Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 12: Designing for collections (I): image, text, knowledge

Panel Overview:

Elisa de Noronha Nascimento, CITCEM/University of Porto, Portugal) Exhibition design for artists’ books: a short handbook

Peter Lester (Independent, UK) The archivist as curator

Sophie Cras (University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, France) and Claire-Lise Debluë (University of St Andrews, UK/University of Paris 1 Pantheon-Sorbonne, France) Exhibition design and the making of economic knowledge (19th-21st Centuries)

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


Regarded as a specific artistic production that was consolidated through the conceptual experiences of the 1960s and 1970s, the artist’s book is, par excellence, an art form of the 20th century. However, the artist’s book has only very recently secured a place in museum collections, requiring these institutions to develop a whole conceptual and critical apparatus to establish and define this position, which is simultaneously physical, symbolic and epistemological, and to create the poetics and policies for its musealisation.

The artist’s book is closely linked to the critical position of artists against artistic institutions, expressed, for example, in the use of alternative strategies for circulating their works of art. However, the artist’s book is consolidated as an art object or an object of Art, which is defined in the aesthetic, cultural, temporal and tactile relation with its reader. The artist’s book thus rests in an ambiguous space between art and book. Which exhibition methods have marked the recent history of the artist’s book in museums?

Which exhibition design approaches were devised taking into consideration its hybrid nature? Which exhibition design strategies were developed having in mind the space/time needed for the public to relate to the artist’s book?

My aim with this communication is to provide answers to these questions, featuring examples of museum exhibition designs that, examined together, form a concise visual and critical handbook for the development of exhibition design for artist’s books.

Elisa Noronha, researcher at CITCEM – Transdisciplinary Research Centre ‘Culture, Space and Memory’, holds a Ph.D and Post-Doctorate degree in Museology by the Faculty of Arts and Humanities of the University of Porto (FLUP). She has regularly collaborated in teaching and research activities in the Masters in Museology at FLUP and in the Masters in Museum Studies and Curatorial Practices of the Faculty of Fine Arts of the University of Porto since 2014. Her research interests cover the intersection between Museology and Art Studies, taking museums and contemporary art centres as its focal point, and contemporary art itself as an exceptionally important way of thinking and of thought-provoking. She has provided expert advice in Museology and Curatorship since 2015, and in the design and execution of cultural art projects. In the past 5 years, she has published articles and presented papers, organised scientific, cultural and artistic events, seminars, publications and exhibitions. Amongst her publications, special mention must be made of her book Discursos e reflexividade: um estudo sobre a musealização da arte contemporânea, Porto: CITCEM/Edições Afrontamento, 2015 [Discourses and reflexivity: a study on the musealisation of contemporary art]. She is currently conducting research on the documentation and exhibition of artists’ publications in contemporary art museums.


Peter Lester (Independent, UK) The archivist as curator

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

What role do archives play in museum exhibitions? Often, they are used to contextualise the artworks and objects on display, to provide insight into the artistic process. Sometimes they are displayed as important objects in their own right. But they also help to showcase the important documentary collections held in museum archives and the work of archivists in bringing this material to wider audiences. Whilst there is an extensive literature around artists working with archival material, there has been less attention paid to the work of archivists themselves in creating exhibitions, as well as working in collaboration with artists and curators.

In this paper, I will examine how archivists working in museums think about and create displays of archival material, often shown alongside artworks and objects but, as in the case of Tate Britain, sometimes exhibited in their own archival gallery within the museum. Using a selection of examples from around the UK and further afield, I will consider how archivists conceive and understand their work in relation to display; the techniques that are used by archivists in museum exhibitions; and the role that archives are understood to play within the museum and art gallery.

Dr Peter Lester has recently completed an Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) Midlands3Cities funded PhD at the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester. His research explores the exhibition and display of archives and wider reshapings of physical archival spaces. I am also a professionally qualified archivist, receiving a master’s degree in Archives and Records Management at the University of Liverpool in 2003. I worked at Nottinghamshire Archives until 2015 as Archivist (Public Services) and later Principal Archivist with responsibility for learning and outreach services, records management, electronic services and collections management.


