Although museum buildings have a huge effect on the exhibitions they house, the latter can “play against” the environment and still be successful. An example: the architectural monument that now houses contemporary art exhibitions, like the Art Hall in Budapest. However, it is not always easy to counteract the effects of the environment. Therefore, many exhibitions that are installed within the gloomy, grey walls of a Classicist museum building are similarly pompous and cold in mood. An exhibition model that dates from the beginnings of public exhibitions, the victory celebration shows of ancient Rome, involved the lining up of hundreds of trophies acquired from the enemy in battle in huge, interconnected spaces and was quite enjoyable when the “museum” was a hall of columns without walls, from where viewers could always step out to the open air. Visitors plodding along an endless series of rooms in a classic museum building often lose their sense of orientation and their temper at the same time. Although most of the works on show are indisputable masterpieces, their quantity can be overwhelming – especially if they are placed in two or three rows on top of each other on walls or in glass cabinets. Here, improvement of the visitor experience (the favourite slogan of our time) means selection of a few major works and their arrangement according to epoch, master, theme or technique.
The other exhibition archetype, the “Wunderkammer” resulted in museums that exhibited large collections of entirely different nature. Special shelves had been used to store objects of different nature already in chambers of curiosities. At that time, museum evolution meant the separation of different collections and their relocation in museums of the arts and those of natural science and technology. Later, explanatory objects appeared among the exhibition pieces: a picture of the bird whose egg was on show, or a catching instrument that helped in acquiring the prey. Finally, grouping according to visual and / or scientific criteria was employed to reinforce the characteristics of different animal species or works of art with similar styles or genres.
The medieval microcosm based on formal analogies was reflected in drawers containing objects lined up according to shape and size. Showcases included descriptions understandable for non-experts, and magnifying glasses were attached to them in order to enhance the visual experience. Prints were exhibited on tall tables that allowed the viewer to leaf through them at leisure. Thus the first installation devices appeared. The first thematic shows that offered a scholarly selection and thus create order in diversity already paved the way for modern museology.
In the first half of the 16th century Giovio, a medical doctor, humanist and writer, opened his collection entitled “The Temple of Fame” to the public. It featured about 150 portrait sculptures of monarchs, war heroes, clergymen, artists and scientists, with inscriptions explaining their great deeds. Men of the same profession were shown as a group, in order to make their achievements comparable. This exhibition of cultural history was followed by many similar initiatives. Samuel Quiccheberg, a Dutch colleague of Giovio, described the ideal art collection in Munich in 1565. He defined the following types of museums:
– Historical: the gallery of ancestors with genealogical tables, portraits and engravings showing important geographical areas and buildings;
– Treasury: works of fine arts, coins, filigree works made of precious metals, archaeological find, exotic utensils, etc.;
– Objects of nature: human skulls and bones, stuffed animals, botanical and zoological collections, minerals;
– Masterpieces of technology: instruments of mechanics, mathematics, astronomy and music, machines, medical and handicraft tools, devices for hunting and fishing, etc.;
– Picture gallery: paintings, drawings, engravings, etchings and tools used to make them.
Quiccheberg described collections that represented all spheres of human activities known in his age as the model of the generalist museum. He emphasized that no collection can be valuable if incomplete – all areas of human endeavour have to be presented. In order to acquire such a vast cultural literacy one had to be wealthy to have time to spend on learning, so his ideal museum was accessible only for the erudite few. Nevertheless, this collection model, based on the ideal of the “uomo universale”, the universal intellectual of the Renaissance, was to influence museum development for many decades to come. Most large national museums established in the 19th century followed this ideal and exhibited side by side, often in one and the same room, results of scientific discovery and artistic creativity.
Special collections were mostly established in the first half of the 20th century, although some important ones from the 18th and 19th centuries have also come down to us. Oriented towards a selected group of objects, the buildings of these museums were mostly custom-designed to offer the best viewing experience and storage facilities. Fortunately, many of them can be visited today and in some even the original installation is visible. Ferdinand, Crown Prince of Tyrol (1520–1595), united the treasures of the Spanish, Austrian and French courts to form the Schatzkammer, Treasure Chamber, in 1563. After several decades of closure, this magnificent collection opened its gates again in the spring of 2013. In the dark halls, lit by a few spotlights only, treasures are installed on velvet-covered shelves specially designed to hold certain works of art. – The Porcelain Collection of Augustus the Strong in Dresden is still in the same building that was erected to show the vases and sculpture. Placed on glass shelves with mirroring background, in corridors with large windows overlooking the river and an interior court with fountains, the vessels acquire a special, airy presence and seem fragile and delicate.
