We take plywood for granted, but since the 1850’s it has literally shaped contemporary design. “Plywood, Material of the Modern World” at the V&A London, tells the little known story of this common material. The exhibition design makes good use of the same material it celebrates. Fiberglass coated entry walls with a slick “surfboard” feeling open into an intensely red space. Exhibition elements mimic the layered structure of plywood; tiered bases, sandwiched area signs, and a striped motif. The layers are staggered, engraved, cut through and alternate colors. Even the slightly raised red flooring suggests a bottom layer. The width of the groove engraved in the front of each plywood base is calculated to support labels at the right angle. Modular pedestal labels are designed to insert into the same groove, making all the labels easy to position at the last minute or reposition as needed during install. To maximize the use of a small exhibition space, a built alcove reveals early plywood construction and doubles as a projection surface for upper videos, viewed from the visitor pathway that loops around it. The exhibition extends out to the museum’s courtyard with ice skating shelters designed and constructed by Canadian Patkau Architects. Explanations of three milestones in plywood (rotary veneer cutting, moulding and digital cutting techniques), ring the outer red walls in outlined arenas with large scale diagrams. The organization is intuitive. Visitors turn to the outer walls for the history of manufacturing and back to the center area to focus on historical objects; from an 1875 molded chair and Antarctic expedition packing crates, to car and airplane parts. The center is rich with thoughtfully placed objects, on multiple plains from floor level to airspace. The assumption here is that the history of a material includes not only science and technology, but it’s changing reputation and popular perception over time. Presenting design through the lens of a single material makes it appealing to both the general public and specialists. It’s a powerful way to be inclusive of multiple levels of focus and interests; from environment to manufacturing, structure, function, design aesthetic, and history. Museums tend to separate content, but in reality its all connected. Ironically, a simple, singular theme often leads to the richest web of connections and understanding.
Four photos; of two museum preparators installing three Duane Hanson figures. The three Hanson sculptures, with their sawhorses and scaffolding are stationary, but the photos, taken from different angles, create an illusion of movement. The only changing elements are the two museum preparators at work. Artist Sharon Lockhart staged this photoshoot during the installation of Hanson’s Lunch Break, 1989 at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art in 2002. She describes it as a “synchronicity: the physicality and tools of labor, the interest of two artists in the beauty of the ordinary people, and the potential for artifice to expose a hidden layer of truth”. Hanson is the first artist, honoring the routine activities of everyday people through his life-like figures, and Lockhart is the second artist, immersing herself in the culture of her subjects, exploring the relationship between person, place and work. The formally posed aspect of this “set up” is amusing, poignant and sad at the same time. I wish I had a photograph of the preparators installing these 4 photos at the Broad Museum in Los Angeles, where I encountered this exhibit, Lunch Break Installation, Duane Hanson: Sculptures of Life, 14 December 2002—February 2003, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art. That would add another layer to the riddle. Museum preparators often find themselves in surreal situations during the process of exhibition installation, which is a performance art in its own right. It has theatrical value with its improvisational problem solving, and could be revealed more often or documented in creative ways. Museum staff are ordinary people, but they work in a veiled and mysterious world between content and visitor. They are completely immersed in the content and physical space, and deeply invested in the visitor experience. For all museum experts, this presents a paradox something like “zen and the beginner’s mind.” Knowing too much can prevent them from experiencing the exhibition in the innocent way a visitor does, and it’s an illusive challenge to maintain “visitor’s mind.” Editor’s Note: The DESIGN TO GO blog is wonderful, you’ll get lost in the photo essays! Thank you for this contribution Diane. All photos courtesy of Diane Burk. SaveSaveSaveSave