Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 1: Decolonising Exhibitions

Panel Overview:

Jona Piehl (HTW Berlin, Germany)
Visual reflexivity: exhibition graphic design as critical practice

Beatriz Martínez Sosa (University of Pau, France)
Designing to decolonise: strategies on the rhetorics of display

Francesca Liuni (Rhode Island School of Design, US)
The aesthetics of depoliticized exhibitions

Nina Oberg Humphries (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) Lisa McDonald (Glasgow School of Art, UK) and Hamish Anderson (Canterbury Museum, New Zealand)
‘ARE PASIFIKA’: the display of Pacific collections, old and new, in Aotearoa New Zealand

Individual Papers:

Jona Piehl (HTW Berlin, Germany) Visual reflexivity: exhibition graphic design as critical practice

This presentation was available for the period of the conference only (1-11 September 2020)

In recent years reflexive practices have come to the fore as museums grapple with their institutional histories and problematic collections. Strategies for critical exhibition making, for decolonizing exhibition narratives and object displays, are emerging particularly in the areas of curation and extended programming (cf Macdonald 2015, Lynch 2014, Görgen-Lammers 2019). Positing that the form of a text holds meaning beyond the words and, in a medium as multimodal as the exhibition, beyond the objects and the space, this paper argues that these debates needs to be extended towards exhibition design and, more specifically, towards exhibition graphic design.

To this purpose, I draw on Hall’s definition of graphic design as a critical practice (2008) and consider exhibition graphic design not in terms of its functional role of carrying information but as a set of visual methods for defining, grouping, comparing, juxtaposing, layering, revealing or concealing information to argue that such methods can support critical museum practice with visual reflexivity. Analysing examples at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, the Field Museum, Chicago, and the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History, Washington, ranging from small addition to substantial visual intervention, I explore how graphics facilitate dialogues in the gallery between the then and the now, between a historical display and contemporary interpretation. In contrast to the re- design of an exhibition, in which one narrative is erased and a new one is created, in these instances the exhibits are re-framed in ways that make evident both the original frame(s) and the subsequent acts of reframing. In the resulting displays, layers of meaning are shown in relationship to each other, not only creating space for diverse voices and perspectives but also, crucially, keeping their production as texts open and showing the process of interpretation as on-going rather than completed. Therefore, even though there are challenges regarding visual literacy, the legibility of the displays and their increasing textual complexity, I argue that tactics of visual reflexivity can make significant contributions to the way in which an institution interrogates their past in relation to the present and how the development of such a critical position, the process of reflection itself, is made transparent to their audiences.

Jona Piehl is a graphic designer and design researcher. She is professor of communication design at the HTW Berlin and holds a PhD in exhibition design/museum studies from Central Saint Martins/University of the Arts, London. Situated at the intersection of design, museum studies and narrative theory, her research explores processes and methods of visual storytelling, in particular in the creation of narrative environments such as museums and exhibitions. As a designer, she has worked on numerous exhibition projects in Germany and the UK, working with design consultancies Land Design Studio, London, and, more recently, Ralph Appelbaum Associates, Berlin. Her monograph ‘Graphic Design for Museum Exhibitions: Display, Identity and Narrative’ will be published by Routledge later this year.


Beatriz Martínez Sosa (University of Pau, France) Designing to decolonise: strategies on the rhetorics of display


The present of museums in the Global North is characterised by the confrontation with their colonial past. In recent years, the decolonisation of art institutions has taken an important place on their agendas, at the urging of publics that are becoming more and more active and demanding.

Rather than returning contested objects to their countries of origin or taking them out of view, I think that design may be a key aspect in the decolonisation process that major institutions are facing. Because of this, my paper focuses on the analysis of strategies implemented by exhibition makers since the 1930s to the present, all of which have in common a central interest in the rhetorics of display. Even if they may have served a different original purpose, I aim to show the potential of these strategies in the decolonisation process. Such is the case of French museologist Georges Henri Rivière, who changed the public perception of ethnographic museums in France thanks, mostly, to his innovative work on display cases, inspired by Surrealism. In a very different context, this is also the case of African American artist Fred Wilson, who, since the 1980s, has made the museum his medium and inspiration, working with the collections to tackle racial issues.

Rather than seeing design as a later stage in the making of an exhibition, I intend to reflect on the interdisciplinary effort that exhibition making entails, where design and curatorial practices may converge through the articulation of compelling spatial discourses to help in the decolonisation of the museum. I propose to analyse what we can learn from exhibition makers who have changed the way we see things — with reinvented taxonomies, visual tropes, shifts and ambiences, etc. — by working beneath the surface, thinking as problem-solvers who not only show collections but communicate through them.

Beatriz Martínez Sosa is a designer and art researcher. She has been working in visual communication since 2007. She is currently preparing her thesis for a PhD degree in Art Theory and Aesthetics, with the art exhibition as the central subject of her research.


Francesca Liuni (Rhode Island School of Design, US)

The aesthetics of depoliticized exhibitions

This presentation was available for the period of the conference only (1-11 September 2020)

While museums question the premise of collecting and the agency of curatorial practice amid cogent debates on decolonization, the implications for the aesthetics of museum architecture and exhibition design remain unscrutinized. As Adam Hochshield recently wrote in The Fight to Decolonize Museums, “many museums were built a century or more ago by people who took colonialism, racial hierarchy, and slavery for granted” (The Atlantic, Jan/Feb 2020). A reconciliation has been enacted through decolonial curatorial practices such as the recent University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum’s public engagement initiatives, political efforts like the debated 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, and provocative display experiments such as the 1988 exhibition Art/Artifact; African Art in Anthropology Collections at the Center of African Art (New York). This last was accompanied by a publication by Susan Vogel, curator of the exhibit, who contributed to a discussion on how Westerners display “other” cultures, questioning curatorial and design choices. The issue of decolonizing museum aesthetics has been discussed by multiple scholars (Wintle 2016; Classen and Howes, 2006; Phillips, 2007). All lead to Phillips’ question: “why in the light of three decades of post-structuralist and postcolonial critique, do these object-centered and objectifying modes of installation continue to retain their exclusive holds on museum display?”