The Zwinger in Dresden is one of the first buildings designed to house different collections in wings dedicated to one genre or period only. The Duke was asked by his architect to select and exhibit only masterpieces and show the most valuable works in the central halls of the wings, accentuated with a cupola. A graphic arts collection and a library completed the museum. Here the works were organised according to date of completion and a catalogue helped the expert viewer to retrieve the works. Time sequence was also a guiding principle in the design collection. The galleria progressiva, the historical sequence of museum galleries, became the leading exhibition type for art and design for centuries to come. Visitors passing through the halls experienced progression, refinement and increasing sophistication, and readily accepted the evolutionary theory of art history. Museum arrangements suggesting scientific ideas educated the audience more effectively than any scholarly presentation or treatise could have done. New models of presentation offering parallel developmental paths, contrasting styles and trends or horizontally organised works of art appeared only at the beginning of the 20th century, with new paradigms about development and change in the visual arts.
In the Age of Enlightenment, the themed museum model took off in France, where the collections of the kings, housed in their palace, the Louvre, were nationalised in 1792. This museum presented fine arts and crafts only. Paintings and drawings, sculpture and works of applied arts were arranged in a historical sequence and grouped by genre. In England, the British Museum preserved the classic, show-it-all model and housed a collection of natural history under its roof until the foundation of the Natural History Museum in London in 1881.
In the 19th century museums of arts and science separated. Some arts collections specialised in styles and genres, others focused on history and exhibited memorabilia of important events, as well as works of art. The Victoria and Albert Museum in London integrated these two trends and exhibited fine and applied arts in settings that showed their historical relevance and functions in the life of the people who created them. Cultural and social anthropology as a branch of study appeared much later, in the second half of the 20th century. In the huge halls of the Victoria and Albert Museum, however, a modern approach to the interpretation of the arts and crafts in their social context was the guiding principle. The integration of art and culture in museums had begun.
The essence of an exhibition is showing originals. However, there is an important educational objective – the representation of art history as a developmental sequence and also the lack of important works in many smaller museums created the need for a special type of study collection, the glyptotek. This exhibition facility displays plaster copies of world-famous sculptures and reliefs. First, only Greek and Roman works were cast life size, and then sculptures of Renaissance and Baroque artists of fame were added. The message of these collections of copies was a tribute to the excellence of the art and culture of the most glorious periods in art history: ancient Greece and Rome and the Italian Renaissance.
These collections also served as a reminder for those young gentlemen who managed to complete the Small Circle, a study tour to Italy, Germany and France, or the Big Circle, which included Spain, Portugal and/or Great Britain, too. Glyptoteks also strengthened European identity, since they reinforced the belief of European superiority in world culture.
History museums not only show but also interpret history. Therefore, exhibitions in national museums in different countries may offer an entirely different view about the same events. Even archaeological collections are not merely keepers of ruins and broken objects of bygone ages. They articulate views about the origin of a nation, and ultimately, its right to the land where it lives.
The military history collection, in which the theme of the exhibition is not only ancient armour but also the interpretations of military actions of the past, is a special type of the museum of history. Some of the events interpreted here involve sensitive political issues, so the mission of these museums generally includes data-driven education in the history of the nation. Most military collections are appropriately situated in fortresses or castles that have a narrative of their own to tell. The venues recall memories that also become part of the exhibition and contribute to its reception. For example, the Hungarian Museum of Military History and the Heergeschichtliches Museum in Vienna both present events of the 1848-49 Hungarian revolution and war of independence against the Austrian Habsburgs. Needless to say, their interpretations are different, although both institutions intend to offer an impartial, unbiased recollection of events.
Museums of folk art also may involve political overtones. In the Szentendre Open-Air Museum in Hungary, for example, we may enter the home of a Hungarian family living in a territory that belonged to Hungary first, then to Czechoslovakia, then again to Hungary. On the wall, video documentaries narrate the history of the area, including the evacuation of minorities by both powers. Watching the film while sitting in the kitchen that seems to have just been abandoned by a family forced to evacuate and emigrate, leaving behind possessions accumulated during a lifetime, gives simple household utensils a special, metaphoric significance.
