Arming the Designer

When a visitor walks into an exhibition at the Cleveland Museum of Art, the experience is defined not only by the works of art themselves, but also by how they are displayed and lit and how the gallery rooms themselves are configured and designed. There is no set “recipe” for designing an exhibition, because the ingredients vary so widely. In the case of Arms & Armor from Imperial Austria, which opens next month, the first step in the process was for the exhibition designer to make a field trip with curator Stephen Fliegel.

View of the city of Graz. The armory is marked by the greenish clock tower in the foreground.

“We went to Austria in the spring of 2007,” recalls designer Andrew Gutierrez, “to visit the Landeszeughaus armory in Graz. We wanted to get a real feeling for the city’s culture and history. The architecture in the area helped us to envision our exhibition design. Most of the buildings are very simple, with terracotta roofs and whitewashed walls of stucco or concrete. Most of the architectural detail is around the entrances. Our installation suggests that, not literally, but to imply the setting.”

The impression one gets upon entering the armory is entirely different, however. “It’s fairly dark, with heavy timbered ceilings and a lot of wood, and the outer walls are plaster,” Gutierrez says, “but in many cases it’s very difficult to see any of that because there’s so much armor—thousands and thousands of pieces. It’s still set up as it had been centuries ago, with racks of weapons and implements sorted by type,” so that the citizens could quickly be armed in the event of an attack. “A few pieces are highlighted, but it’s clearly an armory rather than an art gallery.

“We have something over 200 works in our installation,” Gutierrez continues, “so it’s nowhere near so dense, and this allows us to really focus on key works. We use a fairly dark color palette so it feels more like the interior of the armory and we can spotlight the works themselves. At the end the exhibition opens up into a large room and a grand finale with a kind of battle scene set up to show how the armor would have been used in action.”

While it might be possible to plan an installation using only digital images or printed materials, Gutierrez views the opportunity to experience the works in person as critical. “Especially with an exhibition that’s so three-dimensional it’s extremely important to see the works firsthand. It helps also to meet the people who have been working with these materials for years, and who can often offer great insights and advice.”

Built during the 1500s, the armory was designed so that weapons and armaments could be found by natural light. The Cleveland display will have electric lighting.

 


Cleveland Art, January 2008