Treasures of Heaven: A Designer's Perspective

By Jim Engelmann
Exhibition Designer

Designing an exhibition is all about the stuff – the cases, the walls, the graphics, the labels, the lights, and most of all the works of art – the things that people come here to look at. What are they? How many? How big? When will they be here? Are they fragile? Do these belong together or apart? … on and on and on.

There are a lot of people here whose job it is to put answers to these questions and without them, my job would be impossible. A show like Treasures of Heaven has over 135 objects, and you can quickly see that applying the list of questions to each of these objects is a lot of work. In the simplest terms, my job is to collect the answers to these questions (and often ask them). Then, working with everyone else involved, come up with a coherent, executable, affordable design for the exhibition, get it done by the deadline – and of course make it look nice.

My work on an exhibition starts about one year before it opens. At this point, the curator, exhibitions office and registrars have put together a fairly complete list of works of art to be included in the show. This checklist includes dimensions and photographs. I scale these images so that they are the right size relative to each other, print and cut them out and then the curator and I sit down at a table and start moving the pictures around on the table. We’re trying to communicate the concepts of the exhibition through the works of art themselves and organize the pieces into groups that are meaningful and visually exciting.

There are no walls on the table yet, no limits to the space - that all comes later. And when I start designing inside the real space things start to change. This means making compromises to initial ideas and coming up with new ones, which is one of the most challenging and interesting parts of my job. The photos above show how an idea about organizing a gallery can start and how it might change in the finished exhibition. All in all, these were minor changes.

One of the goals in our current exhibition Treasures of Heaven: Saints, Relics and Devotion in Medieval Europe was to create some sense of the architectural setting from which the objects came. Of course, fully recreating Romanesque or Gothic architecture would be impossible; not just because of the cost, but because we only have about 3 to 4 weeks to do all of the construction for the exhibition! Here are some of the early sketches where I was trying to get a handle on what this setting might look like.

First idea

Second idea

Ultimately, we didn’t construct either of these. They took up too much space and we decided that the altar with the large platform may have been factually correct, but it made seeing the works of art too difficult. Instead we created two separate altar settings in the show. The works of art in Treasures of Heaven span over a thousand years and come from very different periods, places and churches.

Here are some photographs of one of the altar settings under construction. However, between the early sketches and these construction photographs are about twenty different exhibition plans and a detailed ½” = 1 ft. scale model of the exhibition.

These photographs of the model show the early church and later church settings inside the Treasures of Heaven exhibition. When you visit the show you’ll see that we still made some changes to the final galleries from the model pictured above – and this is the second version of the model.

There’s a lot more of course – picking colors, designing and building cases, exhibition lighting, object mounts, conservation and lender restrictions, and, perhaps most exciting, dealing with problems during installation (and there are always more than one desires). But I must leave that for future blog posts.


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