4.3. Selecting objects for an exhibition: prestige, security and protection of objects (Tamás Vásárhelyi)

When an exhibition is organised, the museologist responsible for the part of the collection to be used offers objects for the display. He or she is the one who knows the content of the storage rooms and may make a selection based on a variety of considerations. Some of these are not strictly professional. If a high-ranking politician has been invited to open the show, something unusual in the exhibition has to be offered to attract media attention, which the great man may appreciate. If it is a sponsor the exhibition should impress, the most valuable treasures must be showcased. In the case of a professional exhibition to impress fellow researchers, the number of objects to be exhibited increases. In every case, conservation is one of the highest priorities. Being exhibited may be very damaging for some ancient pieces. For others, the exhibition offers a long-awaited chance for restoration.

Security is another key issue in the planning process of an exhibition. Every exhibition is insured against theft or damage, but today, insurance has also become one of the prestige criteria of a show. The higher the amount, the more it is evident that visitors are in for the experience of a lifetime. Nevertheless, museologists are good keepers, whose major consideration have been and will always be to safeguard the possessions of their museum. Thus the most valuable objects often remain in storage and are only referred to in the catalogue. Works of art may be damaged by air pollution or humidity, but it is people in contact with the works who are most harmful. Conservators who apply inadequate chemicals or procedures, exhibition developers who place them on a stand that eventually breaks, transporters who do not handle them with care and visitors who run around and make every effort to touch them – sometimes even take them home – are the biggest risk factors of museums. Smoke and movement detectors are well-known and generally disregarded parts of an exhibition. Security barriers, however, are disturbing, and so are stands that are too high or too large. Alarms that make an awful noise when you approach a painting close up also intrude upon the visitor experience, not to speak of guards who sometimes act like bodyguards and consider every visitor a suspicious intruder.

skeleton with a security barrier.

4.14. picture: A  barrier too low for keeping visitors off – a regular sight at exhibitions. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Exhibition stand with a stuffed bull.

4.15. picture: The stand is much higher than required for the exhibition of the bull: it keeps visitors at a safe distance and prevents them from touching. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A blue barrier on metal stand to keep visitors away from an old vessel exhibited.

4.16. picture: The blue, flexible ribbon of the barrier is a disturbing sight in front of the beautiful old sailing boat. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

An iron barrier keeps visitors away from the old vessel.

4.17. picture: The barrier keeps visitors away from both sides of the boat. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Guards are inhibiting for visitors, just like barriers. In Hungarian museums they tend to bring personal objects into the exhibition space (a pillow for their chair, a bottle of water, a newspaper, etc.) This arrangement is an unsuitable contribution to the exhibition and often prevents visitors from approaching the objects at close range.

window with an armchair and chequered pillow. In front of it, there is a paper box.

4.18. picture: Personal object of museum guards may disturb visitor experience. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

At an exhibition of precious stones at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History, visitors were willing to pass through the metal detector and readily opened their bags for inspection by the security guard, since it reinforced their expectations of valuable objects.

The most common form for the safe exhibition of objects is the glass case. Pieces of old museum furniture: huge cases with wooden frames may be an awkward sight in a modern exhibition space, but visitors accept them as they contribute to the mood of a place safeguarding “old objects”. Modern installations are light, flexible and made of non-glittering glass. They serve the purpose of supporting but not blocking the view of the items on display. Exhibition designers sometimes deliberately use bulky cases that, in their interpretation, emphasize the message of the display. An ugly presentation environment is often due to limited financial resources. The lack of funds to have enough cases made or rented for an exhibition may limit the number of objects to be shown.

Old, wooden museum furniture.

4.19. picture: Classic „coffin cases” in a museum that deliberately preserved its installations of historic value. A protected cultural heritage environment: furniture of the Mineralogy Collection of the Museum of Natural History at Eötvös Loránd University, Budapest. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Glass cases in a grey wall niche with red background and ivory objects.

4.20. picture: The case is robust, still the objects stand out in front of the red background. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Installation cases with 19th century wooden frames.

4.21. picture: The sight of the glass cases is a dominant factor in the exhibition environment. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Small glass cases in a huge, vaulted exhibition space.

4.22. picture: The glass cases are visible but not dominating in the beautiful, vaulted hall of the Marine Museum of Lisbon, Portugal. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Big spheres with spotlights in a long, dark corridor. By the wall, small objects exhibited in glass covered cases.

4.23. picture: The exhibition environment is so impressive that we hardly notice that all the exhibits are behind glass. Museum of Natural History, Lisbon. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

In front of a wall of huge, metal framed glass panels, there are small objects exhibited in glass covered cases.

4.24. picture: Installation well suited to the neutral environment. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Typical installation case individualised through a delicate colour accent.

4.25. picture: Installation individualised through colouring and the application of sand to fill up the lower part of the cases. „Glittering gems”: an exhibition at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History, Budapest.  (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A glass case with a picturesque arrangement of gem stones.

4.26. picture: The irregular distribution of space and the unique arrangement of the gems in decorative patterns as well as spotlights focused on them to provide a glittering effect all hide the fact that the installation used is an old-fashioned glass case. „Glittering gems”: an exhibition at the Hungarian Museum of Natural History, Budapest. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

To provide an environment that is ideal for the works on show, we need to use a variety of often bulky evaporation, heating and lighting devices. Visitors accept them but we should make efforts to hide them in the installation. The following pictures show such equipment in different exhibition arrangements.

An air conditioning device in a narrow museum corridor.

4.27. picture: An air conditioning device in an awkward position in a narrow museum corridor.(Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Three light cables very near an object in a glass case.

4.28. picture: An example of unfortunate arrangement of devices and objects in a display: three light cables very near an object in a glass case. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Air conditioning device, fire extinguisher and dustbin very near a glass case.

4.29. picture: A second example of unfortunate arrangement of devices and objects in a display: the air conditioning device could have remained unnoticed, but the fire extinguisher and dustbin nearby emphasize the presence of objects unsuitable for an exhibition. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

A thermometer in a glass case.

4.30. picture: In the glass case, the thermometer with its huge digital display is a disturbing sight. (Photo: Tamás Vásárhelyi)

Exhibition developers often have to make compromises. They have to include objects that are not easily integrated in the display; there are concepts that have to be emphasized which, however, have little scientific significance or aesthetic appeal; and there can be a lack of funds to purchase the most appropriate installation. Thus the development of an exhibition involves a process of creative compromises. The results are, fortunately, most often appealing and instructive at the same time.