Museum Exhibition Design

Histories and Futures


Panel 7: Reconstructing exhibition histories: materiality and interpretation

Panel Overview:

Elena Montanari (Politecnico di Milano, Italy) Museographic heritage: the Italian legacy

Anna Tulliach (University of Leicester, UK) Exhibiting museum history within museum spaces: the case studies of the Archaeological Museum of Bologna and the Egyptian Museum in Turin

Louise Macul (University of Leicester, UK) Political by design: the sneaky work of a colonial curator in Borneo

Laura Dudley (University of Leicester, UK) Researching, writing and reconstructing exhibition histories as a resource for future practice: Palle Nielsen’s ‘The Model’, 1968/2013/2014

Elena Montanari (Politecnico di Milano, Italy) Museographic heritage: the Italian legacy

The study of museum conservation is usually focused on strategies and tools related to the preservation of collections. However, in the last decades another component of the museum’s realm is being acknowledged as an area for the application of conservation theories and practices: museographic heritage. With this expression I refer to those groundbreaking spaces and designs realized by architects throughout the 20th century which have played a pivotal role in the evolution of the modern museum. This museographic heritage has served as a testing ground for experimentation with new solutions and as a catalyst for studies in the history of exhibition design. These works have a paradigmatic value, and bear witness to the development of museum culture and its complex inter-disciplinary implications (e.g. intertwining architectural innovations, material traditions, past and present ways of exhibiting and curating, stances on preservation, approaches to art and cultural heritage). Nevertheless, in the conservation of this material heritage, museums have had to come to terms with continuously upgrading their programs, instruments and spaces in order to meet new technical requirements, communication standards and the pressures of socio-cultural change. Hence, throughout the years, many of these masterpieces have been manipulated, damaged or even lost. Today, following the increased awareness of cultural heritage and its various forms, the complex state of museographic heritage is now being problematized, and new ideas about its possible preservation, communication, exhibition, and use in present-day contexts are being shared.

This contribution aims to provide an insight into the progression of this topic in Italy, which was the birthplace of remarkable chapters in the history of exhibition design, especially during the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s. In particular, the paper will explore the condition of some paradigmatic works by Franco Albini, Carlo Scarpa and BBPR, and the recent experiences that have been undertaken around this museographic heritage.

Elena Montanari is Lecturer in Interior Architecture and Exhibition Design at the Department of Architecture and Urban Studies of Politecnico di Milano, where she has carried out research, education and dissemination activities since 2008. She has participated in several national and international research projects in the field of museums and heritage studies (e.g. the EU funded MeLa European Museums in an Age of Migrations), and she is currently responsible for the implementation of various activities promoted within the UNESCO Chair in Architectural Preservation and Planning in World Heritage Cities at the Mantova Campus.


Anna Tulliach (University of Leicester, UK) Exhibiting museum history within museum spaces: the case studies of the Archaeological Museum of Bologna and the Egyptian Museum in Turin

Ever more frequently, over the past decades, museums have reflected on their own history and on the modalities through which to represent it within exhibition spaces, with the purpose to make museum history more accessible to a wider public. Understanding museum history means better comprehension of museum collections: the connection between objects, the evolution of the collection itself, the reasons why a specific object entered the museum. This paper aims to analyse this topic through the investigation of two case studies: the Archaeological Museum of Bologna and the Egyptian Museum in Turin.

It is possible to recognise several different approaches to the representation of museum history within museums: the organisation of entire sections dedicated to museum histories; frequent references to a collection’s history throughout the museum itinerary; the use of original display cases ‘modernised’; a faithful reconstruction of older exhibition displays. The case-studies analysed in this paper include all the mentioned practices. At the Archaeological Museum of Bologna, museum staff have both reconstructed original displays (e.g., the Room of the Prehistoric Comparisons) and employed ancient showcases modernised according to contemporary museum requirements (e.g., Greek and Roman collections). Consequently, museum visitors experience a constant dialogue between ancient and modern museographic practices. At the Egyptian Museum in Turin, the first museum section is dedicated to its history, narrated by the collectors and Egyptologists who assembled its prestigious collections throughout the centuries. The section serves as an introduction to the museum collections displayed in the subsequent exhibition rooms. In this context, the ancient display cases are used exclusively as historical documents. Moreover, throughout the whole museum itinerary there is a constant reference to the history of the museum collections: photographs and documents related to the discovery of the archaeological objects exhibited and of the excavations conducted are frequently used. Besides representing the history of the museum itself, this approach provides a comprehensive view of the history of archaeology and of museum history in general.

Through the investigation of these case-studies, this paper aims to analyse the modalities of expanding the knowledge and perception by visitors of museum history, and to encourage a debate about the most effective ways to represent museum history within the museum itself.