Most collections of displaced cultural property are still hosted in the controversial architectural spaces of Western museums. The contradiction between exhibited cultural objects and gallery space is primarily but not exclusively embodied by the history of the host buildings and the obscure genesis of the collections. In these settings, the Western aesthetics of architecture and exhibition design practices seem to embed a subtle form of neo-colonization: hence, the Hoa Hakananai of Easter Island stands alone among the polished glass vitrines of the British Museum and a 13th century Qur´an manuscript is rendered silent in the bright whiteness of the Aga Khan Museum of Toronto. Through a series of critical examples, this paper discusses the equivocal use of depoliticized aesthetics applied to exhibition design for displaying cultural objects in Western museums. If aesthetics are a by-product of a specific cultural, political, and socio-economical context, how should the hosting architectural space respond to the aesthetics of the cultural object? How can exhibition design, borrowing from Bourdieu and Darbel, prevent museums from “reinforcing for some the feeling of belonging and for others the feeling of exclusion”?

Francesca Liuni is an architect, exhibition designer and Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design in the Department of Interior Architecture. She holds a Master´s Degree in Architecture from the Politecnico di Bari and a Master’s of Science in History, Theory and Criticism from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology where she was part of the Aga Khan Program for Islamic Architecture.

She designed exhibitions for the Harvard Museum of History of Science, MIT Museum, MIT Compton Gallery, and the Rhode Island School of Design. She also worked for the Milan-based office Simmetrico Networks and for the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage.


Nina Oberg Humphries (University of Canterbury, New Zealand) Lisa McDonald (Glasgow School of Art, UK) and Hamish Anderson (Canterbury Museum, New Zealand)
‘ARE PASIFIKA’: the display of Pacific collections, old and new, in Aotearoa New Zealand

Museum collections in Aotearoa New Zealand are replete with material culture from the Pacific Islands that is rarely seen by the viewing public. At Canterbury Museum in the country’s South Island, static permanent exhibitions, institutional bias and inadequately allocated resources results in tens of thousands of Pacific objects being relegated to the confines of closed storage. Of the small number of objects that are displayed, the majority are presented as isolated historical specimens that are removed from their indigenous contexts of production, use and circulation.

In 2017, Nina Oberg Humphries (Aotearoa New Zealand artist of Cook Islands descent), Lisa McDonald (former Associate Curator Māori and Pacific) and Hamish Anderson (Exhibition Designer) collaboratively produced ‘ARE PASIFIKA (House Pasifika) – a vitrine in which Humphries’ contemporary art forms were displayed alongside a geographically and culturally dispersed selection of the Museum’s holdings. The project sought to explore the themes of identity and belonging by creating a physical genealogy that highlighted the spiritual ties of Pacific peoples living in Aotearoa New Zealand to their ancestral homelands.

This paper discusses the role that artists, curators and exhibition designers can play in devising vibrant museological displays that disrupt institutionalised modes of representation. From concept brief to final installation, we reflect on the processes necessary to ensure artistic agency, socio- cultural respect, object safety and audience engagement when exhibiting Pacific Island collections.

Nina Oberg Humphries is an Aotearoa New Zealand artist of Cook Islands descent. She is the 2020 Pacific Artist in Residence at the University of Canterbury’s Macmillan Brown Centre for Pacific Studies.

Dr Lisa McDonald is former Associate Curator Human History (Māori and Pacific) at Canterbury Museum. She is currently a Post-Doctoral Research Associate with the Glasgow School of Art.

Hamish Anderson is Exhibition Designer at Canterbury Museum. He is also a practicing artist, working in the mediums of painting and drawing.




Thread: Graphic Design as Critical Practice

Claire Wintle 04/09/2020 6:39 am

Dear Jona, Thank you for your excellent presentation – I learnt a lot from your typologies and case studies. I thought you might be interested to know of a couple of other examples, if you don’t already, although I’m not sure if they quite meet your criteria… I wonder if you are interested in the ‘Miscast: Negotiating the Presence of the Bushman’ exhibition (1999) at the South African National Gallery in Cape Town? It is a bit different from the examples you cover, because the response (to the racist “Bushman” dioramas at the South African Museum, as it was then) was curated/designed by an external artist, Pippa Skotnes, in a different institution from the imperial display. The displays specifically spoke to each other though, and Skotnes did do some interesting things in terms of graphic design, like layering newspapers on the floor (image here: ). A good write up of the case is: Shannon Jackson & Steven Robins (1999) Miscast: The place of themuseum in negotiating the Bushman past and present, Critical Arts, 13:1, 69-101, DOI:10.1080/02560049985310051 Also, Subhadra Das’ project, Bricks and Mortals at UCL, has an emphasis on exhibition graphics, and actually employs the blank space paradigm you suggest. You can learn more about it at the excellent podcast by Sushma Jansari, here Hope you enjoy!

Jona Piehl Jona Piehl 04/09/2020 11:33 am

Claire, thank you! and these are great — both are new to me, thank you! I am hoping that this will be the start of a larger exploration, and the ‘artist intervention’ is another interesting category (especially looking at the position of the institutional author and the invitation to authors other than the institution to comment and intervene) — I came across an interesting project at the Field by Chris Pappan (sadly not in the galleries anymore, so I wasn’t able to see it myself), it works, similar to the AMNH diorama, with an superimposing of (visual) information:

Marina Khemis Marina Khemis 08/09/2020 10:17 pm

Dear Jona, thank you for your great presentation. I found extremely interesting this question of nowness, and relation to time between the moment of the narration and the one of the experience, and how multiple voices can be expressed in the museum by considering the reflexive role of graphic design. Your conference made me think about a reference that you might already know, which I thought related closely to your presentation. It is the conference that James Bradburne and Jean Luc Martinez gave at the Louvre in 2017 entitled “Les Cartels au musée, la voix des oeuvres”. Here is the link to the conference (in french) . It also raises this question of how several voices can be expressed in the museum, and the key role played by “cartels”, (the translation would be “plates” or “labels” I think). It deals with the question of reflexivity brought by written and non-written elements in museum exhibitions, to allow the encounter between people and exhibited objects. About the relation to time you were mentioning in your paper, there was also here this question of how for example the Louvre can work with a mediation chain inherited from the past. This is also closely connected to the “Dialogues” developed by James Bradburne at the Pinacoteca di Brera, with the idea of inviting masterpieces from other collections to have a visual conversation with artworks of the permanent collection, using these dialogues to reinstall the whole permanent collection. ( ) So I hope these references can find an interesting echo with your research, with this question of how graphic design can enable to renew the relation of the visitors with objects and artworks through time. So thank you again. And I also saw you will soon be publishing a book about Graphic Design in Museum Exhibitions, I really look forward to discovering it.

