Thursday, June 24, 2010

Ideas Make Exhibits (and Design Helps)

I saw three exhibits in Budapest that serve as models for the belief that exhibits are about ideas, not just about objects.   Each one also combined great objects, compelling images and engaging design.  But the idea behind each exhibit is what made me want to see more--and will make me remember each long after my visit.

Let's start with excerpts from the opening labels:
Who can be regarded as a "true" citizen anyway?   What are the prime elements of civic mentality and morality?  How did the term "citizen"  which we regard either as an example to follow or an enemy to be destroyed in specific cases even today come into being?

This exhibition will guide you through the time period taking place between the end of the 18th century and the day of urban unification to show you the social history of citizenship.
From the exhibit at the Budapest History Museum

And now another from the Museum of Ethnography:
Why the Finns?
Because we are related and therefore we ought to know something about them?  ...because the Museum of Ethnography has never before organized a large-scale exhibition of its "unequalled" Finnish material?...because they are worth our attention?  because we have something to learn from them? ... Because we have as much to learn from them today as we did before?

The Museum of Ethnography's How We See the Finns attempts to communicate Finnish identity from a Hungarian perspective--to say something about the Finns as a people and about the diversity of their national culture.  Though it approaches its subject matter as an outsider it does so not with the curiosity of a distant foreigner but with the somewhat bashful interest one shows in the life of a good friend.

The final exhibit, also at the ethnographic museum, A Village in Hungary: People, Objects, Relations, was about the  pioneering fieldwork done in the 1950s-70s in a single Hungarian village during a time of great change. In the opening label, the curators begin:
The two decades following the Second World War saw the Hungarian peasantry facing a set of circumstances constituting the greatest turning point in its history.  The roots of a traditional peasant lifestyle, a product of centuries of development, were being eradicated with shocking speed, partly as a result of industrialization and--more potently--at the hand of the state.
In each of these opening labels (thankfully in English as well) the idea is clearly presented.  We know what we're going to see or learn,  we see a small flash of humor at times, we understand the connection to today's life, we understand a curatorial voice and perspective.  The opening text makes a strong case for the exhibit's value.

Each exhibit started with an idea that was driven by the objects and images--but then clever design connected us, as a visitors, to those complex ideas.   Here's some pictures of the designs (and a big shout-out to Hungarian museums for their generous photography policy--okay everywhere!)

In the exhibit on citizens, large picture frame graphics (top of post and above) that spread across the walls and floors made an exhibit that was primarily graphic have a lively sense of movement.

A simple hands-on dress up area that also included bean bag chairs and small tables--installed in what could have been an awkward space.

These boxes were in the public areas of the Museum of Ethnography before you entered the exhibit.  the outside vitrine had a traditional object.  When you entered the box,  the inside housed an modern Finnish equivalent--and the text, "It's not what you think."

Most of the casework was very simple, built of what looks like birch.  It all had very clean, modern lines, which worked both with modern materials and with the historic objects.

Massing of everyday objects (also cases of Fiskar scissors and Nokia phones) created visually interesting spaces.  That is a lot of rubber boots!

Traditional objects and their contemporary counterparts (produced both in traditional and new ways) were always juxtaposed, encouraging close comparisons.

In the village exhibit, this line-up of tools and the accompanying graphic show the distribution of tools within the village and their use within  and between families.  And the very large graphic below shows the different kinds of pottery used by families as a reflection both of taste and of economic circumstances.

Throughout the exhibit, large graphics (shown above) and quotes from both the ethnographers and the villagers themselves provided a sense of immediacy and intimacy about the village and those who lived there.

And to me, the one element that expressed so clearly, the end of a that time and of the destruction of traditional lifestyles is shown below.  Traditionally, the village men would go to a stable to hang out,  to talk-- a large photo and the stools they sat on are shown below.  But the accompanying label mentions that after a certain point these gatherings ended--anyone whose stable light was on,  who might be gathering in a group, was reported.  So they gathered no longer.

This little line-up of stools conveys so much--but only because the exhibit developers helped me make that connection, to understand this complicated story.   All three of these exhibits brought me to new understandings and will provide both content and design inspiration to me.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Everybody's Doing It: Museum Night in Budapest

Last Saturday I spent the almost longest day of the year at Budapest's Museum Night on a quick weekend visit to Hungary.  More than 84 Budapest museums participated and hundreds of thousands of locals and tourists headed out to enjoy an incredible range of activities for families, young people, old people and everyone in between.  It was great to see crowds of people at bus stops and on the metro,  reading their Museum Night guidebook and trying to figure out where to go--it felt like exactly the way museums should feel--a real part of the community.   A ticket which admits you to all the museums and provides free public transport cost 1300 forints--about $5.60.   The event began in Hungary in 2003 with only a few thousand visitors--and now attracts about 400,000 over the course of the evening.  Events also happened at other museums all over Hungary, in communities large and small.  I had last visited Budapest 18 years ago as it was emerging from decades of Communist rule, and this event gave me a chance to see how the city--and its museums--had changed.

Out of the 84,  I only made it to 6--but each one presented something different.  It wasn't that any particular activity I saw was so unique--it was the collective effort--and the sense of being a part of a something that everyone participated in a big city.  So here's what I did:

Hungarian National Gallery:  Activities for kids,  artwork by kids, and set-up for a later-night hairshow--based on hair found in the work of Futurist artist Depero, the subject of a major retrospective.   Hair show?  Why not?

Budapest History Museum:  Quick listen to a concert of Mexican music, and a browse through the galleries, including one very good exhibit about the meaning of citizen in the 18th century.  Blog post on that to come.