Anna Tulliach graduated from the University of Bologna, School of Arts and Humanities, with an MA thesis about the Civic Museum of Bologna during the years 1921-1944. She conducted research projects on the preservation of museum collections during the two World Wars and the museological practices adopted in interwar years, publishing her work in several academic journals. She is the recipient of the 2019 Journal of Curatorial Studies’ Emerging Writer Award. She has been editor of Museological Review, Issue 23. She is currently a PhD researcher at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Her research investigates the role that Allied troops played in the illicit appropriation of museum objects during the Second World War, with a particular focus on the Italian context.


Louise Macul (University of Leicester, UK) Political by design: the sneaky work of a colonial curator in Borneo

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

In 1955, halfway through Sarawak’s colonial period (1946-1963) Sarawak Museum curator, Tom Harrisson, commenced on a mission to bring the traditional arts from deep within the Borneo rainforest to the urban public of Kuching. He commissioned indigenous carvings and paintings for Museum display throughout his tenure as curator. But as part of a curious plan, he collaborated with artisans of the Berawan tribe to bring their tradition of painting outside of the Museum for installation in another prestigious space – the State Legislative Assembly cum High Court nearby the Museum. This paper will retell the history of this collaboration as an exhibition that was political by design, reflecting Harrisson’s view of the relationship between colonial and indigenous powers.

The meaning and value of the paintings changed over time, and they narrowly escaped destruction in 2004 in the renovation work of the Court House of 1874. Without any research or understanding of the intentions of Tom Harrisson in permanently installing the paintings in the State Legislative Assembly, there was a redesigned exhibition of the paintings in their original space in 2017. Surang Tiong, the only living Berawan artist of the original group of six, the curator of ethnology Dora Jok, and I collaborated on the exhibition project. Knowing what I know now from my doctoral research, how would have an understanding of Harrisson’s unique perspective and intentions of putting the fifty paintings on the ceiling of the Assembly/High Court have influenced the collaborative work and design of the 2017 exhibition? How integral are Harrisson’s intentions to the narrative of the paintings in terms of their object biography and historicity? And can a new exhibition, based on the original plan and political statement be made relevant to today? This paper demonstrates the value of historical exhibition research, including the importance of understanding the intentions of curators who may have collaborated with indigenous people, as we reconstruct exhibitions today.

Louise Macul is originally from Mt. Desert Island, Maine (US), and has been living in Southeast Asia since 1998. She is a third-year doctoral candidate at the University of Leicester, School of Museum Studies, which she started after completing her master’s in the same school. She has been involved in various positions in Friends of the Museums, Singapore, since 2000 and is the founder of Friends of Sarawak Museum (East Malaysia), an NGO supporting Sarawak’s heritage through its museums. Louise was the Executive Director (until she started her doctorate) and is now Advisor to the executive committee. During the past ten years, she has been involved in the curation and design of several small exhibitions in Kuching, Sarawak, and assisted in numerous community-based heritage-related activities as well as being a consultant to architects on the use of indigenous motifs and designs. Her doctoral research focuses on the issues surrounding the authenticity of the commissioned traditional paintings in the Sarawak Museum collection of the Berawan, Lepo’ Tau Kenyah and Kayan people. This paper is a result of a part of my doctoral research findings and exhibition curation experience.        


Laura Dudley (University of Leicester, UK) Researching, writing and reconstructing exhibition histories as a resource for future practice: Palle Nielsen’s ‘The Model’, 1968/2013/2014

In recent practice exhibition histories have emerged as a knowledgeable and valuable resource, and yet it seems that the focus is still on the contextual and aesthetical attributes of ‘landmark’ exhibitions. My research is concerned with how we might remember and reconstruct participatory exhibitions in a way which emphasises, explores and reconstructs the collaborative nature of participation and exhibition design. I plan to examine how we might approach the researching and writing of exhibition histories in new ways, adapting to new contexts, audiences and institutions to encourage new types of engagement and co-production.

To consider these broader ideas I will draw extensively on Palle Nielsen’s ‘The Model – A Model for a Qualitative Society’. Originally exhibited at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, in 1968, the exhibition formed an ‘adventure playground’ in the museum which was open for 3 weeks. The space was filled with imaginative structures made out of foam with materials for children to create their own world.

‘The Model’ has been reconstructed and re-interpreted multiple times between 2009-2014 through archival displays, physical reconstructions and curatorial projects. My presentation will draw specifically on three examples of revisiting this exhibition. The cases I will draw on are ‘The Model: Palle Nielsen’, ARKEN Museum of Modern Art, Copenhagen (2014), ‘Palle Nielsen The Model: An Archival Display’, Tate Liverpool (2014) and Lars Bang Larsen and Maria Lind’s curatorial project ‘The New Model’ (2011-2015). I plan to use archival and interview findings from recent field research to illustrate and navigate how these exhibitions highlight different strategies for collaboratively remembering the exhibition-making process. I plan to then conclude by considering how these could enter a dialogue with future practice and how historical exhibitions can play a role in this which is aside from aesthetically remembering a moment in time, but in fact has a current purpose and impact.