Jona Piehl 09/09/2020 6:47 am

Dear Marina, many thanks for these references, which I didn’t know yet, so thank you! Yes, I think this ‘nowness’ of experience is really important as it also points to the very present and very individual position of the visitors and their prior experiences, the social context in which the exhibition visit takes place (with a school group, in a family, on your own…) — but also, as you point out, the question of voice and not just the presence of multiple voices but their legibility as multiple voices… thank you again!

David Francis 11/09/2020 4:03 pm

Dear Jona, Thank you so much for your insightful and rich presentation detailing your North American Odyssey. I really found your categorisation of time in the museum into museum temporalities (story time, discourse time, exhibition time, museum time, experience time) and how they can exist together super useful. I also really liked your different categories for annotations (covering/concealing, commenting, adding voices/perspectives, intervening). Both of these typologies add to my vocabulary and conceptual thinking regarding museum graphic and narratives. It’s a really interesting contrast to have with what has been happening here in the UK in the wake of Colston – where the focus has been very much on the physical removal of the statues. For example, at the British Museum where the interventions have really focussed on the pedestal. I.e. the idea of Hans Sloane being pushed off the pedestal (‘depestalised’) and placed within the glass case. What’s interesting is just up the road at the British Library I think they’re planning a much more graphic-based approach to deal with their problematic busts (including Sloane) in the lobby. An indicator perhaps of value the representative institution’s place on graphic text and physical objects.

Thread: Using the past to inform the present

Claire Wintle Topic starter   
Dear all, thank you for these papers – I was struck by the ways in which the past was a particular spectre or presence in all of your presentations – mostly as something to be critiqued moving forward. Can I ask you all what you think the challenges of working with the past are, in creating an anti-racist, socially just future? (insert your own hopes here!) I’m interested in your perspectives as researchers – what do we have to discount, acknowledge, understand in order to write about the past as we plan for the future?

But also, what are your perspectives as practitioners? This is for all of you, all active designers/architects, but Nina and Lisa, in particular, I was really struck by the physical, emotional (?) presence of the past in relation to your artistic and curatorial practice. What were the challenges of this as you were developing your fascinating project?

Thanks all!

Jona Piehl   
Claire, very good question, and multifaceted. I would differentiate between two different dimensions of ‘past’ in the museum (in addition to the specific past of an object, that is); on the one hand, as a question of how we conceive of history and how this shapes how we construct the past (in specific traditions and frameworks of continuity, causality, progress) through exhibits and reconstructions (speaking to points raised, e.g., in the talks of Kate Hill or Tim McNeil) and who gets a say in what pasts we tell in museums. On the other hand, there is the history of the museum institution, manifest in architecture, exhibits, practices, and the question of how a museum grapples with this past, how it is reflected upon, deconstructed, redesigned (and: ‘how much of our past do we need/want/can we bear in our galleries to move forward’). — A nice cross-reference here, of course, to Anna Tulliach’s paper!
Francesca Liuni   
Dear Claire, thank you for your great question. The answer, as @jona highlighted, it’s challenging and definitely connected with understanding all the intertwined layers of past we deal with in designing an exhibition: the ”actual” (if we can say so) past of the object, the reconstructed/reinterpreted past of the object, the past embedded in the architecture and the aesthetics of the past (with all their absorbed controversial meanings) hidden in the exhibition design. I would also add, enlarging the concept of past, visitors’ past, in the sense of their knowledge of history and their capacity of interpreting it. Very complex! However, I want to try to share some hopes for imagining a more socially just future, as you asked. I think the acknowledgment of the existence of all these layers of past plus the understanding that none of them is neutral is already a first step toward a better practice. And in this wonderful conference we had a lot of papers criticizing and discussing this issue, so we are going in the right direction. The question (and maybe you can give me your perspective) is, once we learned from the past and managed to eradicate its controversial aspects, both in curatorial, graphic and architecture/design, how do we rebuild? How do we create new principles that are informed by the past but at the same the disconnected? Maybe I am being to radical but I think we need a rupture in order to propose a change. Unfortunately, I have only the perspective of the architect, teaching and working on museum/exhibition design and architectural preservation, so I keep thinking about spatial aesthetics or meanings embedded in architecture as a way to solve this controversy. But it should be a collaborative effort, maybe based on a systematic questioning of all the aspect of the exhibitions, nothing taken for granted. Maybe not looking for one approach but create always a different approach according to the object/topics of the exhibit we design (and all the other parameters we identified). Maybe questioning is the answer to be more inclusive. 
Claire Wintle Topic starter   
Dear Jona and Francesca, thank you for your thoughtful responses. As you know, there is a lot of contemporary commentary addressing your question, Francesca. In my own thinking (still very much in flux), I am struck by Audre Lorde’s assertion that ‘the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’, but am also deeply concerned that museums (or at least those who tweet about them!) rarely acknowledge the socially just and anti-racist work that some exhibition makers have been doing for a long time. In terms of learning from history and then rebuilding, I think Bernadette Lynch’s work on collaboration, trust and conflict is really instructive. And, of course, any ‘rebuilding’ has to be done with an acknowledgement (and redress) of the power hierarchies in museums (curator/designer/technician/community/maker/user/visitor…). Proper monetary compensation for the work that each group does is also critical. Thisarticle by Sumaya Kassim is one of my favourite article on decolonial museum practice. Thanks again for your great contributions to the conference!
Jona Piehl   
yes, absolutely — putting up a graphic panel somewhere cannot be a get-out-of-jail card if the rest of the exhibit is left as is under the banner of ‘yes, but it’s such an important/beautiful/innovative xyz’…
Claire Wintle Topic starter   
Hi @jona and @liuni Have you listened to Lisa Newby’s fascinating paper in Panel 14 that explores this particular issue – @lisanewby elequently argues that these histories are important in fragmenting current approaches to display
Francesca Liuni   
Dear Claire, thank you for suggesting Sumaya Kassim article, I really enjoyed it. I agree with you, there are a lot of curators and exhibition makers who have done and who are doing socially just and anti-racist work. And they are rarely acknowledged (or not acknowledged enough). Maybe because these efforts are still in the framework of museums that represent the criticized Eurocentric authority and it will take time (or maybe radical change?) before they lose their historical significance. It’s like the container (museum) is still shadowing the content (efforts of exhibition makers). As Kassim wrote ”the legacies of European colonialism are immeasurably deep, far-reaching and ever-mutating”. She raises great questions about tokenism and the risk of seeing decoloniality as the latest British accomplishment, and you may know better then me how controversial the debate is right now. Hierarchy of powers and larger interests may be a second reason why some of the past and current efforts of decolonizing did not get the deserved attention. An obstacle much more difficult to overcome.
Francesca Liuni   
Hi Claire, yes I just listened to her presentation. I really enjoyed her analysis on the implication of Modernism and Modern art in the the practices of display. I was very glad to find a lot of affinities with my presentation!
Jona Piehl   
Just watched it, too — I really appreciated the notion of taking reception histories into account, as this broadens the process of reflexion to include the audiences!

