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Shaping Stories

Essay
Shaping Stories
by Tristan Kobler

“If we talk about the scenography of exhibitions, however, we are talking about design with a completely different potency. The scenography is an integral part of the overall concept of the exhibition. The scenography becomes the means by which the aims and the content of the exhibition are defined, and even precedes selection of the exhibits themselves.”

Tristan Kobler provides his thoughts of scenography – an essay based on his contribution to the DASA colloquium “The Topology of the Intangible” in January 2014.

We gave the colloquium the title “The Topology of the Intangible” with the aim of drawing attention to the abstract connections between culture, science and society as experienced in museums and exhibitions. Scenography in these contexts is our central focus.

To start, I would like to elaborate a little on the difference between “scenography in exhibitions” and “scenography of exhibitions.” Personally, I only talk about the scenography of exhibitions. For as clumsy and inadequate as the term may be, it does indicate that there is much more than a few sleights of a designer’s hand involved in this process.

Scenography in exhibitions departs from the assumption that the design is added to the exhibition as it is developed. It is a clear statement on the part of the exhibition organizers or institution about their understanding of the role of design. They start with a given content or curatorial concept and expect the staging to put it in the right setting. The scenography is seen as a decorative extra that is intended to win acceptance from the audience, i.e. the general public. This understanding of design clearly separates the form from the content. It has the advantage of simplifying the division of responsibilities, reducing conflicts, and enabling a logical timeline to be drawn up for implementation. Depending on the concept, the scenography can be taken into consideration right from the start, but it doesn’t have to be.

If we talk about the scenography of exhibitions, however, we are talking about design with a completely different potency. The scenography is an integral part of the overall concept of the exhibition. The scenography becomes the means by which the aims and the content of the exhibition are defined, and even precedes selection of the exhibits themselves.

Explaining the world

Exhibitions are a means of explaining the world, of filtering and selecting information in a way that makes sense, or pleases us. The institutions generally responsible for this are museums. The task of a museum is to appropriately analyze and present selected content and make it accessible to the general public in the form of exhibitions. The exhibition space is the vessel for the thematic, artistic and didactic objectives of the exhibition.

Permanent exhibitions and timelessness

Most museums show their own collections, which are usually a great deal more voluminous than their exhibition spaces allow for. Museums are therefore often tempted to cram as many of their treasures into the space they have; these kinds of permanent exhibitions are automatically conceived in the long term. I often come across the notion that a certain torpor is inherent to permanent exhibitions and that they don’t need to adapt to prevailing trends. Permanent exhibitions are almost always designed to be on display a long time, and they trust primarily in the appeal of their exhibits. The further those exhibits are removed from the present, the more inviolable their arrangement seems to become. It is as if they have been mummified for all eternity.

A great number of institutions seem to revel in this lethargy, celebrating timelessness and enduring values. I do not share this attitude. In my opinion, what is referred to as a “permanent exhibition” should be conceived for a maximum of seven to ten years, and not for generations.

For it is a simple fact that permanent collections and exhibitions age. They age in their design, in their choice of subject, and their form of presentation. And they do age quite obviously in the space of just a few years. The aging of the objects themselves is not the issue here; it is the choice of objects that ages, as that is determined by contemporary interests.

Temporary exhibitions: Addressing the now

In contrast to permanent exhibitions, temporary exhibitions are positively expected to be bang up to date, transitory, experimental and provocative. The temporary exhibition is a format that also allows external collections, travelling exhibitions and in-depth analyses to be shown in a limited space and time. Temporary exhibitions are free to pick up on current issues without running the risk of passing their sell-by date. It is not only the choice of content, but the staging, that allows them to keep in touch with the spirit of the times.

The freedom to choose a particular subject, a form of presentation and display objects without the pressure of an own collection can enable curators and exhibition designers to create exhibitions and tell stories that don’t depend on supporting exhibits. But what permanent and temporary exhibitions do have in common is their reliance on a certain atmosphere to get their message across, and their desire to tell a story.

