Thursday, 17 October 2013

From Shelf to Showcase: how Pitt Rivers staff create a new display

UPDATE: read more about the work of the Technical Services staff here


The installation of our new high level displays on the south wall of the Court (ground floor) of the Museum is now really beginning to take off. Two cases of Melanesian carving and a display of Balinese masks are finished, and displays of African and Asian masks are up next for installation.

Creating new displays here at the Museum is a team effort. Deciding what objects should be included involves the VERVE curator, conservators and technicians, with everyone looking at the objects in different ways:

  • Curatorial staff look for visually engaging objects with great stories to tell and ensure that culturally sensitive objects are only displayed if appropriate. 
  • Technical staff design the display and so look for objects that will make a visually interesting group that complement each other in terms of size, colour and shape. Too keep the Pitt Rivers style, technicians seek to create displays that are 'busy' but still 'clean' and balanced to look at.
  • Conservation staff look to remove objects that are too fragile, too susceptible to damage (for example by pests or exposure to light) to be displayed. 

Selection often means retrieving material from storage, which may never have been on public display before. Once the selected objects have been catalogued and conserved they are taken to the Technical Services department and the display starts to be designed.

First, the technician works on the layout, which replicates the case dimensions on a flat table surface, and involves moving objects around so we know they fit and until the arrangement looks at its best.

Layout for the new display of Balinese masks and figurative sculpture
© Pitt Rivers Museum

PRM technician Ady laying out the new displays of masks from Sri Lanka (including 18 'Demons of Disease'), Tibet and China.
© Pitt Rivers Museum

Once the technicians are happy with the layout, they create a three-dimensional mock-up of the case. This enables them to test the display layout properly and make sure all the objects fit well and can be clearly seen by visitors. Suitable mounts and fixings for each object are made, as well as the internal case boards or 'cladding' that the mounts will be attached to. 

Mock-up for new display of West African masks © Pitt Rivers Museum

Complementary colours for the new cases are chosen. For the new displays we've tried to match the colours used in existing cases nearby to tie geographical regions together - so for example displays from Oceanic cultures have a bright blue background, whereas those from Asian cultures use green. Many of the African masks are made of dark-coloured woods or painted with earth-tone pigments, so we opted for a soft 'mushroom' colour to offer contrast. 

Upper cases left ajar to 'gas off', showing colour schemes © Pitt Rivers Museum

Once painted, the cases are left open to 'gas off' fully, before the objects are installed. As all the new VERVE displays in the Court of the Museum are high up, objects are installed using a scaffolding tower. We try to do this early in the morning when the Museum is closed to avoid any inconvenience to visitors, but some days you might spot one of our team high up, putting the finishing touches to cases.

Assembling the scaffold tower needed to install the displays
in our high-level cases © Pitt Rivers Museum

The completed case of Balinese masks and carvings © Pitt Rivers Museum

The final stage is to add interpretation which might include text panels, labels, audio tour entries, maps or diagrams. Because these cases are high up, they offer specific interpretation challenges so this is something we will have to test.

Once everything is completed, the cycle can start again with a new set of objects....

Sian, VERVE Curatorial Assistant

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