Museums are complex organizations: curators, exhibition designers, conservationists, editors, and marketers have to work together to ensure that artworks in galleries and exhibitions are properly displayed to the public. Instrumental to this process is the use of effective display cases, which must both protect the art and highlight it aesthetically. Below, we delineate some of these visual and practical considerations with photographic examples from Goppion, giving some indication how one should choose which display cases to use.
Obviously, different types of artworks require different methods of display. Paintings need frames; sculptures and other freestanding objects may need pedestals or vertical display cases; while books, papers, or other similar objects are often shown in table cases. These considerations must be dealt with on a case-by-case basis with the features of the object and of the overall set-up of the gallery or exhibition in mind. For example, certain sculptures are meant to be viewed frontally, eliminating the need for an all-glass case built for sculptures in the round. Likewise, some paintings require special kinds of frames, particularly those with three-dimensional aspects or heavy impasto. The object itself is therefore the primary consideration for choosing display cases, indicating what type of case should be used or whether they are needed at all.
Considering the object isn’t limited to displaying at its best – practical concerns, such as physical and chemical protection, are fundamental to the decision process. These concerns can be influenced by a variety of factors such as the age of the object, the materials it is made out of, the conditions of the gallery space or museum building, and the number of visitors expected to come into close proximity to the work. Some sculptures or other freestanding objects may not need a display case at all. However, for others, airtight protection is imperative, ensuring that the object doesn’t deteriorate or degrade over time. For delicate objects such as these, designers must choose display options that can provide the necessary environmental conditions.
For many artworks, of arrangement display is an important question that isn’t always solved directly by the object requirements: should this artist’s notebook be placed in a horizontal display case, in a vertical freestanding display, or in a case against the wall? What about this statuette? Or even this relief or this painting – do they need to be on the wall, or would placing them in a freestanding case with a reinforced back be more effective? Often, the limitations of the space or curatorial intentions will help resolve these issues and determine which case is best for each artwork’s display.
Of course, the design of the case itself is incredibly important. A good case should effectively highlight the artwork but must not distract from it. It should also not distract from the overall design of the gallery or exhibition, be it simply the 'white cube' template or a more complex aesthetic. Thus, exhibition designers have to decide between all glass cases, wooden frames, metal frames, or painted frames. If they choose frames, they have to consider the thickness of the frames, the uniformity of this decision among the rest of the exhibit, and the precise coloring of the frames.
For special displays or galleries, interactive display cases can help make an exhibition more fun for children or more education for adults. However, and unfortunately, this is still an unusual choice, and they are often overlooked. For special educational exhibits aiming to create an interactive or immersive environment – or even to save space – these types of display cases should be a strong consideration.
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