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What Makes a Great Exhibition? 1. Exhilarating Exhibits

Updated: Sep 6, 2020

What are the ingredients to creating a successful exhibition? What transforms the mundane into the spectacular? Which essential factors are often overlooked?

In this series we examine the key elements in the exhibitions process, drawing upon our own experience and name-dropping some of the best shows we’ve seen along the way.

William Blake's Nebuchadnezzar, which was displayed in the 2019 Tate Britain show devoted to the artist.

We start with:

Exhilarating exhibits

It goes without saying that stand-out exhibitions require stand-out exhibits. These come in all shapes and sizes. They might be something that has rarely been on display before, which perhaps seldom travels, or which is intimately connected in some way with the theme of the show. Alternatively, they could be a personal possession which tells a compelling story, or an exhibit that challenges your entire view of the subject. They might be a physical object, an audio or visual element, or a specially-commissioned installation. Whatever they are, they need to have wow factor.

So what qualifies as an outstanding exhibit? Several examples that fall under the unique category were displayed in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library in 2015 (reader, I curated it). The exhibition marked the 800th anniversary of the granting of Magna Carta by Bad King John in 1215. Alongside some of the precious, original documents on show, we were able to borrow items that were connected with the protagonists — pride of place should go to King John’s teeth and thumb-bone — or which related to people across history who had been influenced by Magna Carta.

Two of King John’s teeth (copyright Worcester City Museum) were displayed in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy at the British Library (2015).

The teeth recently turned up as a quiz question on ITV’s popular quiz programme, The Chase (fame at last). They were reputedly discovered when John's tomb was re-opened in 1797. A note that is kept with them reveals a little more of their unconventional history: ‘These are two teeth taken from the head of King John by William Wood, a stationer’s apprentice.’ An eagle-eyed visitor to the exhibition (an oral and maxillofacial surgeon from the University of Oklahoma, no less) informed us that one tooth was clearly identifiable as a lower molar; an x-ray taken by another dentist revealed that John had an abcess, meaning that he may have suffered excruciating pain.

Nothing but the tooth. The exhibition featured as a quiz question on ITV’s The Chase.

When King John's skeleton was measured in 1797, he was found to be 5 foot, 6 and a half inches, or 1.70 metres in modern money, just tall enough to qualify as a Metropolitan Police Officer in 1870, but smaller than Elvis. His teeth are now kept at Worcester City Museum, who kindly loaned them to the British Libary, along with his thumb-bone, removed from the tomb at the same time and preserved at Worcester Cathedral. It's not often you can say that a king of England was present in person at an exhibition.

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Another unique exhibit in Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy was Thomas Jefferson’s handwritten draft of the United States Declaration of Independence, the final version of which was ratified on 4 July 1776. This document railed against the tyranny of King George III, ‘For cutting off our Trade with all parts of the world; For imposing Taxes on us without our Consent; For depriving us of the benefits of Trial by Jury’. Jefferson underlined passages in the Declaration that were struck out from the final version of the text, including one that called for the abolition of slavery.

The US Bill of Rights during its installation in the Magna Carta exhibition.

Jefferson's Declaration of Independence was displayed facing an original manuscript of the US Bill of Rights, returned to Congress after it had been ratified in 1790 by the State of Delaware. These items were loaned to the exhibition by New York Public Library and the United States National Archives respectively. They were stand-out exhibits on account of their iconic status, and because neither had come to the United Kingdom before (this was the first time that the manuscript of the Bill of Rights had left the USA). The chance to present them in the immediate vicinity of Magna Carta was compelling for the lenders and curators alike, if a slightly scary proposition for the Exhibitions team. At one stage it was even mooted that these American constitutional documents should have a round-the-clock armed guard while on show in London. You can imagine the collective sigh of relief when they touched down again in the States after the exhibition ended.