The intangible aspects of an exhibition

Atmosphere is a combination of a space, the objects or people in it, the light, the sound and the smell – in short, all the sensory impressions that form the background to a story. For no matter what format is chosen, an exhibition is basically a story, and the art of telling that story is the invisible thread that holds it all together.

Contemporary museum work is much more about presentation than it used to be. Exhibits are swathed in stories, enabling visitors to put them into context. For objects very seldom speak for themselves. We can only assume that their meaning and purpose are clear if the objects are sufficiently well known, or if they have been somehow presented beforehand. An exhibition offers an opportunity to break with established patterns and review or re-think previously unknown or unconsidered objects. Seemingly insignificant objects can be presented in such a way that they suddenly cast a whole new light on our time, or another era. Alternatively – and just as interesting – well-known and important objects can be re-interpreted or de-mystified.

Showing and explaining a collection of treasures is a matter of presenting them in a modern and attractive way that appeals to the majority of visitors. A modern exhibition communicates in a much more direct and challenging way with the public, who have become more impatient, more demanding, and more consumption-oriented. Terms like “staging,” “interactive” and “performative” are all the rage. “Fun”, “individual experiences” and “being a part of it” are the buzzwords of modern museum design.

Elaborately staged locations, sophisticated interactive stations, and professional marketing strive to sell exhibitions as if they were any other consumer good. However, in contrast to the “individualized” mass-market products of the consumer goods industry, museums are obliged to make do with a far smaller budget. In the battle to sell intangible values, cultural institutes can rarely match the technical artillery of global corporations. Most museums are just about able to cover the costs of running the building and paying their staff. The acquisition, maintenance and amortization of sophisticated technology eventually leads many venerable institutions into a poverty trap.

Relevance and context

The relevance and timeliness of an exhibition is just as important as creating a lasting impression. The reason why a certain subject should be explored is more important than how. In my opinion, museums with very large and valuable collections spend too little time considering this question. The unique quality or value of an exhibition (naturally also an intangible value) is seen as reason enough to put it on show. But if the sole reason for holding this exhibition is to make the exhibits accessible to the public, interest in the exhibition will be limited. To attract public attention, an exhibition has to be relevant to current issues and embedded in a modern understanding of communication and culture. In short – they need to relate to the here and now.

Successful exhibitions are placed in a context and make a clear statement. The context is a multi-layered fabric, a rhizome-like complex that elicits a wealth of associations. Put perfunctorily, it is the opposite of the clear, simple statement of the exhibition itself.

Exhibitions have their own historical and cultural context. They respond to current debates in politics, society, art and culture, and participate in the discourse concerning the nature and the aesthetics of exhibitions. And like all forms of cultural expression, exhibitions change over the course of time. The same subject is presented in an entirely different way today than it would have been several years ago, or will be in a few years to come. The questions of the day alter constantly and inevitably also affect exhibitions and their makers. Museums, curators and exhibition designers keep moving forward and shed new light on existing themes. Exhibitions are part of a succession of interpretations on a subject, and rather like a film or a play in the theatre they use the devices of cuts, quotes and atmosphere to tell their stories. However, in contrast to a film or a play, exhibitions are always spatial installations, whose individual dimensions can only be understood by physically walking through them.

Location and the exhibition space

Exhibitions are therefore a medium in a particular cultural context. An exhibition exists in a physical space, but it can also spread virtually through different kinds of communication channels. The resonance of an exhibition is not solely dependent on the effect it has in its actual location, but also the way it is perceived beyond its walls. It can even happen that the true meaning and effect of an exhibition only unfolds much later, that it becomes “posthumously” famous, so to speak, and is really only understood and judged to be successful from a second-hand perspective.

The location of an exhibition comprises several factors and only one of them is the building. The history of the building defines its place in the collective memory. That history may be related to events that took place inside the building or on the spot where it stands; they may even precede the building itself, or relate to the time when it was built. Those events may be of a political, social or cultural nature.

