It has been a few weeks since I have had the time to sit down and write another blog post. Since my last post, the pace here at the University of Alberta Museums has picked up immensely. Recently we have opened up a new exhibition, Mountains and Water: Visions of the Land in Canada and China, featuring works from the Mactaggart Art Collection and the University of Alberta Art Collection.
Mountains and Water is an exhibition which celebrates the opening of the Jonathan KS Choi Cultural Centre of Canada in partnership with the China Institute. For this exhibition, I mostly helped with the installation of the Chinese art from the Mactaggart Art Collection , which mostly consists of hanging scrolls, along with some hand scrolls and albums. The hanging scrolls certainly provided the biggest challenge due to the nature of the art form. Hanging scrolls, as the name suggests, hang. Most of these scrolls are quite large, with many being nearly floor to ceiling in length. The longest of which was done by Wang Shimin in 1657, and is 107 inches long, or 8.9 feet! But, it is not actually the size of the hanging scrolls that provide the largest challenge for installation, but the physical nature of the scrolls themselves. Hanging scrolls are mounted on thin silk, so they are very fragile. This means that they have to be covered with sheets of Plexiglass in order to protect the scrolls. This is to prevent visitors to the exhibit from touching the scrolls as they are viewing them, or from accidentally brushing against them.
Though the Plexi does provide lots of protection to the hanging scrolls behind them, there are several cons to using Plexi as a barrier. Despite the name it’s not a typical kind of glass. Rather, the technical term is acrylic glass which means that a large portion is actually plastic compounds. This produces some issues, the biggest being the tendency to scratch, due to the plastic like qualities it exhibits. A badly placed scratch has the potential to greatly take away from the visitor experience. If I were to go to a museum, view a display and there was a scratch on the Plexiglass right in the middle of the object I was regarding, it would certainly draw my attention away from the item and towards the scratch. That is not what a visitor wants to be focusing on when they are attempting to view the display. This simply requires those installing the exhibition to be careful when handling the Plexi. Luckily, our installation went smoothly and we did not incur any damage!
Plexi does have its drawbacks, but compared to regular glass there are many pros. Plexi is incredibly resilient. It may be easy to scratch, or lightly damage but it is nearly impossible to completely shatter a sheet. It is the material that they use to surround hockey rinks, so if it is able to withstand a frozen puck that is moving at ninety miles per hour, it should be able to protect against an eager museum visitor who may accidentally poke it with their finger. Regular glass in contrast may be more scratch resistant, but there is the unpredictability of a scratch completely shattering the entire sheet. This would likely cause more damage to anything that it was originally intended to protect, which defeats the purpose of a protective covering in the first place.
Come check out some of these gorgeous hanging plexiglass sheets, as well as the art that they are protecting in Gallery A of the TELUS Centre. The exhibit features work from Chinese masters, such as Wen Zhengming and Qui Ying, as well as prominent Canadian artists, like Group of Seven members A.J. Casson and A.Y. Jackson. The exhibition is running from now until October 6. Hours are Thursday-Friday 12pm-5pm and Saturdays from 2pm-5pm. Find more information at the University of Alberta Museums website.
On the odd occasion when I do get a bit of a break from my busy schedule at the University of Alberta Museums, I try to not spend my time twiddling my thumbs waiting for the day to end. One suggestion I received from Associate Director Frannie Blondheim was to become more knowledgeable in the field of museum studies, or museolgy. Lucky for me there is a large amount of resources on museum studies that I can access. There is a large variety of topics ranging from theory, collecting, conservation, exhibits, and many more.
What I have been interested with in particular is literature on exhibition design and planning. Within the next month at the University of Alberta Museums we will be opening two new exhibitions. The first is opening on August 20th, Mountains and Water: Visions of the Land in Canada and China. This exhibit features work by prominent Chinese and Canadian artists, from the University of Alberta Art Collection and the Mactaggart Art Collection. This exhibit celebrates the opening of a new center for the China Institute at the University of Alberta. The second is a collaboration with the Wirth Institute for Austrian and Central European Studies. Forgotten Fronts: The Austro-Hungarian Army in the Great War, focuses on Austro-Hungarian artifacts from World War I and is commemorating the twentieth anniversary of the opening of the Wirth Institute, and the 100th anniversary of the end of World War I. This exhibition will be located in the Old Arts Building.
Through reading various books and articles on the topic I have become more appreciative as to all the work that goes into planning an exhibit. This can include simple decisions such as what type of font to use for the exhibit title, to lighting, to flow patterns of visitors. All of these are important and to be taken into consideration. They will affect the experience of the visitor and the effectiveness of the exhibition.
One very interesting thing which I learned, is how colours can drastically affect the visitors experience of the exhibition. In rooms where it is encouraged that visitors are excited and active the walls will often be painted a warm colour such as red. This is because warm colours stimulate the brain and will make those viewing the exhibit more energetic and active. Vise versa for cool colours like blue. Cool colour relax the brain and lead to subdued and relaxed atmospheres. Art galleries may often paint their walls dark blue in order to create a peaceful, quiet, and relaxing atmosphere in the room which translates to the guests. Next time you visit a museum I encourage you to take note of the colour scheme of the room and how it makes you feel while in the space.
Being able to have the time to read some of this material while I am getting hands on experience to what I am reading about is very beneficial. I am able to see some of the process and planning steps which are outlined in the literature and which I had to opportunity to take part in, as I drafted a tentative schedule preparing for the Forgotten Fronts exhibit. This will be a great asset to me in the future when one day I head to grad school for museum studies. I will have a jump start on some of the concepts and practices which I will be learning about.
I am sure that I will soon be losing the luxury of having down time to do some of this reading when out exhibition development goes into full swing. We will soon begin to install the exhibits and then after the official opening of the exhibit, I will once again be a gallery docent for Mountains and Water. But, while it lasts I will take every opportunity to become more knowledgeable in the museum studies field to hopefully have some useful input here at the University of Alberta Museums, and to get a jump on my future at grad school.