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There were several sensational exhibits in the recent Antony Gormley show at the Royal Academy of Arts (2019), all of which were made by the artist himself. In one room, visitors were invited to climb through the installation entitled Clearing VII (or at least to skirt around it) if they wished to reach the artwork beyond. School parties adored clambering through it, adults navigated gingerly past it. You may have been frustrated if you arrived late in the run; somewhat annoyingly, Health and Safety intervened to prevent people taking the most direct route before the show had closed. Still, Gormley had demonstrated that it is possible to create works that are beautiful and imaginative, which fill the entire space, and which engage at every level. This was a prime example of how to make the visitors part of the show.

Clearing VII by Antony Gormley, on display in his 2019 show at the Royal Academy (you can see more of the exhibits on the artist’s website).

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Stunning exhibits can sometimes be personal objects with special memories. The V&A exhibition Mary Quant (2019) employed a clever stratagem to provide a public dimension to the exhibition. The #WeWantQuant campaign asked people to share memories of their most-treasured Mary Quant garments, a number of which were then displayed in the show itself. This was crowdsourcing at its finest, a cunning way to fill the gaps in the museum’s own collections, while simultaneously involving the audience. One only had to eavesdrop on the visitors’ conversations (often grandmothers leading round their daughters or grandchildren) to realise the impact of We Want Quant.

A snapshot of the Mary Quant exhibition, by the Victoria & Albert Museum.

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Human stories always have the most resonance with exhibition-goers. It would be hard to look beyond some of the objects displayed in Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum at the British Museum (2013), culminating in casts of some of the victims in their death throes. It is not every day that museum visitors are expected to stare death in the face. The opportunity to confront our forebears in this manner, to witness their final moments and to appreciate that they were just like us, sent shivers down the spine. As the curator explained at the time, ‘We can’t imagine the horror of that day, but we can see what people did. Some of them were practical, taking a lantern or a lamp to help them stumble through the total darkness of the volcanic blizzard. One little girl took her charm bracelet. She had this with her when she died on the beach at Herculaneum with hundreds of others.’

One often talks about finding exhibits that will last long in the memory, that visitors will recall after they have left the gallery. This was the most shocking, the most inspiring, and the most perfect such example.

A victim of the volcanic explosion in AD79, frozen in time, and preserved for display in the British Museum's Pompeii exhibition (taken from the BBC review of the show).

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Exhilarating exhibits are sometimes those that present a different side of the story, or which persuade the visitors to reassess their opinions. I was initially less than enthusiastic about visiting Cars: Accelerating the Modern World, also at the V&A (2019), since automobiles aren't really my thing. But the curators and designers had done an excellent job of captivating their audience, combining superb use of film with some eye-opening observations.

Shown below is Graham, a recent project by Patricia Piccinini in collaboration with the Transport Accident Commission in Australia, in which the human body has been redesigned to withstand the impact of collisions with motor vehicles. Equally absorbing was the story of how Henry Ford, the pioneering car manufacturer, based his famous assembly line on the mechanical overhead conveyors employed in the Mid-West livestock industry to pull the carcasses apart. As the V&A put it, 'Cars and animal carcasses rarely go together ... most car museums avoid the sight of cow's flesh.'

'Graham', as shown in the V&A's Cars exhibition.

If you missed it, this was one of the most visually stunning exhibitions of recent years, narrating the untold story of the impact of the automobile through design, advertising and innovation. It was a real shame that its run was curtailed by the Coronavirus pandemic in early 2020, as with all other shows at the same time. We should acknowledge here the vast amount of effort that goes into creating each and every exhibition, involving dozens of specialists (conservators, mount-makers, press officers, publishers, registrars and many more), all of whose work is hugely appreciated, however large or small the audience.

You can explore the Cars exhibition in more detail on the V&A's website.

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Which exhibits, as a general rule, are less effective or to be avoided? Everything is subjective, but I would advocate strongly against displaying replicas or facsimiles. On the one hand, the wonderful Portraying Pregnancy show at the Foundling Museum (2020) had secured some phenomenal loans, many of them from the Royal collection. A portrait in her fatal pregnancy of Princess Charlotte, heir to King William IV, positioned beside the maternity dress she was wearing in the painting, was an undoubted highlight. Was it necessary, then, to supply so many full-size reproductions of other artworks that couldn’t be loaned to the exhibition? It was the real pieces that shone through.

