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.


Nina Simon said...

Great post - thanks so much for sharing. I love the "picture frames" and did a similar thing on my kitchen wall with sharpies around photos - easy and attractive.

I'd recommend you consider double-posting this (or one of the exhibits) to the Exhibitfiles website. It would be wonderful to share these observations with a larger community of exhibit-minded folks.

Linda Norris said...

Thanks Nina--I've been a long-time reader and recommender of Exhibitfiles so maybe this will nudge me to actually post something. I last visited Budapest 18 years ago and the museums, just emerging from Communism, were generally horrible--and so it was actually thrilling, on a number of levels, to see the change. Change is possible!