A further context, also related to the building, is the surrounding space. The architecture of a building determines the approach to an exhibition. Its character and its position in an urban context create certain expectations of its interior and the exhibition. Of course, exhibition organizers can play with visitor expectations by following on from these first impressions, or deliberately foiling and breaking them. The extent to which expectations can be played with is also related to one’s own understanding of the building in question and how much room for interpretation has been given in previous exhibitions.

Inside the building, the space where the exhibition is held can also affect how it is construed. Is the room an imposing room, does another exhibition precede it? How do I get to the exhibition room once I am inside the building? What impressions do I gather on my way there and what suggestions are being made to me?

In every exhibition, the room itself has a strong physical and atmospheric presence. It therefore seems obvious that it should be seen and used as an exhibit itself, or alternatively, that it is blanked out and remolded as far as possible. In spaces that have a very dominating presence, the exhibition should work with the space and respond to the specific quality of its atmosphere. This means that the space contributes to shaping the exhibition, perhaps even to the extent that the content comments on the location and the space, and that this changes the content. That is why an exhibition held in two different spaces can never be the same exhibition. The way it is conceived and perceived is completely different.

Message

There should be a clear motivation behind every exhibition, and a central message or statement that visitors take away with them and think about. A subject or exhibition content needs to be relevant in a way that goes beyond the exhibits themselves. A subject should be worked at for as long as it takes a clear relevance to a contemporary issue to emerge. The timeless quality of an exhibit or a particular subject can only be conveyed if a direct relationship is established to individuals or society today, or if it is somehow comparable to a contemporary situation. The question of whether to focus on the differences or the similarities between then and now is determined by the content. The decisive factor is that of establishing a link, a direct relation that people will understand and that might influence their thoughts and actions. Of all the intangible factors, I believe the message is the most important. It is the essence of an exhibition, breathing life into the content and design. And that is what the public will remember as what they gained from the exhibition.

Interaction

Exhibitions are always interactive. But interaction in a room is not limited to exhibitions. We are always interacting with our environment, whether we are on the street, in a bar, or simply with another person. Exhibition visitors interact with the space, the objects, the images, and the other visitors.

A special form of interaction that has attracted a disproportionate amount of attention over the past few years are interactive media and machines. The highly visible interaction of visitors with media interfaces or their physical activation of a mechanical interface (“science museums”) has been a very popular means of enabling visitors to get to grips with exhibition contents. The choice of this active means of conveying content may perhaps be explained by an appetite for physical exercise and the desire to provide satisfying sensory experiences. But perhaps it just boils down to a lack of willingness on the part of visitors to take a serious interest in the subject, which obviously depresses or annoys the curators. Instead of tackling the exhibition’s lack of intangible values, they try to counter potential boredom with a barrage of hardware and software. In my opinion, the use of interactive media and machines for the sole purpose of conveying knowledge is a terribly clumsy replacement for some kind of instructor or teacher, and the sooner such devices are consigned to mothballs, the better.

There are three exceptions to this rule that make sense, however. Children learn through play and especially by playing with others. By play I don’t just mean explaining the basic rules of rotation by getting children to turn a crank, for example, but using the aesthetics of a game to present particular phenomena in a way that children can understand. The second exception is the sort of interaction that requires visitors to move their bodies in a way that generates fascinating images or atmospheric changes. The third kind of interactive installation I approve of are those that encourage visitors to communicate with one another and generate a collective experience. Media like films or oral histories, sound and light installations (despite the interaction they undoubtedly involve) do not qualify as visually interactive media.

Performative exhibitions

Performative exhibitions take a more sensitive approach to interaction by creating encounters between actors and visitors in the exhibition. I don’t mean that the performances themselves have to be sensitive but that – because they are situational and not static – they should be able to react to given situations. Performative exhibitions often require above-average personnel costs and are therefore better suited to temporary exhibitions. In permanent exhibitions, they are only financially viable if the supervisory staff is involved, or if the visitors themselves are encouraged to take an active role.

