Exhibiting Architecture and Design Histories
The following is a selection of readings consulted for my master’s thesis, “Engaging Displays of Architecture and Design History: Approaches to Museum Exhibition Practice” (2018). Looking to traditional and contemporary approaches to exhibition-making, as well as the plans for a 2019 exhibition on the Arts and Crafts movement at the Harry Ransom Center, this thesis considers strategies for presenting accessible, meaningful, and engaging exhibitions of architecture and design through approaches relating to the exhibition’s authorship, the objects it features, their spatial arrangement and display, and the exhibition’s accompanying interpretive texts and programs.
“Engaging Displays of Architecture and Design History: Approaches to Museum Exhibition Practice.”
Master’s thesis, The University of Texas at Austin, 2018.
Place and Displacement: Exhibiting Architecture.
Zürich: Lars Müller Publishers, 2014.
This collection of essays—based on a 2013 symposium of the same name—is organized by three themes that provide a framework for considering how exhibitions shape architectural thought: the exhibition as a site for discourse; the role of institutions in developing exhibitions (and the influence the institutions' disciplinary practices); and the role of representation in circulating architectural information.
“Exhibiting Intention: Some Preconditions of the Visual Display of Culturally Purposeful Objects.”
Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 33–41.
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1991.
In this essay art historian and former V&A curator Michael Baxandall considers how exhibitions generate meaning. He describes how the contexts of three “cultural terms” in an exhibition—its organizers, objects, and viewers—simultaneously act upon each other to produce individual interpretations. He argues that the “space between object and [organizer-authored] label” is where interpretation takes place, according to the organizers' and viewers' personal experiences, reflections, and reactions.
“Theses on the Philosophy of History.”
Illuminations, 253–264. Translated by Harry Zohn.
New York: Schocken Books, 1969.
Benjamin argues for the value of understanding history as a series of unique moments rather than as a smooth and linear narrative, and observes the capacity of material objects to promote the former by bearing information about the events and tensions that took place around and are crystalized within them. Exhibitions can use such historically-charged objects to achieve a balance of diachronic and synchronic approaches to history, at once encapsulating particular instances in time and situating them in their broader historical contexts. (See also this Reading List's entries by David Lowenthal and Albena Yaneva)
“The Exhibitionary Complex.”
Culture, Power, History, edited by Nicholas B. Dirks, Geoff Eley, and Sherry B. Ortner, 123–154.
Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1994.
Bennett's essay shows how the emergence of the public-oriented museum in the mid-nineteenth century resulted in new approaches to communicating information to society-at-large, including new disciplinary and display conventions.
“Out of Site in Plain View: A History of Exhibiting Architecture since 1750.”
A. W. Mellon Lectures in the Fine Arts, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C., April 7–May 12, 2013.
These lectures offer a “genealogy” of the architectural exhibition, tracing its history since the nineteenth century and proposing new directions for its practice, such as an emphasis on design process over design product. In particular, Bergdoll focuses on the capacity of the twenty-first-century exhibition to instigate dialog within and about the field of architecture and design, catalyzing innovative approaches to contemporary design.
“Mirror of Dreams.”
Log 20 (2010): 49–53.
Cohen considers the benefits of conveying architecture and design histories through exhibitions. “Meta-works”—display objects created to aid an exhibition’s interpretive narrative—can be used to imagine or re-present designs that were never built, that are no longer in existence, or that are located in distant places. The spatial organization of an exhibition allows for the disruption of traditional methodologies to reveal new patterns, relationships, and conflicts of history—what Cohen calls the “fruitful distortion of reality”— and for demonstrating the distinctive multi-sensorial qualities of works of architecture and design. Finally, architecture and design perspectives can be brought into dialog with other disciplines and audiences through exhibitions installed in institutions dedicated to the arts, broadly.
“Locating Authenticity: Fragments of a Dialogue.”
Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 159–175, 1991.
This article argues that exhibitions using common, mass-produced objects from the recent past are often more compelling than those using objects representative of more traditional or revered historical narratives (but also observes that everyday objects can also be more challenging to acquire and preserve). Crew and Sims suggest that this appeal has to do with the ways visitors relate to such objects, concluding that how audiences experience, engage with, and make meaning from objects is more impactful than the objects themselves. On other ways objects’ owners and users invest them with value, see Susan Crane, "Memory, Distortion and History in the Museum,” in Museum Studies, ed. Bettina Messias Carbonell (Wiley-Blackwell 2012); Elaine Heumann Gurian, “What is the Object of this Exercise?” Daedalus 128, no. 3 (Summer 1999): 163–183; and Igor Kopytoff, “The Cultural Biography of Things: Commoditization as Process,” in The Social Life of Things: Commodities in Cultural Perspective, ed. Arjun Appadurai (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).
“Resonance and Wonder.”
Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display, edited by Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, 42–56, 1991.
Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press
Greenblatt considers the processes that drive individuals’ connections with exhibition displays through the categories of “resonance” and “wonder.” The latter refers to a level of engagement that “stop[s] the viewer in his or her tracks, to convey an arresting sense of uniqueness, to evoke an exalted attention.” These moments of intense and personal engagement with the aura of an object—which might be prompted by its display and lighting, its inherent beauty and craftsmanship, or a sense of genius associated with its maker—in turn generate resonance: the visitor’s engagement with the other levels of contextual information and meanings that the exhibition objects, display, and texts offer. Greenblatt’s theory that wonder be employed to generate resonance is particularly compelling when considering the capacity of exhibitions to engage attention in the digital age.
"Architecture's Place in the Museum."
Archinect, Aug. 17 2016.
Following an outcry over MoMA's 2016 announcement that they would temporarily close their architecture and design galleries during building renovations, I question whether the quality of exhibitions in the digital age should be measured by the quantity of their objects and physical space.
“That’s Not Architectural History!"
Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 70, no. 2 (June 2011): 149–52.
Harris argues that histories of the built environment can at once benefit from and contribute to broader knowledge about culture and society. She calls for architectural historians to situate their work within related humanities disciplines, so that new meaning can be established, areas for future research can be identified, and richer discourse can occur among an expanded audience—all of which will help sustain the relevance of and advocacy for architectural history and its associated values. See also Craig L.Wilkins, “Discipline-Person" in The Aesthetics of Equity: Notes on Race, Space, Architecture, and Music (University of Minnesota Press, 2007).
“Storehouses of Knowledge: The Origins of the Contemporary Architectural Museum.”
Canadian Centre for Architecture: Building and Gardens, edited by Larry Richards.
Montreal: CCA, 1989.
This essay traces the history of the architectural museum with an emphasis on collecting traditions--from the collection of drawings, sketches, and casts and fragments, to, in the twentieth century, papers and correspondence in analog and digital form. (Unfortunately, this article fails to give substantial attention to photography as a medium of documenting and collecting architecture.)
"Museums, Merchandising, and Popular Taste: The Struggle for Influence"
In in Material Culture and the Study of American Life. ed. Ian M. G. Quimby (New York: Norton, 1978).
This article includes a useful history of the modern period room, and identifies the Metropolitan Museum of Art as being among the first art museums to showcase its decorative arts holdings within contextual displays evocative of the objects’ origins and uses.
“An Introduction to the Museum.”
Sir John Soane’s Museum London
London: Merrell Publishers Limited, 2009.
Sir John Soane’s Museum set an important precedent for architecture and design exhibitions. Although its display is reflective of the “curiosity cabinet” tradition in which objects are arranged according to personal tastes and idiosyncrasies rather than a systematic, pedagogical strategy, Soane supported the concept of the museum as institution for public education, as evidenced by his organization of the 1833 Act of Parliament that made his museum accessible to students free of charge after his death. Soane’s Museum also contributed a language through which to represent the complexities of the architecture and design. In acquiring and remodeling buildings to accommodate his collections, Soane’s museum displayed architectural artifacts and documents as well as his own architectural designs and ideas— relying on an array of formats to convey the layers of information pertaining to spaces and objects as they have been imagined, built, and encountered.
"Designing the Past: History-Museum Exhibitions from Peale to the Present.”
History Museums in the United States: A Critical Assessment, edited by Warren Leon and Roy Rosenzweig, 2–37.
Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
This article provides an overview of trends in and approaches to the design of historical exhibitions in the U.S., considering the varying levels of emphasis on didactic information and narrative, and on the sheer number of objects displayed.
“The Architectural Museum, A Founder’s Perspective.”
In Journal of the Society of Architectural Historians 58, no. 3 (September 1999)
Lambert reflects on her vision for the Canadian Centre for Architecture (CCA; founded 1979, opened 1989) and considers its collecting and interpretive activities in relation to those of the more traditional museum dating before 1945. As a “research-based” institution for scholarly inquiry, the CCA acquires wide-ranging documents (beyond traditional art objects) that trace complex processes relating to architecture, its creation, and impacts; its interpretive activities include engaging visiting scholars in research, lectures, and symposia, and commissioning interpretive photography projects (beyond traditional exhibitions and public programming).
“Setting a Place for History.”
The New York Times.
This article describes the exhibitions and programs guest-curated by food historian Ivan Day that revive and reinterpret period room collections at such institutions as the Getty, Philadelphia Museum of Art, and Museum of Fine Arts, Houston. Day's installations provide an example of how collaborations between museums and outside artists and scholars can lead to fresh interpretations of past museum acquisitions and traditions.
The Past is a Foreign Country, 238–48.
Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Historian and geographer David Lowenthal considers the power of present-day encounters with historical objects, observing that the depth and specificity of the histories that they carry are self- evident and accessible through direct, sensorial observation, in contrast to textual histories that must be absorbed more consciously. Meanwhile, he observes the "defect" of reliquary knowledge in requiring interpretation to explain such objects' context and significance, concluding: "relics render the past more important but not better known."
Built in USA: Since 1932.
New York: The Museum of Modern Art, 1945.
As the first museum to have a curatorial department dedicated to architecture—initially founded as the Department of Architecture in 1932, then renamed the Department of Architecture and Industrial Design, and now the Department of Architecture and Design—MoMA made important contributions to defining the bounds of the discipline and to raising an awareness of it among the American public. The introduction and appendices to Mock's catalogue provide an excellent overview of the history of the museum's architecture department.