(Claire, could the talks not remain open over the weekend, to give us just a tiny extension? I am sure after the panel, people will want to go back to things that got mentioned…)

Lisa McDonald   
Thank you all for such an interesting conversation! For me, the way we think about and around objects, particularly those from the Pacific, needs to reflect multiple histories and biographies. The idea of ‘the past’ in Pacific ways of thinking and being must be acknowledged – time is not a static entity but a living, breathing space that has no beginning / before or end / after. ‘Historical’ objects are alive in the present and continue to hold their power. That said, I think as curators we need to strike a (sometimes very fine) balanced and respectful representation that conveys the complexity of an object’s biography. Emotional engagement with museum collections resides with multiple actors. In the context of Pacific objects – it’s maker and their descendants, collectors / donors and their descendants, and institutional staff (past and present), to name a few. My hope moving forward is that all museums will be generous with access to their collections and open to collaborative working practices that surface multiple and rich stories, histories and interpretations!
Lisa McDonald   
I agree it would be great if the presentations could be viewed over the weekend. Fingers crosed


Thread: ‘ARE PASIFIKA’: the display of Pacific collections, old and new, in Aotearoa New Zealand

Alison Murfitt Topic starter   
Thank you to Nina, Lisa and Hamish for a really thoughtful presentation. I would be interested to know more about how the project and the display was received by wider museum staff and also by the Pacific community in Christchurch? Also was the display there just temporarily or is it permanent? Thanks.
Nina Humphries  
Kia ora Alison 

As Lisa stated in the presentation a very small number of Pacific items are permanently on display in the Museum and virtually all of the items in ‘Are Pasifika had never been seen out of storage. Having these items out had a profound effect on the Pacific community because they never knew they existed in their home town. Pacific peoples do not see themselves as part of the Christchurch landscape so seeing items that reflected their ancestors was a real highlight. I received many messages during the display period from members of the Pacific community that had visited the Museum with their families for the first time even though they had lived in Christchurch for many years. The items encouraged generous inter-generational talanoa (conversations) as grandparents explained how an item may be used or a father remembering stories told by his grandparents.  The work encouraged belonging and Pacific peoples seeing these items shared immense pride towards them and the display, however this was layered with sadness as the items were gone quickly and they wanted to see more.

Canterbury Museum staff were very accommodating and interested in the objects as well as conversations they provoked. They saw what it meant to the community and since then together we have created more opportunities for the items to be view. Lisa was a big part of this connecting to different community groups and providing celebratory viewings. Although their are no plans for the Museum to place more items permanently on display they are very open to more viewings by the community. 

As for the wider community, when you walked into the Museum the display was a visual feast not only because of its vibrancy but also how the items were displayed. They called for exploration lapping over each other, one item to the next. There were no information cues, just the items singing by themselves calling visitors over. Although I only received messages from the Pacific community I would often go visit and sit with the items. People would always linger just that little bit longer. 

Lisa McDonald 
Hi Ali!

The project was well received by wider museum staff and presented an opportunity for others to witness processes of collaboration. It also allowed colleagues a chance to better understand the embedded relationships between Pacific peoples and their material culture.

Sadly, the exhibition was only temporary and, as mentioned in the presentation, there are very few Pacific objects on display at any given time.

hank you to all presenters in this session.

Thank you Nina, Lisa and Hamish for the presentation about ‘ARE PASIFIKA’. 

Nina, your descriptions of the Pasifika objects in terms of the relationships between them (vā) and the power in them (mana) was really powerful in showing the importance of the language we use and the limitations of English for describing different ways of knowing. I also found your articulation of the time-less nature of these objects incredibly important for understanding what happens when objects are framed in specific ways. Your words: ‘There is no past and present. They live in the in-between, which is the var’ really resonated with me.

It is great to hear that the project was such as positive experience for Pasifika peoples living in Ōtautahi . Are there any aspects of the project that will be developed further with or by the local community?

