Designing an Exhibition: A Visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

Any day now, the staff of the OSU Museum of Art is going to move into the Postal Plaza Gallery—and just a few short months from now, we will open to the public. Our opening exhibition, “Sharing A Journey,” will showcase a cross-section of our permanent collection, with artworks that span two and a half millennia. We’ve been working hard on the research for that show for many months, but as we get closer to the opening date, a different need emerges: we need to design the gallery displays and install each object. Installing an exhibition is a complex process, involving aesthetic, historical, interpretive, and practical considerations. A great installation can enhance visitors’ understanding of the artwork they see; a weak installation, on the other hand, can literally prevent visitors from seeing the artwork at all.

Last week, I had the pleasure of being in New York City with OSU Foundation staff member Denise Unruh. Over three days, we visited supporters of the Museum of Art and, of course, went to see some incredible exhibitions. In this week’s post, I want to focus on the exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Maybe in part because I grew up there, the Met has always been the archetype of art museums in my mind—classically imposing from the outside, comprehensive and carefully ordered on the inside, its diversity invites even as its scale intimidates (and exhausts!). As Denise and I looked over the list of more than a dozen temporary exhibitions currently on view, our short list kept getting longer and longer.

The entrance to “Punk: Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The entrance to “Punk: Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The first thing I noticed walking into “Punk—Chaos to Couture” was the giant, wall-sized installation of video. The dark room and the frenetic, flashing, loud screen clearly signaled a casual, intimate space. Our reactions were immediately personal, and we shared them in an uninhibited way (no museum whispers or circumspect professionalism here). “I didn’t like the sixties,” said Denise, as I almost simultaneously said, “it’s so strange to think of my own closet as history.” Turning a corner, we confronted (or perhaps were confronted by?) a re-creation of the restroom at CBGB, circa 1978. It… looked like a bathroom in a bar, complete with graffiti and various grimy stains. Personally, I’d love it if all museums with period room installations included restrooms—and yet to reduce the New York City punk music scene to this space, architecturally speaking, felt slightly reductive.

Replica of the CBGB restroom; part of “Punk—Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Replica of the CBGB restroom; part of “Punk—Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As we continued through the exhibition we came to a gallery with high ceilings, bright white light and walls, and mannequins set into neoclassical alcoves. The grandeur of the space was startling after the low-key, dark spaces we’d come through, and it took me a couple of minutes to notice the scratches, dings, and graffiti etched into the walls. Another second later, I realized the walls—the whole architecture of the interior—was made of Styrofoam. Connotations collided in my head: the neoclassical with the disposable, the monumental versus the non-biodegradable, the palace versus the underpass. The clothing (it’s a fashion exhibition, remember?) echoed these contradictions—no, wait, inspired them. Ball gowns made of garbage bags, evening wear held together with safety pins. Elite couturiers working with trash—selling trash for thousands of dollars to fashion icons whose clothes were citations of an increasingly imaginary working class.

Gallery view with temporary walls made of Styrofoam; part of “Punk—Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Gallery view with temporary walls made of Styrofoam; part of “Punk—Chaos to Couture” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

These Styrofoam walls were reframing the CBGB bathroom as a temple. It’s not the actual bathroom that you’re looking at, it’s the sense of power and defiance that came into the room along with all the people the club hosted, from performers to audience to employees. The bathroom is the ultimate egalitarian space, and punk made it as powerful as the authoritarian architecture of modern government. But then the Metropolitan Museum of Art put the restroom in its place—containing it once again within that most symbolic architecture of hegemony, the museum (and they weren’t even the first museum to do it!).

Gallery view, “Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Gallery view, “Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich,” an exhibition of sculpture by perhaps the most well-known contemporary Cambodian artist, also used architecture to frame the works on view. But where the “Punk!” exhibition was created whole cloth within a temporary exhibition space, Pich’s works were distributed throughout the Asian art galleries, interacting with the museum’s architecture as well as with elements of architecture that are part of the collection, such as an elaborately-carved temple ceiling. The four spaces in which Pich’s work was installed were spread over a much larger number of galleries and connected only by way-finding signs. The first gallery was a typical contemporary space: three works, alone, installed inside white walls. The second gallery—reached only by walking through a number of galleries displaying centuries-old Chinese bronzes, ceramics, and other work—contained a single sculpture suspended at the center of a space otherwise filled with Cambodian antiquities not directly related to Pich’s work. Wending our way back through the galleries, we arrived at the landing of a stairwell that held another single work, reaching up toward the temple ceiling that is permanently installed. The stairs led us to a final gallery, with deep red walls, showcasing a group of large-scale floor and wall sculptures by the artist.

