Royal Hospital Kilmainham: Modern Art and Heritage Site

Following my trip to the Kilmainham Goal I visited the nearby Irish Museum of Modern Art (IMMA) that is located in the former Royal Hospital Kilmainham building. Unfortunately during my visit the main Hospital building was closed for renovations and only a small new gallery space was open.  Despite this closure the grounds are beautiful and the small exhibition I had the opportunity to see was well done.

The Royal Hospital opened in 1684 as a home for retired soldiers.  The building continued to be used for this purposed for 250 years.  In 1984 it was taken over and restored by the government.  In 1991 the building opened as the Irish Museum of Modern Art.

The IMMA gardens are done in a classical style that reflects the heritage of the site.  This traditional 
atmosphere is contrasted with outdoor sculptural art.  The contrast highlights the usage of the space in a modern purposeful way while still maintaining elements of the long history of the site.

During my visit the only exhibition that was open was “Leonora Carrington: The Celtic Surrealist” located in the Garden Galleries.  The exhibit was framed as a retrospective of Carrington’s work and featured over 80 examples of her work in a variety of mediums including paintings, tapestries, works on paper, and sculptures.  Some of the works exhibited refer to Irish and Celtic lore while others explored the influence of Mexican culture.  Her artwork was also accompanied by a number of examples of her written work and journals.  It was interesting to see a mixture of archival material on display alongside the art exhibition.

The exhibit was organized thematically and was had interesting signage explaining the different styles and influences on Carrington’s artwork.  However, the exhibit space is fairly small.  During my visit there was a number of students in the building as part a formal class visit.  The shear number of students seemed overwhelming in the tight space, with many of them sitting on the floor sketching as there was very little gallery seating. 

Photographs by Andrew MacKay

Exhibition and Design Skills

I wrote earlier about project management and administration skills that have can be invaluable in a number of public history roles.  Since moving into the Researcher/Curator role in February I’ve also had an opportunity to continue to expand a range of exhibition, design, and outreach practices.

Visualizing space and display design have always been something I have found challenging.  These tasks are still challenging, but like any skill I’ve found that the more opportunities I have to practice these skills the easier they end up being.  Some of basic exhibition and design practices that can be valuable to public history practitioners looking to expand their skill set include:

  • Start small.  Curating an entire exhibit from scratch can be overwhelming.  Filling a display case on a set theme can be a good place to start gaining practice in display creation. 
  • Have a mentor.  Installation and display design can involve a lot of hands on work.  The best way to learn these skills is to do them and having someone around who is familiar with common practices can be a godsend.
  • Familiarize yourself with basic tools and ‘handyman skills.’  That home renovation you’re undertaking might have more value than you know — mudding holes in drywall, hanging artwork, cutting acrylic, building basic shelves, etc are all skills which can be used during exhibit install. 
  • Learn how to plan things out to scale using graph paper.  Or how to use Sketchup or a similar program to map out an exhibition place. 
  • Following museum or art gallery listservs can be helpful.  There are is also a wealth of material in many of these listsev archives which can be useful when looking to come up with options for a specific problem.  (Eg. what type of mount to use when hanging artwork that is mounted on plexi and foam core). 
  • Proofreading and writing skills are key to creating informative and concise exhibit text. 

If nothing else this whole experience has made me take way more of an interest in the house renovations and building projects that partner is undertaking.

Art Exhibit Labels

Exhibit labels take way more thought than most visitors realize.  Decisions about design, layout, wording and content all take time and effort.  My most recent challenge has been moving from the creation of museum exhibit labels to the creation of art exhibit labels. 

Though both types of labels serve similar purposes — to inform patrons about the work on display, the style of the labels can very greatly.  Ideally both museum and art labels should link back to the theme of the exhibit and support a general interpretation plan.  Introductory, background, gallery overview, and individual work labels are all common art exhibit label types.

My history background urges me to fill labels with historical context and biographical type details. Cultural and historical context are still important in art labels but so are references to artistic style, technique, process and linkages to the visual works.  Like museum exhibition labels there is always a struggle to include relevant information in a clear, concise, and appealing way. 

Personally I find introduction and gallery overview panels the most difficult, as these tend to be the most text-heavy labels.  When I visit art museums or galleries I like reading overview labels, but I often find that I skim longer labels and by the end of the gallery I have label fatigue.  There needs to be a middle ground between over explaining/labeling items and not providing any context. 