The mission of folk art museums is to give an overview of the material and spiritual culture of all the nationalities living in a country. It is important to interpret interrelations and cultural connections, and to emphasize kinship through cultural events. In the Nordiska Museet in Stockholm, for example, we can witness strong ties that unite Nordic countries through their common heritage. Collections of historical anthropology are also present in these collections, and their interpretation gives rise to many debates about political correctness. In the Musée de l’Homme in Paris and the Museum of Ethnography in Budapest, museologists successfully manage to avoid stereotypes of the “noble savage”, the patronizing attitude of Western civilisation towards nomadic ways of life with equally valuable cultural traditions.
Many stereotypes coming from popular culture (for example, films and books about the native American Indians) have to be reconceptualised by these exhibitions. Cultural anthropology research helps explain and present lifestyles of minorities in a more sophisticated, multidisciplinary manner, in order to show valuable works of art and design, science and technology, literature and music that give evidence of the contribution of these cultures to civilisation.
Museums of natural history and technology belong to the oldest museum genres. It is this type of collection that shows best the way museums (and their buildings) have changed from storage facilities to educational institutions. Classic collections of natural history provide an overview of different branches of science through large showcases tightly packed with minerals, plants or animals, machines, utensils or documentations of discoveries. Parts of the collections are explained through long texts printed in small script on panels at the entrance of halls. For the expert, this storage room structure is a joy to behold, while for the average visitor it is an extremely tiring experience. Natural history museums today show their changing attitudes towards visitor management through developing less crowded installations with more explanations. Lifelike dioramas, hands-on activities, on-site laboratories, interactive information panels with lots of visual materials and skilled explainers help viewers to make meaning of the exhibits.
In the second part of the 20th century, two new type of presentation of natural history themes appeared: the science museum, dedicated to the history of life-changing inventions, and the science centre or café where visitors can experience what it means and how it feels to be an experimenting researcher. Through workshops, animated visits and special events focusing on one area of science, these institutions help narrow the gap between the liberal arts and natural science, and motivate young and old to learn about or even explore the laws of nature.
Science centres are also often housed in unusual buildings. The Palace of Miracles in Budapest was originally housed in an old factory building; the Exploratorium in San Francisco has just moved into a dock by the dam of San Francisco, the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto is situated in a futuristic building-sculpture. According to Michael Fehr (2012), the science centre is the ideal museum space. Here visitors find themselves in a creative environment, among a wide variety of things they cannot readily understand but are also allowed to freely explore. In such a situation, visitors engage in a work process similar to those of scientists: they identify a problem, build a hypothesis, search for existing information, construct and undertake experiments and (hopefully) arrive at a solution. Then they may start again, with a different set of intriguing objects and tools.
The extension of the educational work of the museum (the outreach programme) is perhaps the most important new method of museum education today. Museum educators want to follow visitors beyond the walls of their institution and offer connections between everyday life and the museum experience. School programmes preparing for or following up a museum visit have long been organised. Outreach programmes, however, offer more to more people, including those who do not attend an educational institution or come to visit without being part of a school group. These occasional guests may be turned into regular visitors through a continuous information flow and easy ways of keeping in touch and giving feedback.
One of the contemporary inventions of exhibition design is the network of interactive consoles placed near highlights of the display, offering explanation, additional information or experiments and games related to the objects just seen and read about. These consoles can be accessed through the insertion of a digital entrance ticket that links to a personal storage space created for every registered visitor on the museum server. Active audience members can access information about their performance at the interactive consoles and download images to email home as souvenirs. These digital tickets are symbols of outreach: the museum enters the homes and from home, one-time visitors may become part of the museum community. Hein (2005) describes the types of museums according to their interpretation models:
– The “systematic museum” based on traditional lecture and text, where visitors are ushered through large spaces by knowledgeable guides;
– Museums based on discovery learning, where investigation and invention are key processes of explanation and visitors are active partners in a knowledge-building process;
– The “stimulus – response” museums where experiences are “programmed” and exhibition and explanation spaces are integrated;
– The constructivist museum that offers a holistic, interactive experience. A site that encourages individual knowledge construction as well as group learning, many objects on display may be scrutinised and experimented with.
Three out of these four models are based on active visitor involvement. Museum buildings today are designed to support this new concept of exhibiting. Contemporary museums make efforts to get to know their customers in order to provide experiences and information best suited to their needs and in harmony with the mission of the museum.