Nina Humphries   
Kia orana Enya

Thank you for your time,

It was very important for me to provide or give back the Mana of these items respecting and holding the Va between the items,their makers and their people. When looking through the Museums store rooms and opening their boxes they just radiated energy, like they belonged in your hands forever. I do not pretend to fully understand what the Va is not being a Pacific speaker myself although it resonates with me and gives weight to the spiritual connections I feel.Somethings are so deeply encoded in language that coming up with a meaning seems to deflect from it. It is somewhere between tangible and entangle, a spirit that links us to everything and everyone, a poetic thread that pulls and binds circling all that is and was. I agree that using the Language in which items were made enables us to explore or have greater understanding of their meaning and purpose. 

Museums and collection houses 99% of the time are only interested in the function, anthropological and ethnographic facts of Pacific items. This is deeply concerning to me as we see the effects of colonization, globalization and capitalism exploded in the Pacific. If language and Pacific modes of thinking are not used with our taonga in-regards to safe keeping and display we will lose the deep and powerful knowledge they hold. Which I am sure is the case for many other indigenous cultures.

Capturing this knowledge and learning about these objects and how to reclaim them spiritual as living objects has become a real passion and since creating a relationship with the Museum it has lead to further display and exploration of these themes. In 2019 exhibition VaOceansBetween held by Christchurch City Council showcased a larger amount of Pacific objects.local Pacific visual artists, Poets and theater groups created new work inspired by the items and were displayed along side them. This aligned with ‘Are Pasifika as the new items were not seen as separate from the Taonga presented just an extension of them. It was widely attended and in the months it was on saw over 200,000 visitors. ‘

As a further development Are Pasifika  empowered me to start a charitable Trust Tagata Moana. Where Pacific knowledge systems such as these items drive STEM education and experiences for Pacific peoples. These programs ask New Zealand Pacific peoples to learn about these objects, document their reactions and knowledge about them and re-make or interpret them through new technologies and materials.  

Meitaki Ma’ata



Thread: Decolonising on different scales?

Johanna Strunge Topic starter
Dear all, thanks yo much for presentations. I listened to all four of them over the last few days and they resonated a lot with me. What struck me especially in retrospect is how different your examples were. From reflecting and critising the whole architecture of many modern museums (Francesca) to laborious redesign of one showcase (Nina and Lisa). This was a fascinating range to see. Especially the latter one told me that decolonisation is also something which needs (next to the big / questioning of the whole-criticism of course) also the small, careful work that is also thinking through a space which is only as big as 1m x 1,5m. I would be curious, how did you feel about the different examples presented? Could you resonate with them, did some new links come up for you by making you part of one panel?
Jona Piehl 
Johanna, thank you, you raise a really good point — and indeed one that struck me, too, when watching the other presentations… I guess, for me, it emphatically underlines the complexity of exhibitions as texts and the need to engage on many levels in their making: it can’t just be about the selection and arrangement of objects, but also, it can’t just be about the space or just about the texts accompanying the objects as focusing on one aspect and losing sight of another might well undo the efforts you make in that one aspect.

This is something I find difficult to negotiate in research as well, to find that balance between really focusing on the detail (such as the typographic design of a label) while not losing sight of how this sits in a bigger context and is experienced never on its own but in this context… Also part of what makes exhibitions so exciting!

Francesca Liuni 
Hi Johanna, thank you for your comments. I am very glad to know that our presentations resonates with you. Answering to your question, being part of this panel definitely made me think about my paper from a different perspective and seeing all the other wonderful presentation, which discuss so critically aspects of exhibition I am not focused on professionally, was extremely encouraging. Knowing that similar issues are visible in different fields but they all converge in the exhibition making process was very interesting and definitely something I was not expecting. 
Johanna Strunge Topic starter
Thanks, Jona and Francesca, for your answers! And thanks a lot, Jona, for your thought about exhibitions as being complex texts, which has to be considered and thought through, especially in a process of decolonisation. On the one hand side, I totally agree!!! On the other hand side, I am still struck by Nina and Lisa’s example which also shows that thourough efforts can be undertaken in one space of the museum, meanwhile leaving other parts (totally) untouched. The visitors seemed to have understood that and valued the “small” changes. I think this is interesting because it could also give rise to pragmatic approaches in attempts to change museum institution. Don’t get me wrong, I very enthousiastically witness the changes and discussions in many museums in the context of more awareness of the colonial past in the last few years. But on an abstract level I am still trying to combine the different scopes of your papers in this panel. =) I guess maybe your contribution, Jona, is the best example to bridge these attempts as you have so wonderfully described modes of transformation in the museum that are not changing everything right away but creating a space of multiple temporalities, the old and the new, the original text and its comment.


Thread: Designing to decolonise

Kirsty Kelso Topic starter   
Thank you Beatriz Martínez Sosa for your presentation. Working for a design company I totally agree that many museums downplay or even ignore the role of design in exhibitions. I like your description of it as ‘an essential ally’. In our experience, few museum visitors want to read texts on walls, so there is great power in the ‘wordless communication’ of design.
Jona Piehl   
I completely agree!

Thank you, Beatriz, for your presentation — your conclusions speak to many of the questions that I am trying to grapple with also… I particularly liked this notion of the exhibit as a spatial melody, as a sequence of notes and pauses, I think you talked about this in the example of Rivière’s exhibitions, and the possible analytical frame this offers! J