A few resources I’ve found helpful when just beginning to learn about art labeling practices:

Feel free to mention any resources you’ve found helpful in the comments.

Exhibit Reflection: Body Worlds Vital

Part of my recent Science North trip included seeing the Body Worlds Vital exhibit.  This exhibit is part of a series of Body Worlds exhibits featuring real human bodies that have been preserved using a processed called plastination.  Plastination was created by Dr. Gunther von Hagnes, and the resulting figures created through the process have been termed plastinates.  These plastinate bodies allow visitors to see the inner workings of real human bodies in a way that wasn’t previously possible. 

The primary gold of all the Body Worlds exhibits is to increase awareness about the human body and to provide opportunities for health and physical education.  Body Worlds Vital places emphasis on the potential of the human body and the body in motion.  In this exhibit a number of the plastinates are staged in athletic activities such as running, fencing, and dancing to highlight the development of muscle structures, the potential of a healthy body, and the general inter-workings of the vital system. 

Simply put, the exhibit far exceeded my exceptions.  The plastinates themselves are a remarkable mixture of art and science.  The staging of the plastinates in forms which highlight a variety of human activities and body functions allows for a range of educational opportunities.  The range of motion seen in the plastinates allowed for a variety of anatomical features to be highlighted, many of which I had little knowledge about before.  Similarly the placement of the plastinates allowed visitors to walk 360 degrees around them, allowing for all aspects of the human body to be seen. 

Additionally, the signage throughout the exhibit was really well done.  Each plastinate was accompanied by a textual explanation of what technique was used to render the plastinate and what parts of the body are being highlighted by the plastinate.  These textual explanations were accompanied by diagrams labeling muscles, bone structures, and major arteries.  The diagrams helped explain the plastinates and added to the educational component of the exhibit.  There was also oversize text and graphic panels with inspirational quotes relating to the human form throughout the exhibit.  These panels added to the reflective and respectful feel of the entire exhibit.  

The exhibit wasn’t overly busy when I was there.  This allowed for a nice leisurely pace and for me to read all the text and spend ample time looking at each plastinate.  In contrast to the rest of the Science Centre where loud talking and running around are the norm, the majority of visitors looking at this exhibit moved at a leisurely pace and were speaking in hushed tones.  This was most likely due to the subject matter combined with the mood lighting and slow paced background music.  The whole atmosphere of the exhibit helped contribute to the educational atmosphere. 

Have you been to a Body Worlds exhibit? Did you enjoy it?

Digital Exhibits: Display and Format Challenges

As part of a work project, I recently spent some time scrolling through a variety of digital exhibits created by heritage organizations.  My goal while looking at these online exhibits was to compile a list of functions and visual characteristics which comprise a ‘good’ online exhibit.   I’m not sure my efforts resulted in an ultimate list, but I did come a few digital exhibit techniques I liked and a lot I that found verging on horrible.

Common Online Exhibit Problems:

  • Poor flow of information and the user is left unsure of how to navigate information.
  • Way too much text.  Most curators often refrain from including an overload of text in a physical exhibit, but it seems like this practice is often ignored in digital exhibits. 
  • Overuse of flash or other elements which take a long time to load (even on highspeed).

Digital Exhibit Elements That Work:

  • Combining mediums and using the digital space to display video, audio, and photographic material from a collection. 
  • Facilitating hyperlinking to the online collection descriptions so users can learn more about an item. 
  • User choice is integrated into the design.  For example, the user is able to decide which part or items of the exhibit they wish to look at and in which order. 
  • Exhibit theme (colours, images, etc) allows the image to stand apart from the rest of the institution’s website.

What makes a good digital exhibit? What is your favourite virtual exhibit? 

The Portrait Gallery that never was.

The dream of a Canadian Portrait Gallery has died, possibly for good. Following the creation of the Gallery in 2001, the Gallery has faced a number of challenges including a lack of an institution. However, despite this lack of permanent building the Gallery managed to stage exhibitions at both the Museum of Nature and the Science and Technology Museum this summer.

It was recently announced that the Portrait Gallery of Canada will no longer exist in it’s current format. Some of the functions of the Gallery will be taken over by Library and Archives Canada. However, it is unclear what resources will be available for exhibitions, staffing, digitization, and purchasing of new works. What details are available can be seen here. The Gallery’s demise is yet another blow to the Canadian art and heritage community. This development may result in the diverse portraiture art and history of Canada being lost to the Canadian public.