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Issue 214

Charles Saumarez Smith on the Changing Fashions of Exhibition Design

The art historian recalls standout displays from the past five decades

BY Charles Saumarez Smith in Frieze Masters | 16 SEP 20

One of my last pleasures before going into lockdown was visiting ‘Art on Display 1949–69’ at the Calouste Gulbenkian Museum in Lisbon. It was an unusual opportunity to reflect on the ways works of art are displayed in museums and temporary exhibitions. The layout of an exhibition is something that is curiously ephemeral and not much talked about, but it shapes how artworks are looked at without the visitor necessarily noticing.

It reminded me of an occasion, about 15 years ago, when I met the architect Stefan Buzás, who was also an exhibition designer, although now probably scarcely remembered. He was sitting in the old Islamic Gallery at London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, just before it was due to be refurbished as the Jameel Gallery of Islamic Art. To my mind, the old gallery was dull and in obvious need of renovation. It had been the same ever since I had first known it in the early 1980s, with the world’s oldest dated carpet, the Ardabil Carpet (1539–40) locked up in a glass case on the wall and only allowed out once a year for cleaning. Not many people visited it. But, to Buzás, the room was perfection, still symbolizing the renovation of the V&A in the early 1950s, when the mannered, over-ornamented Victorianism of the pre-war galleries was swept away and linoleum placed over its mosaic floors. He had come to enjoy the space before it was itself destroyed in the latest manifestation of redisplay.

‘Art on Display 1949–69’, 2019–20, exhibition view, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Courtesy: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; photograph: Pedro Pina
‘Art on Display 1949–69’, 2019–20, exhibition view, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Courtesy: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; photograph: Pedro Pina

I felt the same way when I visited the reconstruction of ‘54–64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade’ – originally staged at London’s Tate Gallery (now Tate Britain) in 1964 – at the Gulbenkian. It was a landmark exhibition, not just for its selection of work by major European and American artists, but because it was designed by Alison and Peter Smithson who, at the time, were the best-known and most fashionable young architects around, and responsible for the Economist building (1959–65) in London’s St James’s. The exhibition involved customizing the majority of Tate’s then-modern galleries, ending with a circuit round the Duveen Galleries, in such a way that it ignored all aspects of the original classical galleries. According to the Smithsons’ first ‘ideogram’ of 10 December 1962, the exhibition was planned ‘to make the given galleries into a family of well-lit white spaces’ with ‘raised platforms’ and ‘high white partitions’. The design was much admired by those who saw it at the time. Richard Morphet, who later became keeper of the modern collection at Tate, described it in his diary as ‘the most superbly and brilliantly presented exhibition of paintings’ and the design of the exhibition as ‘a sensation, a total transformation of the Tate into a labyrinthine maze of stark white with no sense of walls or rooms or of direction but all a fluid movement from space to space where you simply encounter the works […] lit by all-radiating brilliant lights within corrugated reflecting tin containers as in stage-lighting.’ But absolutely none of this visual excitement was evident in the reconstruction of two rooms of the original Tate exhibition at the Gulbenkian. Reincarnated, it looked like the design of a trade fair, which, in a way, is exactly what it was.

‘Richard Deacon RA Selects’, 2017, exhibition view, The Dame Jillian Sackler Sculpture Gallery, Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Courtesy: © David Parry Photography
‘Richard Deacon RA Selects’, 2017, exhibition view, The Dame Jillian Sackler Sculpture Gallery, Burlington House, Royal Academy of Arts, London. Courtesy: © David Parry Photography

The complexity of reading museum displays is evident when you walk around the ground-floor galleries of the Gulbenkian itself. They are pretty much exactly as they were when the museum first opened in October 1969, as designed by Pedro Cid, Ruy d’Athouguia and Alberto Pessoa, with help and advice from the Italian postwar designer Franco Albini and the British architect Leslie Martin, who himself later designed a new exhibition building for the Gulbenkian near the museum. The first time I visited it, which wasn’t so long ago, I loved the collection – which spans Ancient Egypt to the early 20th century – but felt that the way it was displayed was somewhat dated. Now, encouraged as I was by the exhibition to pay much closer attention to its overall layout and the design of individual display cases, I realized its great qualities: how calm it was, how well-considered and well-structured as a visitor experience. Snaking round an internal courtyard, the building’s use of materials, and the relationship of the galleries to the garden outside, is beautiful. It’s the opposite of much museum design now: low key, its style favours a systematic and deliberate reticence and provides as few distractions as possible to the essential quality of visual experience. It became obvious to me that, if museum displays remain intact long enough, then they themselves become historic artefacts, part of the experience of visiting the museum, worth preserving for their own sake.

The display that left the greatest impression on me was one that the architect Piers Gough designed for the Alfred Gilbert exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1986. Benedict Read, who reviewed the exhibition for The Burlington Magazine, obviously did not like it, describing it as ‘black crache drapery everywhere to give a good fin-de-siècle decadent impression’. I remember it as brilliantly theatrical, adventurous in a way that was startling and entirely contrary to the modernist conventions of exhibition design at the time, which were based on the idea of the white cube.