Installation view, “Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Installation view, “Cambodian Rattan: The Sculptures of Sopheap Pich” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.

What was the effect of these transitions? Pich himself is ambivalent about the relationship between history, autobiography, and his artwork, and his own descriptions of his sculpture range from the entirely formalist to the deeply politicized. And while the installation could have come across as indecisive or essentializing, the actual effect was subtle enough to feel thought-provoking rather than didactic. Beginning with a clean, white gallery that showcased three sculptures in high modern isolation, the visitor was invited to investigate the forms on their own terms. Passing through the Chinese art galleries to get to a Pich sculpture of a Buddha, one might accept an invitation to consider China’s relationship with Cambodia, which was particularly problematic during the Khmer Rouge regime under which Pich grew up. Opening into a bright gallery with the unfinished Buddha at the center—its red-tipped bamboo signifying the violence of the Khmer Rouge—Pich asks us to consider ancient artistic and religious legacies as well as the more immediate past, and to find the beauty and possibility therein. The formal comparison is more relevant than the historical one—despite being embedded in historical context, Pich’s work does not inspire the viewer to take a deep interest in the surrounding objects’ historical specificity. It is their existence in the present—as a reminder of the contrast between southeast Asian past and present, as objects carried out of their original context by colonialist collecting histories, and as formal evidence of materials and design—that matters.

Our last stop before heading to the airport was the Met’s roof garden. I wanted to show Denise the view, regardless of what the art installation was going to be, so I allowed myself a surprise. That decision paid off: Imran Qureshi’s site-specific painting is shocking at first sight, and then breathtakingly beautiful.

“The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

“The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

As a site-specific commission, both the curator and the artist were working with more complete—or more constrained—installation options, and, indeed, in the accompanying texts, both identified certain characteristics as critical to their decision-making process. Sheena Wagstaff, chair of the Department of Modern and Contemporary Art at the Metropolitan Museum, wrote that as she considered the transition of Central Park, which surrounds the museum, from winter to spring, the lush greenery became a obvious dominant aesthetic motif against which an artist might work.

Detail, “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Detail, “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Qureshi, known for his bold use of color, became a natural choice. For his own part, Qureshi responded to New York City more generally—the unexpected violence within a place where people felt safe echoed his experience in his hometown of Lahore, Pakistan, and his work on the Met’s roof directly explores those contradictions in an American context. Ken Johnson, writing in the New York Times (linked from the exhibition title above), sees this as a weakness—but I actually think that it’s one of the work’s strengths, actively making strange the nonchalance of café patrons and tourists more interested in the skyline than in Qureshi’s violently elegant splashes.

Museum visitors line up at the roof café alongside “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Museum visitors line up at the roof café alongside “The Roof Garden Commission: Imran Qureshi” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art’s main galleries, which display the permanent collection in relatively unchanging fashion, are quietly minimal. In contrast to the special exhibitions, whose design seems to take the position that a specific, carefully considered visual context is necessary for a complete representation of works of art, the permanent galleries encourage a modernist sensibility in which each painting or sculpture is considered primarily on its own terms. (There are exceptions, of course, in the period rooms and other distinct spaces.) As a visitor, I found that the diverse settings relieved my “museum fatigue,” that unique exhaustion that comes from walking slowly, looking carefully, and thinking hard about object after object. Less concretely, each installation created a mood and even encouraged a set of behaviors—in other words, it offered visitors a zeitgeist, accurate or not, to go along with the artwork.

The OSU Museum of Art is currently in the process of hiring a preparator to design and create exhibition installations at the Postal Plaza Gallery.

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About osucurator

Louise Siddons is Associate Professor of Art History at Oklahoma State University and founding curator of the Oklahoma State University Museum of Art. She maintains this blog as a record of her students' work with the Museum's permanent collection as well as more generally with topics related to museum studies.
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