Sophie Cras (Université Paris I Panthéon-Sorbonne), Claire-Lise Debluë (University of St Andrews/Pantheon-Sorbonne) Exhibition design and the making of economic knowledge (19th-21st Centuries)

Economic knowledge generally appears as essentially abstract. From the mid-19th century onwards, however, many attempts were made to overcome the alleged limitations of conveying abstract information. World’s fairs and exhibitions performed a key role in that process. Alongside technical and commercial museums, they offered a tangible space to showcase the latest developments that were made in the field of social statistics, political economy or, to mention more topical examples, in the field of finance and banking. As the first mass media of the modern era, these displays, became an ideal platform to communicate economic knowledge to a wide audience.

As this presentation will show, turning economic knowledge into visual and material displays raised critical challenges. It took many forms and occurred in different contexts across the 19th and 20th centuries, such as commercial museums, world’s fairs, social museums or traveling exhibits. Recently launched museums such as the Interactive Museo interactivo de economía in Mexico (2006) or the Cité de l’Economie (Citéco) in Paris also provide strong evidence that the financialization and dematerialization of economy found, to some extent, a material and spatial expression in the public space. Bringing together many different players and intermediaries (including but not limited to exhibition designers, curators and appointed experts), who sought to give visual and material shape to abstract information, these exhibitions offer stimulating insights into the long-standing challenges of popularizing economic knowledge through design practices.

This talk will address the practical and epistemological issues at play in the making of economic knowledge. To do so, it will consider the following questions: What was the role of exhibiting economics and what was the goal of their commissioners? How were economic concepts, theories or artifacts displayed, and how did the exhibition design evolve across time? How was the issue of communicating abstract information to a presumably reluctant audience (collectively) tackled by the various players involved in the exhibitions? Building upon a wide range of relevant case studies ranging from the 19th to the 21st centuries, this talk will provide a genealogical approach to the history of economic knowledge through the lens of exhibition design practices and theories.

Dr Sophie Cras is Lecturer in Contemporary Art History at Université Paris 1 Panthéon-Sorbonne. Her research explores the manifold intersections of art and economics, from the economics of art to the aesthetics of economics (The Artist as Economist: Art and Capitalism in the 1960s, Yale University Press, 2019). Her current project, “Economic Knowledge on Display,” inquires into the history of exhibitions and museums devoted to economics since the 19th century.

Dr Claire-Lise Debluë is a postdoctoral fellow and a visiting scholar at St Andrews University and Paris I University. Her research ranges from cultural history of design trades and professions to visual history of economic knowledge, with a strong focus on exhibition history (Exposer pour exporter. Culture visuelle et expansion commerciale en Suisse, 1908-1939, 2015). She received a two-year fellowship from the Swiss National Science Foundation for her current project titled “From Statistical Image to Digital Image: Towards a Cultural and Material History of Data Visualisation, 1870-1950”. She is co-editor of Transbordeur. Photographie, histoire, société (Macula Edition, Paris).




Thread: Displaying Economic Knowledge

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear Sophie and Claire-Lise, thank you for this wonderful paper – I very much enjoyed it. I was especially grateful for your attention to the relationship between past and present, and the self-knowledge practices – through graphics, and participatory practices – you explored were fascinating. I think @jona and @kate_hill would really enjoy it if they haven’t seen it already.

The material on the live demonstrations was incredible. Did you have a sense of how the women felt about being involved in these ways? I wondered if you’d read the work of Saloni Mathur (Mathur, Saloni. “Living Ethnological Exhibits: The Case of 1886.” Cultural Anthropology 15.4 (2000): 492-524) and Rebecca M Brown (Displaying Time: The Many Temporalities of the Festival of India. Seattle, Washington: University of Washington Press, 2017) on the perspectives of workers/performers in these kinds of expo situations? If you haven’t, I’d really recommend it. Thanks again, I really enjoyed it, Claire Wintle



Claire-Lise Debluë   

Dear Claire,

Thank you for your kind words! Your question is absolutely relevant as women were key actors of the social reform movement. Unfortunately, we don’t have additional information about women specifically. It is hard to find any evidence of the actual effects of such participatory media on the spectators, especially women whose opinion is (not surprisingly!) underrepresented in the primary sources available. However, we’ll keep looking!