A portrait of Princess Charlotte of Wales (c. 1817–1825) from the Royal Collection Trust, loaned to Portraying Pregnancy at the Foundling Museum.

There was a similar drawback in the exhibition Edvard Munch: Love and Angst at the British Museum (2019). The Museum’s press release trumpeted, ‘A major highlight of the exhibition will be Munch’s The Scream which is one of the most iconic images in art history. It then qualified this statement, The British Museum will display a rare lithograph in black and white which Munch created following a painted version and two drawings of the image. It was this black and white print which was disseminated widely during his lifetime and made him famous. Few copies survive and this will be the first time any version of The Scream will have been on show in the UK for a decade.’ On show next to the lithograph was a postcard-sized reproduction of the coloured original.

The installation of The Scream lithograph in the British Museum’s 2019 exhibition.

It was hard not to feel short-changed. The two painted versions of this iconic painting may seldom travel, but Munch’s pastels of The Scream have visited New York and Amsterdam in the last decade, and around twenty of the lithographs are known to survive (medium rare in my book). One can only imagine that the British Museum curators tried (and failed) to get an even rarer version of this artwork in their show, before settling for its lesser cousin. This was a disappointment since the rest of the exhibition was fascinating, a psychological profile of the artist of the sort rarely found at the major galleries.

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The final trend to be avoided, if at all possible, is the temptation to pack the walls or display cases full of every item that comes to the curator’s attention. It’s an exhibition, not a jumble sale. The visitors should feel engaged, not overwhelmed, stimulated, not saturated with information.

Some curators have proved that it is possible to cover an entire topic or career in detail while not simultaneously fatiguing their audience. This was true of David Hockney (2017) and William Blake (2019), both at Tate Britain, which contained judicious selections of the output of these artists. Maybe this is easier to achieve when dealing with a single individual, whose works may be dispersed across multiple collections, private and institutional.

Woldgate Woods 6 & 9 November 2006 (2006), from a private collection, shown in David Hockney at Tate Britain in 2017.

The same sensitive touch applied to the comparatively small but perfectly arranged Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum on London Docklands (2018). A series of skeletons were laid out in neat rows, each accompanied by an explanation of the person's background, medical history and possible cause of death. The surrounding display cases were carefully arranged and deliberately not over-filled with objects. This approach may often go under the radar, but it is possible to narrate a story without emptying out every tray in the storeroom.

A selection of Roman skulls from the Docklands Museum article Unearthing the Roman Dead.

If someone does ever feel the urge to put on show everything in their collection, we would implore them to consider the aesthetically pleasing approach adopted in sections of the Science Museum's new Medicine Galleries. Their cabinet of curiosities contains more than one thousand medical objects, displayed in such a manner as to be both entertaining and educating. A fine demonstration that exhibitions can be beautiful things, enthralling to visit and rewarding to put together.

The cabinet of curiosities in the Exploring Medicine section of the Science Museum's galleries.

This is the first post in the series What makes a great exhibition? Future instalments will focus on curation, design and technology, among other topics.

Julian Harrison for Cradles & Lables

Exhibitions mentioned in this blogpost

Antony Gormley (The Royal Academy of Arts, 2019)

Cars: Accelerating the Modern World (The Victoria & Albert Museum, 2019)

David Hockney (Tate Britain, 2017)

Edvard Munch: Love and Angst (The British Museum, 2019)

Life and Death in Pompeii and Herculaneum (The British Museum, 2013)

Magna Carta: Law, Liberty, Legacy (The British Library, 2015)

Mary Quant (The Victoria & Albert Museum, 2019)

Portraying Pregnancy: From Holbein to Social Media (The Foundling Museum, 2020)

Roman Dead (Museum of London Docklands, 2018)