Ashmolean. Clio Karageorghis confirmed that, at the Louvre, architecture is the fundamental precondition, and Lucilla Burn and Julie Dawson showed how, for the Fitzwilliam, columns, the floor's strength and the positions of windows presented both challenges and opportunities for distributing, mounting and lighting exhibits of various sizes, forms and ornamentation. Karageorghis showed how, like the Fitzwilliam's, the Louvre's curators must work with neo-Classical decor (while Tim Schadla-Hall volunteered that the ideal gallery is a 'plain shed' ...). Cooper having pointed out that design for 'the visitor experience' must cover everything from learning to creature comfort, Mr Mather and Prof. Pandermalis extolled the restaurants and plantings incorporated at the Ashmolean and the new Acropolis Museum (Snodgrass 2011: 629).

Burn quoted William Whewell's declaration (1857) that "every arrangement of the gallery is an experiment" to aver that display can only be as good as the ideas of its own day. Since the opportunity for rearrangement normally arises but once in a generation, design of galleries and permanent exhibitions has to be generic lest details become dated. Burn explained that, other than the constraints of space and the collection itself, the Fitzwilliam's new display shows the topical interest in artefacts' biographies and is guided, more broadly, by the principle that visitors' own various priorities are all fair, so that all their priorities should be accommodated. She held that adequate planning can guarantee a project's fulfilment; but there may be surprises (Grey et al. 2006).


From the Ashmolean, Susan Walker explained that it was difficult to anticipate the reciprocal effects of everything from structural details to diverse colleagues' professional cultures; and Rick Mather admitted that he had not expected the curators' exploitation of his striking stairwell (Figure 2). At the new Acropolis Museum, the layout of the piers was changed three times over as archaeological discoveries were made in the course of building; and the remains are now incorporated more closely in the display. The Parthenon sculptures have proved difficult to light at dusk but Pandermalis showed how they are reflected suggestively, at that time of day, on the windows that look out to the monument itself (Figure 3).

The meeting assumed that, committed to 'widening participation', museums welcome everyone. …