Thank you for pointing out Mathur’s and Brown’s work, which seems to have a lot in common with our own research– we actually didn’t know about them. Along the same lines, you might be interested in Frans Lundgren’s work about Francis Galton’s experiments and social museums of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. They are very inspiring and proved to be meaningful ressources to us (Frans Lundgren, “The politics of participation: Francis Galton’s Anthropometric Laboratory and the making of civic selves”, British Journal for the History of Science, vol. 3, no 46, 2011; Frans Lundgren, “Making Society a Public Matter”, in Rickard Danell, Anna Larsson, Per Wisselgren (ed.), Social Science in Context. Historical, Sociological and Global Perspectives, Lund, Nordic Academic Press, 2013, 64-77). Kind regards, Claire-Lise.

Kate Hill   

@cdeblue This was such an interesting presentation, so much food for thought, and the reference on social museums looks great! I was reminded of a strange collision of ‘hygienic housing’ and ‘exotic other’ displays – Ballymaclinton at various London exhibitions in the early twentieth century, supposedly about improving housing in Ireland but entirely populated by young women chosen for their clear skin etc. who then had to ride around on donkeys and other picturesque activities. Apart from being ‘charming’, young women were likely seen as easier employees – male demonstrators at Manchester’s Jubilee Exhibition of 1887 went on strike! Some further info ‘Olde worlde’ urban? Reconstructing historic urban environments at exhibitions, 1884–1908.

Jona Piehl   

Sophie and Claire-Lise, indeed, what a great presentation, thank you!
Your discussion of the Swiss social museum reminded me, of course, of the work of Neurath in Vienna — but I hadn’t seen these examples before (which might be a whole other discussion about the way certain exhibitions end up canonised whereas others are forgotten…)
Again, thank you!

Claire-Lise Debluë   

Thank you Kate for your nice feedback and for sharing with us your paper about the circulation of “Old Villages” or “cities” at international exhibitions! The issue of co-production is fascinating and provides to some extent an alternative narrative to the “exhibitionary complex” (Bennett) theory, which is highly compelling. Thanks again!

Claire-Lise Debluë   

Hi Jona, thank you for your enlightening comment! The Gesellschafts- and Wirtschaftsmuseum is certainly the best-known social museum of the inter-war period and it is not easy to find evidence and archival material about other social museums in Europe and in both Americas. The Swiss social museum provides an outstanding insight into the many attempts that were made at the time to popularize statistical and economic knowledge. Yet it has scarcely been mentioned by scholars so far. I am olanning to do further research on that topic in the following months and hope to be able to publish a paper soon after. In case you are interested in the history of social museums and to go beyond Otto Neurath’s museum itself, I highly recommend the book Instituting Reform about the Social Museum of Harvard University (2012). Kind regards, Claire-Lise

Jona Piehl   

@cdeblue ah, thank you, this is a great pointer!

Yannick Le Pape   

Dear Claire & Sophie, I sincerely enjoyed your so innovative topic – you clearly highlight how (and why) economic matters had been exhibited and displayed. No doubt that 19th world’s fairs did create a kind of model that has to be considered outdated by the early 20th century (I studied the topic in an upcoming article dedicated to the biennals), not to mention that they expected to illustrate a typical Western self-content vision of the world.     