Art School whose name I don't remember:  Senior show, and music.

Art Studio torchlight tour:  There's a garden, as big as a city block, that contains both sculptures and studios for artists.  It's gated off, and only open to art students.  Taking a tour of something that's never open to the public was great--and the atmosphere was, well, atmospheric.

Franz Lizst Museum:  no surprise, a classical music concert, and a brief walk through period rooms.

The House of Terror:  Absolutely packed, this museum is in the former building used by Hungarian Fascists and later the Communist secret police.  It's a fascinating, complex place telling the story of both those eras. The crowds meant that we just shuffled through exhibit spaces, but it's something when a young man turns to the girl he's with and says, "let's stay for the 11:00 PM lecture."

Interestingly,  a quick Google search shows me Museum Nights all over Europe--from Amsterdam to Bucharest--but none in the United States.  Am I wrong?  Or what don't US museums embrace this successful model?

Wednesday, June 9, 2010

Why are Museums about Writing so Interesting?

I’ve written before about the Bulgakov Museum in Kyiv, one of my favorite museums in Ukraine Just recently, I’ve been in two other museums devoted to writing and writers that made me consider why it is that museums about words are so good at using ideas, not just words, to convey their story. 

First, the Franz Kafka Museum in Prague.  A new museum, located right on the river, it’s a highly theatrical presentation of Kafka’s life and work in Prague.  Like most people, I know of Kafka, but am not terribly familiar with his work.  The exhibits do a great job of integrating his life, his work, and the city of Prague.   The museum is mostly in shades of gray, black and white,  and uses several theatrical devices to connect the story.  A curled scrim shows a ghostly rotating view of Yiddish theater;  a section about a circular life includes materials installed in flat circular cases, lit from above.  The women in Kafka’s life are highlighted in individual cases that are transparent from front to back, giving a sense of his complicated personal life.   At one point, you enter a dark narrow space filled with the reflective glass fronts of file cabinets and dotted with ringing phones.  You pick up the phones and someone is speaking.  The sense of futility, of no way out, is palpable.   It’s a pretty great installation when you leave wanting to read Kafka, as I did (but haven’t yet).

The Kafka Museum in Prague appears to have substantial resources but this week I visited another exhibit in a much smaller museum, with much more limited resources:  the Literature Museum in Kharkiv, Ukraine.  The museum was founded after the end of the Soviet Union and it is a great testament to that fact that ideas don’t cost money.Their permanent exhibit explores Ukrainian writers in the 20th century.    The exhibit carries a strong conception of the narrative of those writers and the changes brought both the advent and decline of the Soviet Union, and that conceptual strength is assisted by the inventive efforts of design students.  

This could have been an opportunity to see an exhibit that was just a big line-up of books.  But instead,  enormous photographs and a timeline line the full exhibit.  Each room looks at a different time period,  and the extended text labels about the books shown are not installed directly with the book, but contained in folders for browsing.

The last three rooms were the most memorable to me.   Ukrainians (and I believe I have this right) have a phrase describing those who go into themselves,  going into a “blue world.”  In this “blue world,’   photographs with blanks for faces show the writers who were imprisoned or killed.   In the next room, the Soviet story is in full sway:  Soviet leaders hover over a giant tower of Soviet books.  Around the walls of the room,  the top shelves show those the works of writers who prospered during the Soviet Union;  a lower shelf, those who accommodated; and the very bottom shelf,  the works of those who resisted.   But there’s a double meaning:  not only does that bottom shelf represent the suppressed writers, but said the exhibit's co-curator,  “it’s a little sign of respect as we bow down to look at them.”

The final room is dedicated to the post-Soviet period.  Hand-designed wall-paper includes images of today’s Ukrainian writers;  a suggestion of a coffeehouse, with notepaper replacing napkins in their ever-present holder and a television with books inside, all provide a way to consider the new world that independence has brought.  The world of ideas, the world inside a writer’s mind, is made real in all these exhibitions.  We had a lively discussion, in a cafĂ©, about whether this was because writer’s museums are about ideas and other museums are just about objects—what do you think?

Friday, June 4, 2010

"That is not for our people" I disagree!

That phrase, “That is not for our people”  is one I have heard more than once at workshops here and always find it incredibly frustrating. What is not for Ukrainians, say some?  A whole host of things they say—visitor-friendly museums, engaging exhibits, transparency in collections and museum operations. To me it represents the worst of the old-style Soviet thinking—a one size fits all mentality combined with a sense that someone in charge makes the decision about what is best for “our people.”

Yesterday, after the end of my workshop with Kharkiv museums, I saw the best illustration I could imagine about why people who say that are wrong. During the day, the participants had done a great job creating some  interactives prototypes which were laid out on big pieces of brown paper at the contemporary art space where we met. The 11 year-old daughter of one of the staff members is a regular visitor.  She came in  and was instantly drawn to the group's work.   She tried each one, and then, on her own initiative, became their guide to other visitors, including adults, who came into the gallery. She encouraged them to try each interactive, explaining how it worked and what it meant, rewarding everyone with a brilliant smile for their participation.

These elements that engage museum visitors—they are for Ukrainians. And, just as we left the workshop and walked through the park, I saw something else that some in power want to say is not for their people-- a group of students and others assembled in protest.   As I understood it, they had gathered to draw attention to the general failure of the police to do their jobs, to enforce the laws.

Young people, from that pig-tailed girl exploring new ideas in a gallery space to my museum colleague who dashed off yesterday to join friends protesting the wholesale cutting of trees for development and personal gain, continue to serve notice that the old ideas and ways of thinking are no longer for “our people."

Hopeful signs during a troubling time for Ukraine.