Psychology and perception

The content and design of exhibitions generally target archaic patterns of understanding and classification into one’s previous experiences. Museums – in Europe, at least – often aim to be accessible to people of all ages, which is difficult, not to say impossible, as ideas of what is interesting or relevant vary hugely depending on the age group. There are also vast differences in visitors’ educational background. Then again, museums can usually assume that those with no interest whatsoever won’t bother going in the first place, especially if the subject chosen is targeted from the outset at a small but interested section of the public. Museums are often led by the unpredictability of visitors to cultivate and address their own niche audience. This enables them to assess what their target audience will like or dislike, and what they will understand or fail to understand. This is an approach common both to museums with high educational standards directed at an audience of over 50s, and those directed at a more youthful audience or people with a low level of education (two groups which are by no means synonymous!). By contrast, museums that attract a large volume of visitors are obliged to cater for a very wide-ranging and heterogeneous audience including people of all ages, from all educational and cultural backgrounds. Here, the language barrier plays a role; and on top of that, the contents and objects themselves will be variously interpreted and weighed according to different perceptions of form, symbols and design.

If expectations, knowledge and familiarity vary widely within an audience, the content and message can be conveyed through strong images and on various levels. The space and its atmosphere form the framework, what we might call the introduction to a scene. This is the surface level, creating a particular setting that visitors will be quick to grasp. As the primary source of information, the atmosphere that visitors imbibe on entering the exhibition will also largely determine their behavior. It is comparable to the opening sequence of a film, which gives the audience a first indication of the context the story is set in. From this first scene, different threads of the story start to unravel – in an exhibition these are a second layer of information and a third level of deeper analysis. The second, third and perhaps even fourth layer continue to tell the story, and may well include contrary or confusing information. This separation of content presents visitors with different options and various interpretations that are all part of the exhibition discourse. The more the different facets of the subject are opened up, the more potent and interesting the message will be, and the more actively visitors will seek to compare what they see and learn in the exhibition with their own horizon of experience.

Control and interpretation

We have only limited control over visitors in an exhibition. They determine their own pace and the order in which they see the exhibits, and they are free to decide how much time and effort they want to invest in any particular aspect of it. By clearly separating the different levels of information, we can show various interpretations of the subject and the exhibits in a way that puts the context of place, time and author above the objectivity of the information itself.

Exhibitions carry the signature of their makers, and are therefore only objective to a certain degree. Essentially they reflect the subjective opinions of their authors, who lead the audience toward a certain interpretation of the information provided. As long as it is clear that a particular interpretation always depends on its context, visitors are free to form their own interpretations. This freedom is what turns an exhibition into a platform and a forum for discourse within the museum.

Examples of Holzer Kobler architecture

We have no need of other worlds. We need mirrors.” (Stanislas Lem, Solaris)

In the following paragraphs, I present some thoughts about and examples of our approach to the scenography and design of exhibitions.

Exhibition: Rumour – Museum of Communication, Berne, Switzerland

In 2009 we developed and realized an exhibition on the subject of rumors in a very close, intensive and rewarding cooperation with the Museum of Communication in Berne (Fig. 1). We had neither guidelines nor exhibits, just the subject and some findings and ideas from the curatorial team’s preceding research. After several workshops that yielded no concrete results, we realized that all the statements and design approaches we had considered so far were actually completely opposed to the spirit of our subject. The realization that rumors by their very nature defy precise definition or any kind of formal straitjacket led us to see that it was precisely this elusive quality that should form the central aspect of the exhibition and its spatial atmosphere. All we knew was that rumors are lurid, shrill and unpredictable, can hit anyone at any time, and spread like an epidemic.

