How to display the ancient world

Ashmolean--c8a13f4

The Greek and Roman galleries at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge have recently been completely renovated and re-designed. The Fitzwilliam is not the only museum to have been giving its collections a shake up. The Ashmolean museum in Oxford recently re-designed its ancient galleries at substantial cost.

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Across the world too, museums are constantly thinking about ways to better present and house their collections – in Athens, for example, we saw just last year the opening of the new Acropolis museum.

What has shaped and in some ways inspired many of these undertakings is a gathering interest in what has been coined ‘museology.’ That is, the art of displaying objects so as to allow them to communicate in the most effective way possible with the museum visitor.

Back in 2005, I undertook a project as a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust fellow to work with museums in the UK, USA and Canada to look at how different museums with collections from different periods tackled the issue of display. The result was a fascinating spectrum of ideas, methods and goals surrounding the issue of how best to achieve an effective interaction between object and visitor.

The debate since then has continued to gather pace and the issues under the microscope are vast. How many objects should there be in a room – should there be a privileged focus on a few objects or should we pack in as many as possible? How should the objects be arranged – chronologically, thematically or geographically? How should they be arranged – in glass cases, on stands, up high, down low? How should they be lit – low ‘mood’ lighting or bright interrogatory glare? What kind of information should the object label provide – date, provenance, name, description, excavation story, an explanation of its importance…?

At stake in these, and many more questions about display, is the crucial fact that there is not one kind of visitor. A child will want, and need, a very different kind of label, not to mention entire exhibition display, to engage effectively with the object than an adult might. For that matter, every adult may ‘prefer’ to engage with the objects in a different way.

Museums, in some ways, can never hope to get it right every time with every visitor. Which is why the internet is, and will continue to be, such a powerful tool for museums because it provides the ability to offer multiple ways of approaching the objects and multiple layers of information about them which people can choose from depending on what they want.

This is an incredibly exciting time for museums across the world and new technology presents a fantastic opportunity to enable many more people to engage with the wonderful creations of not just the ancient world, but of every epoch of human history.

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Reprinted from Neos Kosmos www.neoskosmos.com