Last month we spoke with Kulapat Yantrasast, Co-Founder and Creative Director of the LA-based design firm wHY. On the heels of the opening of Harvard Art Museums - for which Yantrasast collaborated on the designs of the exhibition spaces - we wanted to learn more about his approach to designing the galleries for Harvard. “One of the things that I'm super sensitive about is the identify of the experience. Harvard, in particular, is a university museum. So first and foremost it's a place for students and faculty to spend time looking at things closely. Because of that, we want to make sure that a group of 15 people can sit or stand around an art object and could really have a discussion,” Yantrasast explained.
wHY has carried out a wide range of museum and gallery projects, including the Grand Rapids Art Museum, the Royal/T project and the renovation of the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. Read the full interview with Yantrasast below to learn more about the challenges of gallery design and how technology is affecting museums exhibitions.
ArchDaily: How did you end up focusing on art display?
Kulapat Yantrasast: I think it was a happy accident. When I started working with Tadao Ando, we worked on museums and art collector's houses and galleries, so I developed my own interest in collaborating with artists and curators and clients. I'm very interested in those conversations. So we started doing museum buildings and things like that. And for most of the museums we do, we also do all of the gallery and exhibit design. Then slowly, we started to get asked to do just the gallery design in someone else's building. It began around 2005, when we were selected to do the galleries at the Art Institute of Chicago. We've worked with them for about 10 years, since 2005, to do the galleries in the old buildings -- not the Renzo Piano building. I loved it and it was such a great opportunity to learn so much about not just modern and contemporary art but also art from different parts of the world. In Chicago we installed everything from Islamic to Indian to Japanese, Greek, Roman and printed drawings. It has been a great relationship with the curators.
Along the way, we've always done exhibit designs for museums, but they are mostly contemporary art installation.
For Harvard, they were looking for an exhibit designer/architect to help them design a gallery and install the collection. They had seen the work that I had done in Chicago. We talked to them and they felt it was a good match, so we were hired around 2009/2010 to get on board to help them with the design.
ArchDaily: Can you speak about the process of testing and designing the galleries for Harvard?
Kulapat Yantrasast: One of the things that I'm super sensitive about is the identify of the experience. I want people to be aware not only of the art objects that they are looking at, but also where they are. I think the Harvard Art Museums should not look like the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, even though many of the objects are similar. I think the identity of the collection, why certain things are collected, and how these objects tell the story of themselves as well as the story of the institution's collection is an important message that the exhibition design or experience should provide. Harvard, in particular, is a university museum. Even though it's big, it's still a university museum. So first and foremost it's a place for students and faculty to spend time looking at things closely. So because of that, we want to make sure that a group of 15 people can sit or stand around an art object and could really have a discussion. As a result, things are planned around the group experience, so that people can use the galleries almost like meeting rooms or places to have discussions -- there's a lot of flexibility.
The challenges at Harvard are a few. First, this museum was born from three museums (The Fogg, The Sackler, and the Bush-Reisinger). All three museums have completely different collections, so to combine these and give them a complimentary synergy is something that was important for us to do. Second, most of these objects are really delicate and require a lot of case work. Ideally, you wouldn't want to have too many cases because you want objects to be seen, but because of the delicacy you have a lot of cases. Those were the challenges that we had.
So we work by doing a lot of workshops with the curators; and not just curators-- those involved in education, conversation, communication-- so we can understand everyone's agenda to create a strong design that allows for all the programs that a department wants to have. We use a combination of both physical models as well as a very detailed 3D program that places every object and allows us to do walk-throughs with the curators. Between the physical model and the 3D model, we have two tools that allow us to visualize the space.
ArchDaily: How has technology influenced exhibition design?
Kulapat Yantrasast: We're at a very important point in exhibition design because of technology. I think there is a balance to strike; on one side you have the old school people that feel like media and technology take away from looking at the object itself and on the other side you have those who are fanatical about technology. So you have these two extremes and in the end, the museum is walking a fine line between the two. I think technology in museums really empowers people because museums in general have a problem of an intimidating perception. Museum buildings look like temples--solid, with a lot of walls, and not at all friendly. A lot of museums were designed that way, and even though they're trying to change it, the perception still exists. Technology helps people feel welcome and empowers the visitors. In every project we do, there is an aspect of interactive media.
For example, in Harvard, because of a lot of the objects are quite small (coins and things like that) they are not very visually striking from far away. In cases like that we place an iPad or something similar close to the object. It doesn't take away from looking at the object itself, but it gives another story.
People need to own their own experience, and museums have never been that way. Museums have been about going to be educated or to understand someone else's experience (that someone else is normally the curator). So the design of the physical space as well as the technology should actually make it feel like you are curating your own experience within the museum. That's the key of what we're trying to do. And, in a way, together with the understanding and the technology, we are flipping that experience around; the curator is no longer controlling what you see and what you think.
ArchDaily: What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing exhibition design?
Kulapat Yantrasast: For me, the definition of the work of an architect is much broader than just "waiting for the client to come and give me a project." I think architects, especially now, have to be much more proactive. The process that we have can help solve a lot of problems, or generate new ideas in the right way. In my case, we look at art for a living--that's what we love to do. A lot of times we need to be the matchmaker between art and people because a lot of people still feel intimated, or feel that art is not for them. We need to change that around and help art be a more democratic, more flexible experience so that everyone can feel free to engage.