For our plot we decided to do without the usual divisions of chapters and spatial segmentation, and focused instead on specific case studies that circulated in the “whispering wood,” a seemingly random wooden construction equipped with tiny built-in speakers through which hundreds of voices permanently susurrated gossip. To properly reflect its subject of rumor, the exhibition space was open, transparent and garish – the intangible atmospheric backdrop I described above. The exhibition aimed to do more than explore the phenomenon of rumors and the kind of atmosphere they generate. We wanted it to function like a rumor mill itself, and even generate new gossip. For this purpose, actors were deployed as rumor mongers – insatiably curious, prying and insidious little creatures, always up to date with the latest hearsay and scandal. Appearing via the Pepper’s Ghost illusion technique, they operated from a very well-connected studio with cameras monitoring the whole exhibition at all times, and were thus able to address exhibition visitors directly through their little spy-holes.

The exhibition was shown a second time in Berlin’s Museum for Communication under the same title. Exceptionally, we were able to use the same exhibition design in the new rooms because the exhibition design was based on a certain principle, rather than a shape: just like a rumor, the “whispering wood” can adapt itself to all environments. However, the actual rumors themselves only work in a local context. They therefore had to be entirely re-worked to fit the new environment of the Berlin exhibition.

Exhibition: Realstadt, Wishes Knocking on Reality’s Doors – Berlin, Germany

Commissioned by the German Federal Ministry of Transport, Building and Urban Development, we developed a concept for the subject of urban design, based on a normal German city. We joined Martin Heller (Zurich/ Linz) and Angelika Fitz (Vienna) as part of a team of authors developing the content and design of the exhibition. We each had our own tasks, but of course these often overlapped. As we were not working for a museum, we had no set exhibition space, exhibits, or an infrastructure for loans and operations (Fig. 2).

From a choice of about eight potential locations, we finally opted for the power station in Berlin’s Mitte district. The former industrial site dating from the early 60s had the just the kind of atmosphere we were looking for. The space itself was a central feature of the exhibition, combining with the hundreds of models exhibited to form a striking atmosphere. With just a few exceptions, the exhibited models were selected from entries submitted by urban planning authorities, urban developers, architects, students, artists and civic initiatives in response to nationwide calls for tender in trade journals and on websites. As the question of whether the project had been or even could be implemented was excluded as a selection criterion, we were able to assemble a fantastic range of failed competition entries, imaginary worlds, working models and shelved visions of urban development to form a gigantic dream of an urban landscape covering two floors of the building. Only the models themselves (i.e. no architectural plans and drawings) were exhibited, along with just a short explanatory text by the respective authors. A provisional bar, exhibition office and lecture theater were also integrated into the large 150m x 50m hall in containers.

There are many levels of urban planning: bottom-up and top-down are just two of the options. We conceived the exhibition space as an open platform, a place where city-dwellers and urban developers could meet, talk or just hang out together.

Exhibition: Heimatkunde. How German is it? 30 Artists’ Notion of Home – Jewish Museum Berlin, Germany

The Jewish Museum in Berlin invited 30 artists to present their perception of Germany. All the participating artists exist in two differing cultures: that of their Jewish heritage and the culture of the country in which they live and work. The floor plan of the exhibition was defined by a subtle shift and torsion: the exhibition space in the old building was given a slight twist and reinserted in the existing shell with a five-degree incline. The angle of the floor determined the angle of the walls, while the skewed flooring created a gap between the two rooms. The old building was left untouched, and we chose an abstract white for the inserted exhibition spaces, in reference to the traditional white cube gallery aesthetic. The disorientation or turmoil the artists experience by living in a cross-cultural context is thus echoed in the physical disorientation created by the contorted space (Fig. 3).

Exhibition: Sasso San Gottardo – St. Gotthard Pass, Switzerland

Sasso San Gottardo is a former artillery fort dating back to World War II. The exhibition in the disused bunker wound its way through a stupendous two kilometers of tunnels and rock caves, staging sustainability topics that all had a link to the Gotthard Pass as a place of transit (Fig. 4).

Until a few years ago, the fort served top-secret military purposes. Spatially, the place is so singular that even the 400-metre-long corridor leading to the exhibition is an experience in itself: dark, narrow, damp and cold with walls of granite. In the exhibition, the latest scientific discoveries are presented to great dramatic effect through sound and light installations, films and projections (Fig. 5).