Museu de Arte de São Paulo, c.1970.  Courtesy: Instituto Bardi/ Casa de Vidro; photograph: Paolo Gasparin
Museu de Arte de São Paulo, c.1970.Courtesy: Instituto Bardi/ Casa de Vidro; photograph: Paolo Gasparin

I was so impressed by what Gough had done for Gilbert’s exhibition that, in 1997, during my tenure as director of the National Portrait Gallery, when the 19th-century galleries were to be redesigned, I rang him up and asked him if he would consider doing it. He said that he hated working for public bodies as they were invariably cheapskate but, with a bit of arm twisting, reluctantly agreed. I loved what he did. The middle floor of the gallery was a very difficult space, with side light from the north and rooms full of dull Victorian worthies who most visitors were happy to ignore. He treated it with sprezzatura, or nonchalance. As you entered the gallery, you were greeted with decks of Victorian portrait busts, the design of which was based on a student project Gough had done at the Architectural Association in 1969 for the opticians Cutler and Gross. Down the central corridor, he installed another row of busts, which gave the gallery a vividly theatrical character. Ornate and a touch camp, certainly more ironic than straight-faced heroic, the space was much used for formal dinners, although the busts projected out from the wall in such a way that it was hard for the waiters to get past them. Gough allowed daylight into the side galleries, angling the portraits on brackets off the wall in order to deal with the reflections, and persuaded Mary Fox Linton, the poshest of Chelsea designers, to supply the best possible dusky-pink silk for the walls as cheaply as possible.

But the pendulum of taste swings fast and what, only 20 years ago, was regarded as the ultimate in theatrical chic is now deemed fusty and old fashioned, too celebratory of Victorian worthies, and ripe for the next round of redisplay once the galleries have been stripped out as part of the current programme of radical refurbishment.

‘54–64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade’, 1964, exhibition view, Tate Gallery, London. Courtesy: © Tate, London
‘54–64: Painting and Sculpture of a Decade’, 1964, exhibition view, Tate Gallery, London. Courtesy: © Tate, London

Next door, in the gallery’s 1933 Duveen Wing, we wanted in some way to enliven the display of early-20th-century portraits. Gough came up with an idea that was based on Lina Bo Bardi’s great, theatrical installation on the first floor of the Museu de Arte de São Paulo (MASP), in which she hung paintings on glass screens mounted on concrete blocks, so that the visitor is compelled to confront each work as a separate artefact. At the National Portrait Gallery, the pictures were similarly displayed on long glass screens, so that you could see the gallery as a whole as you entered it, the portraits like guests at a cocktail party and the visitors, too, in some way, part of the installation. It was theatrical. But it has already gone, the side lighting covered up again, presumably so that more portraits can be hung on the walls where the windows used to be. It’s more conventional, certainly – a new generation of curators probably disliking what had gone before.

As secretary and chief executive of London’s Royal Academy of Arts, I employed Adrien Gardère, a French museographer, to design the new collection gallery in Burlington Gardens, which opened in 2018. In 2012, his studio had been responsible for the layout of the new Louvre Museum in Lens. Like Gough’s scheme for the National Portrait Gallery, Gardère’s designs for Lens share some of the same characteristics of Bo Bardi’s gallery layout for MASP, in that, as you enter, you glimpse the history of European culture from Mediterranean antiquity onwards. A carefully ordered visual and didactic display, it’s arranged sequentially, offering a three-dimensional version of a timeline that follows a strict intellectual logic.

At the Royal Academy, Gardère suggested that we should think about the display of the collection not in terms of a single gallery, but more as something to be seen and experienced throughout the building as a whole – a simple concept that seems so obvious that plenty of others have claimed credit for it. But what this approach unlocked was the idea of using the general circulation spaces, of which there are a great many in a large Victorian building, as galleries. Architectural casts displayed immediately outside the lecture theatre and the space beneath the main exhibition galleries in Burlington House were employed to communicate the fact that drawing from the antique was a core component of teaching at the Royal Academy Schools. In some ways, this non-gallery space is at least as important as the more traditional collections gallery upstairs in Burlington Gardens; it attracts the browsing visitor and helps to animate the basement corridor and the building’s history as a whole.

The museum displays that I have enjoyed and admired draw attention to themselves: they do not treat display as something which, as is sometimes the case, is assumed not to exist or to be a distraction to the visitor – an intrusion on the enjoyment of the artwork. Good, creative and inventive display not only enhances the experience of the visitor; it is an art form in itself. 

Main image: ‘Art on Display 1949–69’, 2019–20, exhibition view, Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon. Courtesy: Calouste Gulbenkian Museum, Lisbon; photograph: Ricardo Oliveira Alves 

Charles Saumarez Smith is former director of the National Portrait Gallery and National Gallery, London, UK, as well as former secretary and chief executive of the Royal Academy of Arts, London. He is the author of The Art Museum in Modern Times, which will be published by Thames & Hudson in March 2021.