Content aside, what kills or brings to life an exhibit? The frame? The label? The lighting? Dinah Casson’s book investigates the vehicles that make a show work
Dinah Casson’s Closed on Mondays – Behind the Scenes at the Museum is a book about aspects of museums and galleries that most people rarely give a second thought to – the labels, frames, windows, even the coat-check.
And while that might sound rather tedious, thankfully it isn’t. On the contrary, the author uses these seemingly mundane elements to explore issues that are intrinsically linked with our experience of these cultural institutions, ranging from truth and interpretation through to the nature of collections and collectors and the impact of the gallery environment on how visitors respond to what they see.
Much of the book’s success is down to the author’s ability to draw on her extensive exhibition design experience in an accessible way. As co-founder of Casson Mann in 1984, Casson has designed installations at many leading museums and galleries including the Victoria & Albert Museum, Churchill Museum and the Imperial War Museum. But Closed on Mondays isn’t really about Casson Mann’s projects, although these are referenced to illustrate some of her points.
Her aim is to question some of the ‘unanswerables’ that lie alongside exhibition design. Why are so many frames ornate and gilt? Why are galleries so often windowless white boxes? What role is there for the facsimile? Do labels tell the absolute truth?
Casson kicks off with windows, and in particular their absence, which has become the orthodoxy in so many venues. While the challenges that natural light presents to the exhibition designer are considerable and well-known, the rewards are less discussed. Casson however reminds us that most art works were commissioned by patrons to hang in domestic settings, windows and all. While curtains give architects and designers ‘the shivers’, she makes a good case for the importance of visual connections to the outdoors, and how the presence of views out can help cement the memory of the objects within the space, despite the danger of providing distraction. Above all, people are comfortable being able to see daylight and to locate themselves in relation to the ground, and if they are comfortable, they are likely to get more from their visit. While Louisiana Museum in Humlebæk, Denmark, the Fondation Maeght near Nice and others are shown as particularly good examples of harmonious use of windows, Casson gets most ‘window joy’ from the Peggy Guggenheim Collection in Venice, where any fleetingly negative impacts of the light tracking across the art works is cancelled out by the benefits.
She is particularly good on frames. These present, it turns out, a right hornet’s nest of issues relating to authenticity, convention, and the role of frames in communicating what is framed. But what happens when the frames become not the aid to communication but the barrier, by telling a different story to that of the artwork? We learn that gilt frames were the convention for a very long time – the Royal Academy would only accept paintings in gilt frames as late as 1920 – and that eventually some artists including Degas rebelled, preferring simpler, more appropriate frames. Should frames be thought of more as bookjackets and updated to better suit the times and content? I like her idea of having an exhibition to explore the effects of different frames on the perception of facsimiles of the same artworks.
I found the chapter discussing facsimiles, copies, simulacra and fakes fascinating, particularly as a fan of the Lascaux visitor centre near Montignac in the Dordogne, which is referenced extensively. In this, Palaeolithic cave paintings are recreated a stone’s throw from the closed-off original cave. With the cave off-limits due to visitor-induced deterioration, the Lascaux IV recreation and the wonderful interpretative exhibition (designed by Casson Mann) seem like the ideal solution, and are both entertainingly experiential and educational. While it could have been located anywhere, this approach unsurprisingly works best close to the original hillside location. Casson ponders the role of facsimiles in both conservation and in the sharing of access, as well as discussing broader attitudes to authenticity. The advent of digital archaeology and its potential role in reconstruction makes this a very topical subject.
The discussion on the power of museum labels probes the fundamental issue of what is truth and what is interpretation. Casson also cites Alain de Botton and John Armstrong’s suggestion, in their book Art as Therapy, for labels that encourage visitors to connect with their feelings instead of just giving the bald, basic information. Surely there’s ample room for both. The challenge for museums is how to find the way to encourage this emotional engagement in just the customary 50 words of label text.
The brief section on coat-check didn’t add much to the juicier topics, but the chapter on collectors spans interestingly across motivations – some enjoy the challenge, some the prestige and pleasure of being wooed by dealers. For others, it may be a way of forging a new identity.
Now is a good time to consider the role of museums, with the lockdown closures only reinforcing the power of the in-person visitor experience, however good the online alternatives. Rather than castigate visitors taking selfies in front of artwork, or rushing through galleries at a hare’s pace, Casson is particularly good at putting herself in the shoes of the visitor and understanding their anxieties, frustrations and fatigue. Perhaps they’re exhausted, laden with coats and children. Perhaps they have only a few hours to ‘do’ a museum. Perhaps they’re anxious that they’re not ‘getting’ what they’re seeing. This sensitivity has surely helped sustain her work.
‘Exhibitions do not make any sense without visitors, and we know that we forget their needs and feelings at our peril,’ she says.
While Closed on Mondays will particularly chime with those already interested in exhibition design, this illuminating and wide-ranging book should appeal more generally to anyone who enjoys going to museums and galleries. Casson hopes it will encourage visitors to take a more quizzical approach. Certainly I’ll never look at a museum label or a gilded frame in quite the same way again.