Looking Through Glass is an exhibit designed to provoke a critical discourse about the use of glass in museum exhibition practices. When Dr. Latham first asked me guest curate an exhibit, my initial “big idea” was to explore how to create a hands-on sensory experience with objects that might be similarly appreciated in a children’s science museum. As a costume designer, I know that seeing a costume gives peripheral information about a character in a play, but trying a costume on transforms the wearer into that character in a deeper, more visceral way.
Then came the glass.
The original plan was to build my exhibit in the main gallery, an open 20’x20’ space. As things happen in the MuseLab, the schedule got shuffled around and Dr. L came to me and asked if it would be ok to do my exhibit instead in the wall gallery, a 30’ long, 24” deep case that runs the entire length outside the main gallery--that entire length and height is made of glass.
Immediately, I wondered: How can you touch an object encased in glass? After all, my original plan was to do something all about sensory participation. The MuseLAB’s wall gallery extends thirty feet along a public hallway which makes sense to delineate a secure place for a public exhibition, but what about the child in me who wants to wear the mask or smell the old book--that is now BEHIND glass!? I asked, can we work with the glass to extend a museum goers experience beyond its physical boundaries and create a more visceral experience? This problem now became my main focus for the exhibition.
A summer trip to Ireland just before the exhibit planning started lead to more questions. The Book of Kells sits frozen in time under glass, revealing only two pages per day. Is not the artifact the whole of its words and drawings? Later, I found myself leaning casually against stone at the Rock of Cashel that predated the Vikings. Where were the stanchions, the protective plexi and the angry guard? Why was this so different from my American museum-going experience? These experiences helped me to design my exhibit in the MuseLab.
Looking Through Glass was designed to present a range of objects and scenarios thematically linked by glass, to challenge our notions of what is proper and necessary. The presentation demands some critical thought with an optimistic bent to how glass can be used to enhance one’s experience. Here is the Big Idea: Does a glass display case, meant to preserve objects, limit meaningful interactions? We don’t know.
The exhibit is segmented into five sections. The title section uses etched acrylic as its signage and presents one of the most iconic glass display forms, the cloche. The cloche was made to use outdoors and protect flowering plants from frost. In the second section, I gathered a wide variety of objects from different contexts to look at the glass collectively. Does the object need parameters?, it asks. The fish tank holds the natural environment in, the ships were created inside their glass bottle, and the fire extinguisher has a glass barrier prior to usage. Collectively, look for common themes and then ask yourself, “Why?”
In the third section, I was playing with optics and perception to see if there are methods to enhance interaction
with the intended audience. Magnification is a common tool for exhibition displays but I like the idea that you can focus the audience’s attention on a very minute detail of a bigger picture. Magnification becomes curatorial. Refraction is also an interesting tool, here used to flip an image through the water glass. Does the water glass become curatorial too? The next grouping in this section are masks that encourage the viewer to see the mask through the performer’s eyes and from the audience’s eyes by using the mirror as a focusing device. Are these good tools and methods that we should explore more?
The fourth section investigates sensory perception. I wanted to consider how we perceive texture through what we see. I have never held a broken shard of glass but I have a sense memory of what it feels like. Where did the memory come from? My mother telling me not to touch that? The stained glass is another example where we see texture and have manifested an idea with very little physical contact. Can we trust our eyes? I watched a really interesting phenomenon this summer as I was researching for this exhibit. I watched observers engage TV screens with talking heads almost to the point of conversation. How strange to embrace the illusion of conversation with a mechanism. What draws us in that intimately? Let’s see if we can recreate this phenomenon here.
Lastly, I wanted to extend the exhibit beyond its glass container. Here reflection allowed me to visually perceive the art pieces beyond the glass walls and to consider infinite possibilities. How does extension change your perception? There are infinite possibilities when using glass for exhibitions. What else could there be?
Explore Looking Through Glass with me, start a conversation, and let us know what possibilities you dream up.