Beatriz Martínez Sosa   
Thank you very much for your comments, Kirsty. As designers, our job is to communicate visually and I think this function is particularly important in museums, where, as you say, few visitors want to read texts. I am interested in seeing the exhibition as a visual text written in the space, and from this viewpoint, design is essential.
Beatriz Martínez Sosa   
Thank you, Jona. I enjoyed your presentation very much. The “strategies of annotation” you presented are relevant for my research in many ways. As a museumgoer, and as a designer, I prefer annotation instead of the complete redesign of exhibition rooms or dioramas, at least as a transitional stage. I appreciate when museums make the process transparent for the audience, when rather than conceal or erase the past, they assume their voice and address to us saying “see, we are changing,” allowing us to read the different layers of meaning.
Sara Woodbury   
Thank you Jona Piehl for your video. I just finished watching it and I really appreciated your discussion of visual reflexivity as rhetoric in decolonizing exhibition design. More specifically, I appreciated your articulation of how it’s not just the content, but the placement, legibility, and engagement with extant exhibitions that convey meaning to visitors. When you were at the Field Museum, did you by chance encounter the Malvina Hoffman sculptures? They had a new interpretive exhibit on them a couple of years ago, but your discussion on placement resonates with me, as they seemed to be located in a pretty far-off section of the museum. If you saw it, what were your thoughts on where it was situated? Also, I just learned about Carl Cotton for the first time a couple of days ago so I appreciated your inclusion of his work as a case study!
Francesca Liuni    
Thank you Jona Piehl and Beatriz Martinez Sosa for your presentations. I particularly enjoyed your critical perspectives on how museums underestimates the implications of the aesthetics of both graphic design and exhibition design. It very much resonate with what I partly discussed in my lecture. As Jona said in her lecture, ”design in inherently political” and everything we do as designers embeds meanings that are not always visible. It was a pleasure to listen to your lectures and learning that a debate on the role of design in the process of decolonizing museums has started. I wish we will find a way to continue this discussion!
Jona Piehl   
yes, precisely — I am interested in this simultaneity of content next to each other and how these layers of meaning, of interpretation, of framings can be shown. Something that Nina Oberg mentioned, talking about the nature of the specific set of objects they were working with, as having no past or future (if I understood this accurately, Nina?), is really interesting in this respect as well, the idea of an object itself as the ‘timeless’ core of a display and the various temporalities of interpretation around and in dialogue…

I didn’t see the Malvina Hoffman scultpures — we only had (too) little time at the museum, unfortunately, always too little time! I would be interested to hear more about the story behind these…?

The Carl Cotton exhibit had just opened when we visited, I think — I really enjoyed how the insertions interrupted the existing narratives and how it functions on multiple levels, both the biographical story but also prompting a discussion about museological topics such as preparation and construction of exhibits. There is a lot of documentation online about the process of developing the project, which is great to delve into!

yes!!! Your talk really spoke to this, the architectural codes of display that evoked through even the most seemingly ‘neutral’ displays. I only very briefly touched on that, but from a graphic design perspective, I would include in particular the visual language of object labels, the genre conventions of how information is structured, presented, what information is included or left out, etc, here…

Hajra Williams   
Thank you Jona for your presentation –great discussion and the examples made the problems/solutions very real. Towards the end of your presentation you spoke of the danger of a temporary fix and the necessity of embedding design strategies, of trying for this work not to be understood as messy, inconsistent design- but I feel surely this is a central part of both design and decolonising work. The search for solutions, the temporary fix, the sharing of it with audiences – the messiness is a part of the design process and also part of the solution – the main issue is whether institutions are able to commit to this work in an authentic way.
Jona Piehl   
Hajra, thank you! Yes, this is a good point and I probably condensed it a bit too much in my conclusion. I think the messiness is at the core, actually, and the need to show this messiness and make it transparent as that, as an open-ended negotiation of interpretations, or rather, in these instances, as addressing, grappling with past interpretations. The question that arises for me, though, is how this is legible as intentional messiness, if you will, in contrast to an accidental messiness. I would be the first to argue that sometimes texts (referring to the exhibition as ‘text’) aren’t meant to be easy, cannot be simple and straightforward, have to be as complex and potentially as complicated as the matters they represent, the stories they tell. At the same time, considering inclusive exhibition-making, there is the point where texts become inaccessible.

The other point, about the temporary fix, again, absolutely. I would always stress that any temporary fix is better than waiting around until some time when perhaps there might be funds to redo something. And as a graphic designer, especially, I would point to the many very simple fixes available (demonstrated by the example of the diorama, which, just in terms of production, is a very easy thing to do). As you say, it’s a question of how institutions commit to creating such ‘open’ moments, where a discussion begins, where things are visibly in progress and under negotiation (rather than, curated/designed, built, opened to the public). J

Hajra Williams   
thanks Jona- I understand where you are coming from now. Yes, it is a balancing act between many things, including legibility in terms of ensuring inclusivity and curation and design aspects. But in many ways, I feel the first hurdle is intentionality – the institution has to make those first steps and make them in a meaningful way. 
Sara Woodbury   
I totally understand about not having enough time to see everything, especially at a place like the Field Museum. They’re bronze sculptures that the Field Museum commissioned sculptor Malvina Hoffman to do as part of a “Hall of Man”-type exhibit in the 1930s. She ended up creating over a hundred different pieces intended to illustrate different races and ethnicities as understood at the time. The original exhibit was dismantled in the 1960s, but they’re on view again in a new interpretation: . I happened to run into them when I was visiting with a friend a couple of years ago, and while we both agreed the museum was right to address the pieces and their problematic history, we thought the exhibit wasn’t in the most accessible location.

I’ll definitely have to check out the Carl Cotton materials online. Thanks so much for letting me know about them!

Jona Piehl   
 thank you, this is really interesting! 

I can’t of course comment on this specific exhibit (though, yes, I would say placement/location/accessibility in terms of visibility as part of a museum visit are certainly key considerations…), but overall it seems that the Field is making an effort to address their history as it is manifest in the displays and are working with different approaches – it would be interesting to hear whether they have any audience evaluations on this.

Samuel Aylett   
Loved the papers Jona and Beatriz, I am new to this field, and I am so excited, and I have already learnt so much, so thank you. @jona and @Beatriz, I watched both of your videos one after the other, and what you said in your conclusion Beatriz made me think of Jona’s graphic interventions. You suggested that restitution may deny museums of the ability for self-reflection and criticality, but the potential absence of the objects, along with a graphic intervention, could well allow for reflexivity and self-criticism in their absence. Restitution is an increasingly febrile debate, and whilst I think we all agree that design has been an underestimated tool in decolonising the presence of these objects in Western museums is an extension of their colonial violence. Just a thought. Really loved the papers in this panel, and thank you all. 
Jona Piehl   
thank you, this is a good point: this could constitute another category in my attempted typology, the use of graphic interventions/annotations in tandem with restitution, serving to ensure that a removal does not result in the disappearance of the issue along with the objects, by pointing to and reflecting on the act of restitution, its necessity, its context in the history of the collection, the institution.
Samuel Aylett
this is exactly what I thought when I saw both presentations back-to-back, and it made me think of the recent activism that saw Colston dumped in Bristol docks (and the removal of other statues in Europe, South Africa, North American and elsewhere. The removal and subsequent absence of the statues both act as history and meaning making, and a creative act, which in turn allow for creative interventions to highlight the purpose of these acts going forward. I think your graphic interventions can help to achieve and sustain similar results. I am based in Berlin, and I would love to discuss this more at some point.
Claire Wintle   

