From object to observer
Exhibitions blend the complexities of architectural space with the narrative concerns of book design
Exhibition design deals with the disposition of objects in space: their conceptual and physical relationship to one another and to the observer. Coordinating this complex interaction makes the exhibition designer a choreographer – of objects, images, texts and people. How we behave in an exhibition, what we feel permitted to do, and how we interact with what is on display are all aspects of design.
Exhibitions blend the complex factors of architectural space with the narrative concerns of book and magazine design.
From early cabinets of curiosity to the modern museum, techniques for presenting objects and images – frames, pedestals, vitrines and dioramas – have developed into a codified repertoire. In the 1920s, the European avant-garde reinvigorated the language of exhibitions by shifting the emphasis from staging the object to staging the observer. Whereas traditional exhibitions had assumed an idealised and disembodied viewer, avant-garde designers were captivated by the idea of a dynamic observer. A drawing by Herbert Bayer represented a figure in an exhibition as a big eyeball resting on a body. Positioned on a platform and enveloped by angled planes, the eye-body is a vivid illustration of the Modernist desire to both expand the field of vision and situate the body in space and time. Both Bayer and Walter Gropius would employ these techniques in their work on exhibitions in Europe and the us, establishing the angled, floating graphic planes as one of the dominant tropes of modern exhibition design.
Among avant-garde designers, new attitudes and forms in exhibition design followed directly from developments in painting, sculpture, graphics, film and architecture. In the groundbreaking work of El Lissitzky – who considered exhibition design to be his most important contribution – the viewer is both subject and object. In 1927, the visionary museum director Alexander Dorner invited Lissitzky to create a contemporary art room at the Landesmuseum in Hanover, Germany. Lissitzky covered the walls with coloured wooden strips, creating different effects on visitors as they moved through the gallery, while sliding panels revealed different examples of de Stijl and Constructivist art. Lissitzkyís 1928 ëPressaí exhibition brought photomontage techniques to exhibition design, dissolving the boundaries between the physical space and the more abstract space of photography and mass media. [… ]