Laura Dudley is a PhD candidate at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester. Her research concerns co-production within museum and gallery practice, exploring how the history of participatory art exhibitions can lend insight into present practices, and conversely, how the concept of co-production can affect how participatory art exhibitions are historicised. Laura is also Co-Editor-in-Chief for the Museological Review Museum Studies Journal at University of Leicester and is a project coordinator for a volunteer training programme, Make Works, at Derby Museums as part of the Museum of Making at Derby Silk Mill project.  




Thread: Louise Macul (University of Leicester, UK) Political by design: the sneaky work of a colonial curator in Borneo

Annebella Pollen Topic starter   

Dear Louise, 

Thank you for a fascinating talk. Most of my knowledge of the extraordinary Harrisson is connected to his time in Mass Observation so I am always interested to hear about his other activities, not least when they are so intimately connected with seeing and the subversive political potential of the visual!

I have a question. You said Harrisson didn’t give instructions to the artists but the works were commissions so I wondered: how did they differ from the artists’ usual practice? Was it the norm for them to compose square works or to work in grids? This seemed, perhaps, inspired by the need to fit the courtroom architecture. Did their materials and methods differ for these works?

Thanks again. 

Louise Macul   

Dear Annabella,

Thank you for your question and I apologise for the late response. According to the artist I was able to interview (the only surviving artist), Harrisson did not tell them what images or motifs to paint. However, it is not common practice to paint on panels or in grids and this was specific for the architecture of the courtroom. Unfortunately, I am not able to get any further information on Harrisson’s decision-making process on this. I do find it fascinating because there is no tradition of painting on ceilings here as basically there would be no ceilings in longhouses, only rafters for storage. Paintings are on walls on the verandah of longhouses or the walls of rice barns and the outside of coffins which were put on poles, these could be called ‘burial huts’. 

I would say the only request he had was to put whatever images they wanted to paint within those 4 foot square panels. The method of painting is something I did not have time to describe and it is unique. They paint the images ‘in relief’ being that they draw the intended image and paint the background to it, not the image itself. This traditional technique is evident on each panel, they did not stray from it. The colours used in the paintings may have been new for them as they may not have had such colours deep in the interior. The paint was oil-based manufactured in England. At the longhouses I do not know, yet, when they shifted from natural pigments to commercial paint. They stuck with the same colour palette that they would have had with natural pigments with the only exception being the colour blue which was available to them in Kuching. 

I hope this answers your question. 


Annebella Pollen Topic starter   

Fascinating, thank you! 

Chris White   

Hi Louise,

Thanks you for your interesting presentation. Living just over the border in Kuala Belait made it particularly relevant. I also grew up just around the corner from the house where Harrison attended many gatherings with Charles Madge and the Blackheath Group of the Mass Observation movement – so some interesting connections. Would be good to meet for a coffee in Kuching when things are more back to normal in terms of cross border movement.

Kind regards


Louise Macul 

Hi Chris,

Yes indeed, let us meet up. As you know, Malaysia forbids entry from anyone from Indonesia and 22 other countries. Once things settle down we can meet somewhere. Please keep in touch: or

Thank you so much for reaching out!



Thread Exhibiting museum history within museum spaces

Mark Liebenrood Topic starter   

Hi Anna,

I very much enjoyed your paper. How museums record and present their own histories is a growing topic of interest to me, so I was wondering if you’ve come across many other examples of museums that display their history – whether in the quite full ways you’ve discussed here, or in other, perhaps less prominent modes?



Anna Tulliach   

Hello Mark,

Many thanks for your question. I’ve come across many other examples. I’ve focused my attention especially to Italy, since I’m based there. A very interesting example is the Museo Nazionale Etrusco di Villa Giulia in Rome, which has dedicated an entire section to its history (differently from the Egyptian Museum in Turin, the section is not introductory, but in the middle of the visitors’ path). A different example is the Ara Pacis Museum (Rome), which tells its history (along with the history of the Ara Pacis itself – the two are strongly connected of course) with a very informative video, which visitors can decide to look at both at the beginning or at the end of their visit. I’d like now to dig more into the ways in which more prominent and bigger museums (e.g., the Louvre, the British Museum, the V&A, the MET, the Prado) deal with this topic. I still haven’t got the chance to research into this area. Nevertheless, at the MET they’ve recently organised an exhibit on its history (‘Making the MET 1870-2020’), which could be a good starting point for this second part of my research. Have you got any example of your own?