The second part of the exhibition is several hundred meters further on and 90 meters higher up. Here we decided to leave the heritage-protected rooms looking as if the soldiers had just popped out for lunch and might return any minute. Only a monitor in the mess gives visitors information about the political and military motivations for building this extraordinary compound.

Schöningen Spears Research and Experience Center – Schöningen, Germany

The paläon visitors’ center in Schöningen, Lower Saxony was the second opportunity we had (after the Arche Nebra) to use the architecture itself, not only the exhibition spaces, to tell our story. Both projects were entries in architecture competitions. The Research and Experience Center is situated right next to the archaeological site where the exhibits were found. The finds include thousands of partially crushed horse bones along with eight wooden spears used by Homo heidelbergensis for hunting. They are the oldest wooden hunting weapons to have been found anywhere in the world and are in a remarkable state of preservation. The findings date from an event that occurred one autumn day 300,000 years ago or several events that occurred within a short space of time.

Our task was to design a building that would reflect the spectacular quality of the finds and stand out as a landmark itself. Used to working in the context of a project’s surroundings, we found ourselves on a green meadow outside the town near an open-cast lignite mine. In the absence of any kind of prehistoric architecture to depart from, and failing to decipher any artistic intent on the part of our ancestors from the purely functional finds and bone fragments, we decided to focus instead on ballistic flight trajectories and discovered amazing similarities between the vectors of spear trajectories as seen from above and the furrows of the open-cast mines. We designed the building on the basis of these vectors and cooperated with landscape architecture firm Topotek 1 in designing the surrounding landscape. It is these lines of sight and flight that shape the inside and outside of the building, opening up views and making the surrounding landscape part of the spatial context. We didn’t want to create a mock-historical building or a replica of some stock images we have of the Palaeolithic Age. We wanted the building to have as abstract a shape as possible, to evade all attempts at categorization (Fig. 6).

The surrounding 25-hectare grassland populated by wild horses and two different kinds of vegetation from the early days of hunting with weapons is the type of landscape that any building can only spoil. In order to preserve and emphasize the landscape in this project, we had to make the outer shell of the building as invisible as possible, an effect we achieved by opting for a mirrored façade, which represents a continuation of the horizon. The windows of the building are slit into its skin, forming visual axes that cut right through the interior. The vertical foyer rises to the entire height of the building and is dominated by the vectors of the stairwells – the building’s axes of motion, painted the color of congealed blood (Fig. 7).

The exhibition on the second floor of the building is dedicated to the results of the hunt, the many bone fragments that were found. The forms are based on cross-sections of bleached cancellous leg bones (the spongy osseous tissue found at the end of long bones). The exhibition presents the story of the site, the animals and plants that lived and grew there at the time, and the scientific analyses of contemporary archaeological research. A gigantic sculpture of a rearing horse in the middle of the room shares a pedestal with a crouching thermoplastic sculpture of Homo heidelbergensis. Holding a horse’s skull in his hand, he looks out toward the site where these historic discoveries were made.

Conclusion

Exhibitions are complex structures defined by their respective historical, political, cultural and intellectual contexts. They seek to engage in a physical dialogue with their respective location and reflect on current issues through subtle, intangible means. Exhibitions always look ahead, into the future. Museums – and other exhibition venues – use exhibitions as a platform for debate. The process of understanding, learning and experiencing that they aim to inspire is more than a didactic mission. It is a means of thinking and talking about something in a way that considers the future and goes far beyond the scope of any particular subject. The real aim of exhibitions is to change the world.

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Credits

Fig. 1 Gerücht © Jan Bitter, Fig. 2 Realstadt © Jan Bitter, Fig. 3 Heimatkunde © Jan Bitter, Fig. 4 Sasso San Gottardo © Jan Bitter, Fig. 5 Sasso San Gottardo © Jan Bitter, Fig. 6 paläon © Jan Bitter, Fig. 7 paläon © Jan Bitter