@samaylett This was done after the repatriation of the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt from Glasgow Museums and Art Galleries, 1999. You can see some of the graphic panels here. Mark O’Neill pushed forward the repatriation and writes about it: O’Neill, Mark. “Repatriation and Its Discontents: The Glasgow Experience”, in Who Owns Objects? The Ethics and Politics of Collecting Cultural Artefacts. Eds. by Eleanor Robson, Luke Treadwell and Chris Gosden. Oxford: Owbow Books, 2007.

Samuel Aylett   

 thank you so much Claire, the Lakota Ghost Dance Shirt has always been in my periphery but I didn’t know this (only that it had been repatriated). It’s on my reading list 😊. 

Claire Wintle  
Maddra, Sam “The Wounded Knee Ghost Dance Shirt.” Journal of Museum Ethnography 8 (1996): 41-58. is good too – I can send you a copy if you email me.
Jona Piehl   

@claire-w Claire, I would be interested in this, too! Thank you for these pointers…

Claire Wintle   

Hello @jona and Sam – I just remembered that my clever colleague at UoB Veronica Isaac had drawn my attention to this recent clip on empty cases that might be interesting for you:

On 7th June 2020, protestors in Bristol rewrote the city’s history by pulling down a statue of 17th-century slave trader Edward Colston, and dumping it in the harbour. The damaged statue has since been retrieved and there are plans to display it elsewhere, complete with the red daubs of protestors’ paint, and Black Lives Matter placards.

The event has triggered a discussion amongst Britain’s curators about what objects are acceptable for display in museums and galleries in 2020. Some museums have entire collections established on the wealth of the slave trade or acts of colonial plunder, others have items that might now be deemed racially or culturally insensitive. For some, it’s the context and settings of collections that reveal a distinctly racist interpretation of history. As one museum curator has put it, “in Britain, you’re never more than 150 miles from a looted African object”.

Gary Younge speaks to the curators as they currently review what’s on display in UK museums and how they’re re-writing the way we revere, remember and acknowledge Britain’s historical moments.

As Gary finds out, when the public is re-admitted to museums after the current lockdown, there is a distinct possibility that some display cases may have notable absences.

Producer: Candace Wilson
Editor: David Prest
A Whistledown production for BBC Radio 4

Hajra Williams   

@jona and @Beatriz – like @samaylett I watched your presentations back-to-back and thought they were thought provoking in trying to think of solutions and interventions – agree with Sam that there is an important role for design and graphic intervention but in these it’s important to acknowledge the audience and interrogate the purpose. As you had asked for examples @jona (and apologies if the following is not exactly what you were thinking of) – I do have an example from my own work history. @claire-w, you may be interested but it is a very practical example and in many ways, I took on the role of client but also ‘designer’, but mostly because it’s a small museum, we had limited funds and I was keen to do something that was in keeping with the existing museum design.

I wanted to illustrate through this example that I worked on, that if the institution begins with intentionality, if we keep design uppermost, focusing on appropriateness, suitability for the task, functionality, ethical responsibility and how all these relate to the museum, the wider community and the audience we may begin to develop solutions. But I feel often what is missing is trust in the design process, intentionality and ethical responsibility.

It hasn’t been written about, so you won’t find articles on it although I have spoken about it at a Museums Association event and the Mary Seacole Trust did a piece on it. I was Education Manager for a year (and deputy Director for part of that time time), at the Florence Nightingale Museum and inherited a project to insert more interpretation on Mary Seacole in the museum – the initial idea was to include a portrait of her in the museum. No objects relating to Mary survive but there are a few images including a portrait, plus her own autobiography. The Florence Nightingale Museum is an independent museum dedicated to Florence, situated in the basement of St Thomas’ Hospital. It is of particular importance of course to nurses globally, as Florence professionalised nursing so it is an important national and international collection but it is also in the heart of a diverse community in Lambeth so has a responsibility to its local community. As a museum, we had a number of things to deal with including a back story to Mary and Florence (Mary tried to join the Florence’s nurses in Crimea but was blocked etc), issues around racism in nursing, particularly from the 60s onwards, politics of different stakeholders.

Two further practical problems were:

  • it is a small museum with an integrated design- interpretation needed to be discreet but also with a bold purpose/vision
  • few visual resources or collections exist from which to draw on for Mary (which is a problem because certain histories have been ignored, erased or just not collected)

My own experience is in museum education and interpretation but I also have a background in design (not in graphics or exhibiton design I hasten to add)- and as someone who understands marginalisation and the undervaluing of black and brown histories, I managed to move the conversation from simply a passive ‘label’ to something that was more active. We developed a ‘theatre door’ (which when opened could be used to stage performances and storytelling) using a life-size image of Mary in the British Hotel.

Jona Piehl   

@h_will2 and @claire-w — thank you for these!

Hajra, what a great example, thank you, this is exactly what I was hoping for — I would love to see images of this (Your attachment didn’t show at my end, maybe you could repost? and maybe I could email you at some point to hear a bit more about it?)

Claire, yes, the question of statues and monuments in the public realm certainly is part of this (in a way, the topic seeped into my presentation around the AMNH statue). I don’t know whether you know of the new exhibition at the Zitadelle Spandau in Berlin, ‘Unveiled. Berlin and its monuments’ which opened in 2016 and shows a wild selection of statues that used to be up across Berlin and have been taken down, including Lenin’s head.