Elena Montanari   

Dear Anna Tulliach, thank you very much for your interesting insight on a topic I am very interested in; I am looking forward to read/hear about the further steps of your research. As to the Louvre, I haven’t visited it but I heard about the “Collecting the world” gallery on the ground floor, dedicated to some of the people and facts that contributed to shape the history of the Institution.

To respond also to Mark Liebenrood, I had the possibility to read about the experimentations that various ethnographic museums around Europe have carried out in the last years, as a result of the massive “renovation wave” they are going through in their path towards the setting up of new post-colonial models. Many among the major institutions have realized significant changes (in their programmes, curatorial practices, displays as well as spaces, to radically modify their approach to the exhibition of “other” cultures), and they are making such remarkable and multi-layered revision visible also through the insertion of new displays or galleries dedicated to the critical presentation of their history. These displays are meant to enable the museum to perform a critique of its own origins, to illustrate the self-reflexive work the institution is developing, and to make visitors aware of this sensitive heritage. The group of institutions that have been experimenting with them includes the Tropenmuseum in Amsterdam (where, within the 2009 major renovation, the new section “Colonial theatre” was added within the permanent exhibition, directly illustrating the “stories of seven life-size mannequins” from the colonial period to show the link between colonial history and museum collections, by creating “one place in the museum where the history of collecting as such would be told”), the Royal Museum for Central Africa in Tervuren (which in 2013 started an overall four-year renovation project, conceived through the close cooperation with contemporary African diasporas and aimed, and including the set up of an exhibition space focused on a meta-historical analysis and the performance of the critical genealogy of the institution), the Weltmuseum in Wien (previously known as Museum für Völkerkunde, it reopened in 2017 after a renovation project addressing the colonial legacy of the museum, also through the addition of a new section in the permanent exposition, “Shadows of Colonialism”, which explicitly questions the museum’s own history and the stereotypes in other cultures’ representations that were created in ethnographic exhibitions).

 Mark Liebenrood Topic starter   

Hi Anna, Those are interesting examples, especially where the history is placed in the middle rather than at the beginning.

It’s something I’ve only just started to look at more carefully, but in my experience museums in the UK do not make their own histories quite as prominent as the ones you have described. A guidebook might describe the museum’s history, but it is less often on display to visitors. One exception that I noticed a couple of years ago is in the museum in Kendal, north west England. Display boards on the stairs to the upper floor give a very full and illustrated account of the museum’s history from its beginnings in the 19th century.

Of course the British Museum made the news last week when it displayed part of its history more explicitly by placing a bust of Hans Sloane in a display case with explanatory material about Sloane’s links to the slave trade – but I don’t think the museum has a display dedicated to the museum’s history.

Mark Liebenrood Topic starter   

Thanks for these examples. It sounds like many of the museums you mention have been much more actively engaged in self-reflection on the legacies of colonialism than museums in the UK have been so far. There are exceptions in the UK, and the conversation about those issues is becoming more prominent, but there is a long way to go. The example of the British Museum I just mentioned to Anna certainly stirred up some controversy. There’s plenty of potential for UK museums to do more to publicly reflect on their histories in displays, I think. Not just about colonialism, important as that is, but in general.

Thread: Visitor engagement with museum histories

Claire Wintle Topic starter   

Dear panellists, thanks to you all for a great set of papers – I very much enjoyed them. I wondered if any of you had a sense of, or had researched in depth, the responses of visitors to reconstructed/historic museum displays? I get a sense that some museums fear that their audiences are less interested in institutional histories and the material remnants of museum pasts (apart from the occasional ‘great white male’ museum founder of course!) With some prominent exceptions, including those featured in your papers, they feel that they need to prioritise the ‘proper’ objects they collect and display. However, I suspect (and hope!) that this might not be true. Laura – from your images – it is clear that the participants in the reconstructions of the Model were having a great time, but (how) did they engage with this as a historic reconstruction, do you think?

Thanks again, Claire Wintle


Thread: Museographic heritage: the Italian legacy


Dear Elena, many thanks for your highly interesting presentation. I was looking at Bianca Albertini’s and Sandro Bagnoli’s book on Carlo Scarpa’s museums and exhibitions from 1992 this morning and your presentation was the perfect completion and link to the present.


Elena Montanari   

Dear Gabriela Denk, thank you very much, I am glad to hear that the topic I outlined could generate connections and further other research works. My presentation tried to provide an overview on a highly complex topic, so obviously it had to be very synthetic and to quickly mention some important case studies that are worth investigating in-depth. If you are interested in Carlo Scarpa’s legacy, I would be glad to further discuss the topic with you.


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