“MoMA to Organize Collections That Cross Artistic Boundaries.”
New York Times, Dec. 15, 2015.
In this article Pogrebin considers how then-ongoing architectural renovations at MoMA signaled new approaches to curatorial practice. Through its redesigned building, the institution indicated its shift away from organizing exhibitions according to linear chronologies and single-disciplinary perspectives, and toward a more interdisciplinary and ground-up approach. This discussion establishes a case for the representation of architecture, its creation, and reception through interdisciplinary collections. See also Robin Pogrebin, “MoMA’s Makeover Rethinks the Presentation of Art,” The New York Times, June 1, 2017, www.nytimes.com/2017/06/01/arts/design/moma-redesign-art-expansion.html.
As Seen: Exhibitions that Made Architecture and Design History.
Art Institute of Chicago, 2017.
This book explores how exhibitions of architecture and design have influenced our understanding of the field—both its history and practice. In her opening essay, Ryan considers the value of the architecture and design exhibition as a genre with a unique capacity to investigate design as a specialized, discrete discipline; to investigate architectural spaces as multi-sensory environments (rather than just fabricated objects); and to generate interdisciplinarity and collaboration. The essays— contributed by notable figures like Paola Antonelli, Sylvia Lavin, and Mirko Zardini—show how these qualities are achieved through evolving institutional and curatorial approaches, discussing specific exhibition installations as well as by-products like catalogues, reviews, and websites.
“Images of New England: Documenting the Built Environment.”
American Archivist 50, no. 4 (Fall 1987), 474–498.
Schrock describes the variety of materials pertinent to architectural history and the range of institutions that collect them, while also making a case for institutional collaboration and educational programming. She advocates for the cross-institutional coordination of collecting practices in order to develop a rich and comprehensive body of records representing our built environment, as well as for programs and exhibitions for public engagement, which she describes as the “general consciousness-raising” activity necessary to foster architectural appreciation within a community.
The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art.
Cambridge: MIT Press, 1998.
In this book, art historian Mary Anne Staniszewski surveys and analyzes display techniques in MoMA exhibitions from 1929 to 1970—what she terms MoMA’s “laboratory period”—and considers how they were experienced by viewers. She shows how these techniques were created in and perpetuated by the museum, becoming institutionalized conventions that, in turn, informed broader social codes for how people engaging with and making meaning from museum exhibitions.
“Expanded Audiences and the “Second Building": An Interview with CCA Director Mirko Zardini.”
ArchDaily, June 1, 2017.
This interview discusses how the CCA’s website was redesigned to serve as a platform for critical discourse about architecture across an international community. The project illustrates an expansion of the traditional concept of the museum from a physical space for in-person interactions with objects and narratives, to a digital space—made possible by the internet age—where diverse materials, perspectives, and institutions can come together to form a more contextualized and current dialogue, providing fresh perspectives on museum collections and identifying narratives that may have been previously overlooked.
Gallery Text at the V&A: A Ten Point Guide.
This internal style guide of the V&A offers practical instruction on the level of information to provide in exhibition texts, and the tone and vocabulary through which to present it. Widely referenced by other museums, it also sets standards for exhibition practice more broadly. Such professional guides offer insight into the contemporary concerns, values, and strategies of museum practitioners as they work to connect with museum audiences. See also Beverly Serrell, Exhibit Labels: An Interpretive Approach (Walnut Creek, CA: Alta Mira Press, 1996).
American Art Museum Architecture: Documents and Design.
New York and London: W. W. Norton and Company, 2010.
Wolf’s book examines the architecture that houses museums and their exhibition spaces. Of particular interest is his essay on MoMA, whose building and exhibitions in the 1940s set an important precedent for architecture and design exhibitions. These spaces simulated an environment of consumerism—from the building’s storefront-like façade that invited the public inside; to lobbies that a resembled retail showrooms and allowed visitors to sample their modern decor; to architecture and design exhibitions that featured affordable designs that could be purchased by museum visitors. On MoMA’s marketing methods and display techniques, see also Kristina Wilson’s The Modern Eye: Stieglitz, MoMA, and the Art of the Exhibition, 1925–1934. (Yale University Press, 2009) and Mary Anne Staniszewski’s The Power of Display: A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art (MIT Press, 1998).
What "No!" Means for Architectural Conservation: The Secret Life of Drawings in Collections
The Secret Life of Buildings. Center 21.
Austin: Center for American Architecture and Design, 2018.
Architectural theorist and anthropologist Albena Yaneva explores the nature and value of objects in research- and archival-based collections— objects that are often imperfect, showing signs of their use over time. Looking to conservation activities at the CCA as an example, she observes that conservators’ decisions are focused on preserving the “traces of life—of experimentation, deterioration, and decay” within objects, “rather than increasing [their] aesthetic value.” Compared to fine art objects, objects from archival collections may seem less suitable for display, but there is value to exhibiting these items and the subtle messages that they convey.