While I would have liked a little more explanation to the individual statues, it offers a way of ‘taking the statues off the pedestal’ and out of the public realm without, indeed, just ‘willfully forgetting’ them…

Hajra Williams   

@jona yes of course, happy to discuss more via email. The is the original image we found – an engraving of Mary with Alexei Soyer in her British Hotel. With the help of a designer friend, I managed to crop and enlarge the image to life-size and position it so the focus is on Mary when the the door is opened, creating a display, backdrop to events and activities. It’s all very simple of course- the point I was trying to make is that the museum already did actor enactments as part of the education offer so it was a neat fit.

Andrea Witcomb   

Hi Jona

just wanted to say how much i enjoyed your presentation. I was struck by the way in which i think we are both interested in classifying different design/curatorial strategies in order to understand how they structure visitor engagement and shape relations between different peoples across time and space. Your focus on who was speaking in these various interventions, how they were doing so and with what effect seems to me similar to the kinds of questions I am asking as well with my notions of different pedagogical styles. Interestingly, labels are part of what i focus on as well! The question of voice and how that is embedded in both text and design is just so important for how questions of temporality then translate to what possibilities visitors then have to engage with their own position in relation to the past, to the museum itself, to constructions of knowledge and to their own relationship to the people whose histories they are engaging with. Thank you for the opportunity to learn how you approach these questions through your analysis of how labels play with time, narrative and voice and thus with politics and poetics.

Samuel Aylett   

Dear all (this thread has grown),

Claire thank you for posting the Gary Younge empty cases, it was a great listen. And it made me remember the artist/activist statue that was put up in place of Colston which similarly caused some controversy. 

Hajra (I’ve still not learnt how to tag people), I really like what you say about intentionality and the active in designing for a purpose. It was the case with the MoL that labels were viewed in their typical way, top/middle/lower tier information for didactic purposes but no intentionality in terms of contact and as Andrea has mentioned voice and temporality. 

I’ve just come across this (attached) -going back to restitution- having stumbled across it on twitter. The item is on permanent loan and the language is ropey at beat, but a graphic interventions non the less at the BM in their empire and collecting trail. 

Jona Piehl   

@h_will2 Hajra, thank you! I will get in touch post-conference — looking forward to unpacking all of this conversation (@samaylett Sam, indeed, this thread has grown! I need to make sure to save it in some way…) 
I just saw a thread on the BM empire and collecting trail, too (you attachment didn’t come through but I think I know which object you refer to) — this is another good example, one could unpick not only the words but, again, also its graphic design and the way in which it visually stays within the institutional language/format…

@awitcomb Andrea, thank you so much for your comments — indeed, your conceptualisation of different pedagogies really struck a chord with me, as precisely, I feel the modes of experience (and perhaps levels of reading content) are crucial in disentangling the ‘typology’ a little bit and push for more precise examination of what happens in these instances especially with a view to how they are then read/engaged with by audiences. 
Yes, labels — such mundane objects and yet…!

 Hajra Williams   

@samaylett Hi Sam- I think it’s good to keep purpose and intention in mind, particularly in thinking about audiences and intention for me brings in issues of ethics (towards the subject as well as people you are working with).

I’d like to hear more about your research and the labels you mention at MoL. May be we can pick this up afterwards.

Beatriz Martínez Sosa   

Thank you for your comments, @samaylett. I totally agree with you, absence could also allow self-criticism if it is explained. The important thing here is to make evident that there is a missing object instead of its mere removal.

I also think that the presence of these objects is a reminder of their colonial violence, is just that restitution is often made as a simple, even naive attempt to erase the past, a form of political correction that avoids to go deeply into the complexity of geopolitical contexts, when it is precisely this complexity that makes the situation an opportunity for curators and designers, to change discourses in reflective and creative ways.

Samuel Aylett   

Yes let’s definitely do that. I think there will be lots of follow ups from the conference. It’s great to see the amount of sharing and engaging with ideas online in he same way we would in person. 

Samuel Aylett   

@beatriz_mtzsosa Yes, I totally agree, I didn’t think of the nuance between absence and removal, and this will give me much to chew over 🙂 Thank you. 

And again, totally agree, with how the debate over restitution is often simplified. I gave a paper concerning this at the OU the other month, looking at the often febrile and polarised nature of the debate. And certainly, not much though or attention (from what i’ve seen researching the Bronzes) is given to people and their views, historically or in the present, about restitution. 

Thanks again for such a great paper 🙂



Thread: The aesthetics of depoliticized exhibitions

Patricio del Real Topic starter
Dear Francesca, thank you for your presentation; I very much appreciated your observations on the ways modernist aesthetics are used to depoliticize the space of the museum. The case studies you presented are fascinating, and your concluding point on the construction of belonging and exclusion is right on point. There is much to be said on the overlaps and coincidences between abstract aesthetics and ‘functionalist’ exhibition designs at MoMA and how these are deployed by each department. It would be interesting to juxtapose ‘Painting and Sculpture’ and ‘Architecture and Design’ exhibitions, taking into account inherent differences and particularities of each department. Much here to discuss! 

Thank you for your comments on my presentation.

Patricio del Real

Lisa Newby 09/09/2020 11:04 am
Hi Francesca, really enjoyed listening to your presentation and seeing these examples brought together to show how this mode of display is far from neutral – so useful for drawing attention to who benefits from decisions to opt for this type of exhibition design – especially, as you highlight, regarding feelings of inclusion/exclusion and ownership.  I was especially interested in you references to the potential of more transparency about this in museums. Thank you!
Francesca Liuni 09/09/2020 10:12 pm
Hi Lisa, thank you for your comments. I just listened to your presentation and really enjoyed your perspective of curator and art historian on the issue of Modernism in museums connected with the rethorics of Modern Art in displaying non-Western art. It’s interesting how some of the examples we both discussed are very well known exhibits which, as you said, generate mix responses over the years. However, the issues they created seem very contemporary and useful to revisit since we still see some of these practices in action, if not in the curatorial in the forms of the exhibition design (which inevitably inform the curatorial), as you very well highlighted in your presentation. Thank you for your wonderful lecture! I wished we could have had the occasion to discuss in person.


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