Posts Tagged ‘exhibit design’

A folding screen in the home of art collector Alex Kerr. I’m not sure exactly how it’s lit, but notice how the gold shines; it’s easy to imagine how this might have helped brighten a room when only natural light or candles were available.

In a recent article in the Nikkei Asia Review, Michael Dunn proposes that the lighting in Japanese museums is inexplicably arranged poorly, deadening the textures and reflectiveness of works and casting aspects of their shapes into shadow.

As he writes, Japanese art and design can be fascinating and enchanting in its myriad forms, from handscrolls and hanging scrolls to the most modern and postmodern designs. But that, according to him,

visitors to the country’s many museums may be less satisfied when they see traditional paintings, badly lit and often obscured by glass panels, which appear flat and boring compared to those they have seen in temples and palaces.

At the core of his argument would seem to be simply that works are regularly lit from above and not from the side, despite the fact that traditional works were nearly always designed to be lit by incidental sunlight or fire-light from the side and not from overhead, and despite the fact that they would look better that way (in terms of the way the gold-foil would catch the light, etc.). I’ll be honest, I never paid attention really to how works were lit; definitely something to start thinking about. But I did notice when visiting the Getty Museum recently here in LA how much the gold accents in their illuminated manuscripts shone, so much more brightly and more noticeably than in most other exhibits I’ve seen. Lighting or other factors were used very successfully to highlight the presence of such features. I also remember photographing Japanese woodblock-printed books as an intern at the Freer|Sackler Galleries, and how we used various camera angles and other techniques to capture the reflectiveness of mica, silver, and other materials on the pages, which would not otherwise show up in photographs, making the attractiveness of these works more directly visible to (digital) viewers.

I’m kind of amazed that a publication like Nikkei Asia Review would publish such a one-argument article on such a technical, niche, sort of issue.But I’m certainly interested to read such things, as I have long been interested in these sorts of museum-world considerations. Dunn goes on to complain that whenever he has brought up this issue with Japanese curators, they have simply insisted that their lighting system was state of the art – the implication being that they either don’t understand why there should be any problem with lighting things in this way, or that they’re dodging the question.

Screen painting of Nagasaki harbor, at the National Museum of Japanese History (Rekihaku). I have no idea if this is the best example, or how exactly this was lit, but notice how the gold seems flat, not shining at all. Perhaps this is what Dunn is talking about.

I think there’s a deeper and potentially quite interesting history to be uncovered here, which is going unspoken in this article. To what extent do display practices today in Japanese museums stem from the development over the last 120+ years or so of a particular modern tradition of museum practices, which is then adhered to? Regardless of how they were made, displayed, and viewed in the past, in the modern era it has come to be its own “tradition” that museum professionals always display folding screens /this/ way, and ceramics /that/ way, because that’s the right way, the professional way, the proper way, that museums do it. Something like that? And to what extent, I wonder, does this stem from the infiltration of Western ideas (or Japanese notions of/about Western ideas) of how art is to be displayed or appreciated?

One of the tokonoma at LACMA’s Japanese Pavilion, using natural light filtered through shoji screens to light the paintings. Not the most attractive photo, but…

In any case, with the example of gold-accented or gold-foil-backed paintings, “intended to gleam in the recesses of palaces and mansions, picking up available daylight — a magical property of gold — through white paper shoji screens, or lit by candles and paper lanterns at night,” there’s a give-and-take to be had, always. On the one hand, yes, lighting them more minimally so that the gold really shines, giving an impression of how they might have looked historically, is one way to go about it. Joe Price played some major role in having the Japanese Pavilion at LACMA (the Los Angeles County Museum of Art) designed to do just that. At LACMA, Japanese paintings are hung in (a modern stylized version of) the traditional tokonoma, and they are lit at least in part by sunlight filtered through white paper shôji screens. And it really is incredible to see such paintings in situ, at temples and palaces, to get a sense of how the artworks actually interacted with the space and with the people in it. This is part of what I love about certain works by Tim Screech, William Coaldrake, and others, who talk not just about the paintings themselves, their style, their composition, but about how works interacted with the environment around them. How they were used. To give one example, how fusuma and byôbu arranged behind or around a shogun or other lord within his audience halls augmented the sense of his prestige. But, this is an art museum, and as aesthetically impactful and intellectually meaningful as it would be to portray such things in limited lighting or even in an architecturally loyal manner, there will also be a great many visitors – from the most casual tourists to professional art historians – who will want to see the works as well-lit as possible, in as much detail as possible, so that they can appreciate the style, composition, and aesthetics otherwise of the object itself, in as fully visible a manner as possible.

I think that in museum display in general – whether in Japan or anywhere in the world – there is a balance to be struck between aesthetic impact (displaying things with a focus on their striking beauty) and other modes of display which might highlight the historical or cultural context, or which allow visitors to see the work more fully. There will always be multiple ways in which an object can be shown – as an aesthetic object vs. a practical one; emphasizing its original historical context vs. its provenance (the history of which/whose collections it’s been in); as a practical object vs. a religious/sacred one; as an object unto itself vs. as a part of a whole or of a grouping; and so on and so forth. There will always be visitors, scholars, trustees, and other “stakeholders” as they say, who will always want it to be some other way, but decisions have to be made, and you can’t please everyone. But, you can certainly give it consideration; and while most museum visitors might not think about it, lighting is most certainly one of those considerations.

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