Thread: Artists’ books exhibitions

Susana Sanchez-Gonzalez Topic starter   

Hi Elisa, just wanted to let you know how much I’ve enjoyed your presentation. I particularly like the distinction you make between representational and experimental approaches to expository techniques. The subject of my PhD is also books and exhibitions, although I don’t focus on artists’ books. Perhaps, I’m more inclined to think in terms of “rare books”, simply because they tend to dominate exhibition programmes in libraries, the main setting for my investigations. Likewise, my research is not (solely) driven by issues of design but by an interest in the visitor’s emotional responses to the books on display, and the experiences elicited by their engagement with the book-object. However, I do contemplate different approaches to interpretation, and how they may impact on the visitor’s exhibition experience. It would be great to talk further if you are interested. You can connect with me @theTLtweets or email me: 

Elisa Noronha Nascimento   

Hi Susana,

Thank you very much for your message.
I’m very interested in knowing more about your research.
I’ll get in contact with you.


Claire Wintle   

Dear Elisa, thanks for this fascinating paper (it was a great panel all round!) It says a lot about the status of museums (and my perception of them!) that I was shocked that the Bremen museum allowed visitors to make photocopies of the books in the gallery space and take them freely away. I wondered if you could reflect on that curatorial act a little more? It raised all sorts of issues for me, in terms of the museum team enabling a democratic, co-productive activity, as well as issues around object ‘aura’ and conservation.

Thanks so much, Claire Wintle


Thread: The Archivist as Curator

Sara Woodbury Topic starter   

Dear Peter, thank you very much for your articulate and insightful discussion of curatorial practices within exhibitions. I especially appreciated your discussion of the emotional turn regarding visitor engagement with archives, as well as the reframing of archival documents as artworks via their exhibition display, as you mentioned in the Michelangelo exhibition.

One part of your presentation that especially interested me was the digital and analog components of the new archival spaces at Tate Britain. Your discussion of the intergenerational engagement that happens in the digital gallery, with family members turning pages together, etc., reminded me of an analog counterpart at an art installation in Santa Fe called The House of Eternal Return, designed and operated by the collective Meowwolf. It’s a very different experience because you’re basically walking through a trippy haunted house and trying to figure out what happened to the fictional family that used to live there, but there’s still a strong archival impulse underpinning the project, with visitors sifting through documents, watching videos, and otherwise reconstructing the family’s lives via memorialization. When I was there I also noticed an intergenerational trend, with grandparents and grandchildren, etc. working together to solve the mystery. It makes me wonder about the intergenerational potential of archives in terms of memory, documents, etc.

More specifically to your presentation, I was wondering whether the archivists at Tate Britain have noticed a similar intergenerational usage in the archival galleries focused on print material, or whether it tends to happen primarily in spaces where digital activities are available. In the wake of COVID-19 and its impact on museums in terms of visitation, moreover, I’m also wondering whether you’ve observed any increase in the use of digital archives affiliated with art museums, or whether it’s too soon to tell.

Thank you again for a great presentation. I appreciated having the opportunity to learn more about your research.



Peter Lester   

Dear Sara, thank you for your kind comments.  The House of Eternal Return sounds very exciting and a great way to explore and use documentation and archives in a way that can really appeal to broader audiences!

The intergenerational potential of archives is a really interesting one; I think there is a relationship here between document and memory, with echoes of oral history and the interrelationship – and perhaps tensions – between written and spoken accounts of the past.  At Tate, I think the intergenerational use of archives seemed to happen principally in the digital gallery, and this is something that seems to happen in other places too – at Archives+ in Manchester, the archivists there commented on intergenerational experiences with the digital screens and interactives in their interpretive exhibition space, with older family members sharing their memories and younger ones using their skills with technology.  The conversations suggest that this is something that happens most clearly with digital exhibits, but it’s less clear what kind of intergenerational experiences happen with physical exhibits and print material – some more research needed! 

Within archives generally I think there has been a greater increase in digital use due to COVID-19, although there is already an established trend towards digital and online forms of access.  I’m not sure what impact the pandemic has had on digital archive use in art museums, but at Tate this is certainly something which the archivists there are focusing on more generally; a key part of Archives and Access was the digitisation programme, with over 52,000 items being published online.

Thanks Sara!  Peter


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