The art of temporary exhibitions

Galleries' best way to keep visitors returning and to draw new ones in is to change displays or mount temporary exhibitions. Many galleries are livelier nowadays as more exhibitions and exhibits circulate in tours. It is no small accomplishment. Every exhibition springs from chains and loops of decisions. From the costs of transport to conditions for preservation, they depend on various factors. Curators are used to compromise between preference and feasibility. Archeology exhibitions illustrate the principles well, with exhibits of various academic or ethical values, different sizes and diverse materials. Take, for example, the British Museum's series of big ‘shows’ about ancient emperors, in 2007-10. Readers may recall the vivid life-size terracotta soldiers, horses and chariots from the Qin First Emperor's mausoleum; and, in Hadrian, the massive fragments, newly unearthed, of a statue of the Roman emperor, stone inscriptions, bronzework and leather from sites as far apart as Britain and Egypt (Figure 1); or, in Moctezuma, Aztec sculpture and ceramics, recently discovered gold jewellery, shining steel and dark Spanish paintings. Exhibitions in Manchester, France and the USA have provided other illustrations of how temporary exhibitions are put on.


Galleries

A gallery's shape, light and décor affect how exhibits look. Louis Kahn's spare architecture evidently gives the Kimbell Museum flexibility but, for each of its three emperors, the British Museum struggled to relate the displays to the gallery's dome, high above. On the other hand, Moctezuma's centrepiece, a sculpture, was lit better there than in its airy home, Mexico's National Museum of Anthropology. The walls of a temporary exhibition gallery can be redecorated to suggest a theme or to suit the lighting required. The French National Museum of Prehistory, at Les Eyzies, has done that repeatedly. Yet there are limits to how much a gallery can be adapted. The older walls in Houston's Museum of Natural Science feature insistent neo-classical mouldings which proved somewhat at odds with exhibits from Sinkiang in 2010. Curators have to consider exhibits' weights and sizes, fabrics and colours. One sculpture in Moctezuma was too heavy for parts of the floor in the British Museum's gallery. Small pieces, such as coins, are difficult to present to many visitors at once. To preserve materials such as the feathers and paper in Moctezuma or the basketry in Hadrian demands controlled atmosphere and lighting. Not all galleries can attain adequate environmental standards, so some simply cannot borrow certain delicate items. The contents of exhibitions may vary with options among the permanent collections at one gallery and another. For the series on emperors, the British Museum took the opportunity to specimens of its own alongside the loans. In 2010, the Kimbell Museum laid out part of the Maya exhibition alongside its permanent display of Maya artefacts; and it added a set of figurines to the exhibition as they became newly available from Guatemala. A gallery's plan, its doors and any windows affect the distribution of plinths or display cases and, even with partitions or lighting specially installed, that, in turn, may affect both accessibility and comprehensibility. Can exhibits be shown in historical order? Where the lay-out of a travelling exhibition has to vary in successive galleries, the order of the catalogue's entries may prove awkward. The problem can be alleviated with labels and audio-visual aids and by docents but some galleries go so far as to create their own catalogue to match local conditions and contributions. Can the display furniture be adapted for a temporary exhibition or can stands be built especially for the purpose? The Manchester Museum created suggestive cabinets for displays accompanying the ancient body in 2008; but, in Paris, the National Archeology Museum's big old cases compromised the display of small Iron Age artefacts from the Alps in 2009-10.


Curator and visitor

Not only are curators' decisions selective but they may be heavily interpretive too. Perhaps to bring in the crowds, the British Museum's exhibitions were markedly humanistic. The Qin soldiers were placed and lit to emphasise the modelling of facial features and clothes. In Hadrian, exhibits were selected to reveal the emperor's infatuation with his boyfriend. Moctezuma dwelt on written signs for the Aztec king. Yet the Aztecs had not necessarily meant those signs to indicate Moctezuma himself and they are not so emphasised in their home galleries; equally, the Romans’ emphasis on winsome Antinous may have been a political gesture; and, whatever their ancient ancestors' attitude, Chinese visitors would, perhaps, have been surprised by the Museum’s attention to the soldiers' details. In contrast, showing the ancient body again in Manchester in 2008-9, the curators there decided that respect required such dim lighting that the corpse could hardly be seen. Of course, the effectiveness of any display depends on its visitors: their abilities to walk and see, their literacy and their experience of galleries, their knowledge of (in the present case) archeology, local history, world history or, more broadly, art history, or perhaps too their ethical priorities. So marketing is fundamental. No doubt, that was why the British Museum emphasised ‘human interest’ from eras and traditions so remote from today's London. Yet, touring the USA, the exhibition from Sinkiang showed how visitors' responses may vary: the burial bundle of a child prompted detached scientific interest at one gallery and tears at another.


Figure 2: Medieval ivory chess piece from Lewis Scotland (© Trustees of the British Museum)


Acknowledgments and references

I am grateful to Helen Strudwick and Susan Walker for generously sharing their experience and to Lucilla Burn, an anonymous reviewer and the editor for their remarks on a draft of this note. I have drawn on reviews published in Antiquity (Volumes 82-85). The Figures are shown by courteous permission of the British Museum. For the Museum's data on circulation, see http://www.britishmuseum.org/research/publications/online_research_catalogues.aspx




Figure 1 (Cover Image): Roman bronze military helmet from Ribchester, England (© Trustees of the British Museum)