Read Between the Lines

Designers are shaping exhibition spaces to enhance viewer experience.

Written by Shiny Varghese | Updated: September 7, 2014 12:00:31 am
A view of the “Akshara” exhibition A view of the “Akshara” exhibition

When India’s national museum showcases its journey, they cover the earth and the skies. In “A Passionate Eye”, an exhibition of textiles, sculptures and paintings from the Bharany collection, a phulkari shawl from the 19th century with exquisite embroidery of pink parrots, orange trees and white maidens, is displayed on the ceiling. While the shawl becomes a canopy, a mirror image in vinyl is placed as a carpet causing visitors to interact with it. This exhibition, which closes next week, in Delhi offers an insight into design interventions.

In the past, exhibits have been hung on walls or placed as islands devoid of any context. Taking a leap of faith are “space marshals” or exhibition designers, who work with curators to engage visitors. They lead the way through mnemonics, as they hand hold visitors (almost invisibly) from one exhibit to the other.

One such was at “The Body in Indian Art” exhibition where curator Naman Ahuja orchestrated a story that required apt execution. How could carved sculptures of Ardhanarishwar and the Buddha complement each other? For its Brussels show at the Palais des Beaux Arts last year, opera set designer Sabine Theunissen with Ahuja found a resting place in a gallery, as they carpeted an entire floor in red and lit the artwork in white light. “When visitors entered this space, they turned red while the artworks remained white. Suddenly, art became real and people were transformed in its light,” says Ahuja.

The exhibition arrived at the National Museum in Delhi early this year. Veneer stone columns reminiscent of Rameshwaram temples gave visitors a procession ambience in a gallery, while grove-like cloth clusters imagined a corridor space to be a forest. The one to “narrativise” these spaces through graphics, animation and exhibition design was designer Siddhartha Chatterjee of Seechange. “I had to take Naman’s intricate storyline and thread it through a varied set of spaces,” he says. They created pools of dialogue between artefacts, across faiths, timelines and sometimes even gender. Colour, light and materials played a role too, from the earth-golden carpet and lamp-lit ceiling in the Rebirth gallery to the brooding felt grey walls in the Ascetic gallery and the Heroic red panels.

For the “Samskara: Made in India” exhibition last year at the Indira Gandhi National Centre for the Arts, architect-designer Anupama Kundoo drew references from India’s innate love for texture and water to landscape designer products. Over 26 stonecutters from Pondicherry chipped away at granite slabs that turned into undulating shelves and flooring. “While the exhibition is temporary, the experience doesn’t have to be,” says Kundoo. Modernising traditional crafts was the aim of the exhibition with over 200 designer objects. Ferro-cement slabs were handcrafted in natural colours of white and turquoise blue, as clothes and fine detailing in glass and metal sat on shelves.

“Craft cannot be seen against the backdrop of a blank wall. It has to be against the business of life,” says architect Suparna Bhalla, Director, Abaxial Architects. With her team, they designed the Akshara exhibition by Dastakari Haat Samiti, which showed in Delhi last year. It was built on the idea of literacy and calligraphy. Most artists learnt to read and write through the workshops by Jaya Jaitly. If this is the future of exhibitions, it holds promise of better documentation and newer perspectives.

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