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The language of spaces: How to catch and direct the eye
Nam June Paik, Electronic Superhighway: Continental U.S., Alaska, Hawaii, Smithsonian American Art Museum, 1995

Of cabinets of curiosities, showcases and displays: Erika Thümmel has written a richly illustrated introduction to the history of staged spaces and presentation strategies with “The Language of Spaces”. An overview for practitioners and those who want to become such.

By Thomas Wagner.

“The Belgian author and collector Samuel Quiccheberg”, one reads in Erika Thümmel’s book “The Language of Spaces” (“Die Sprache der Räume”), “published a furnishing plan, a so-called methodology of the theatrum sapientiae, for the Munich Kunstkammer in his treatise ‘Inscriptiones vel Tituli Theatri Amplissimi’ (1565). He is considered a founder of museology and his systematics became binding for many art cabinets and can still be found in the types of modern museums.” Not only art, but also wisdom and knowledge, it seems, need a special stage on which they can appear successfully and methodically secured in order to be effective.

When a wide variety of museums primarily collected evocative objects from the past, the princely cabinets of curiosities – as a kind of protomuseum and forerunner of today’s collections – advanced to become the model and example of all museum collecting and presentation. After all, the tasks that characterise the museum are still the same: Collecting, preserving, researching, showing and communicating.

In addition, much of our media world, characterised by omnipresent screens, constantly circulating images and narratives, is deliberately designed to be perceived. In the sense of the logic of media consumption, one could say: that which is not presented in such a way that it attracts attention does not exist.

A journey through the history of presentation strategies

In her time travel through the history of presentation strategies, Erika Thümmel – artist, conservator and exhibition designer – draws on observations, findings, examples and images that she has gathered in 15 years of teaching information design at the FH Joanneum in Graz and in setting up the master’s degree programme in exhibition design. Her declared goal is “to introduce students and interested parties to the fascinating field of scenography and to sharpen their view of design issues”.

S. 186–187
“The Language of Spaces” p. 186–187 © 2021 Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, Basel (click to enlarge)

From staged grave goods to the science centres

The scope of the book is not only historical but also systematic. It ranges from the description of staged burial objects to secular and ecclesiastical treasure chambers, chambers of art and curiosities, apothecaries, studios, museums of all kinds, gardens and world exhibitions to today’s science centres. Since collecting and exhibiting are closely linked to the scenographic craft, the author traces the history of very different presentation formats on the first 180 or so pages. This extends to the “exhibition design of modernism” and the forms of exhibition used politically and propagandistically under fascism, as well as the museum boom after 1945. Despite all this, the selection of examples presented remains, as the author notes with regret, “necessarily subjective and, with a few exceptions, limited to Central Europe”.

In brief descriptions, Karl Friedrich Schinkel, Leo von Klenze and Wilhelm von Bode are taken into account as well as “scenography in exhibition design” by Bernhard Rudofsky (Sparta instead of Sybaris), Uwe Brückner (“form follows content”) and exhibition makers such as Harald Szeemann and Gae Aulenti. The chapter on “Artists as Designers” ranges from Peter Greenaway to Olafur Eliasson, the one on “Digital Scenography” from Nam June Paik to ART+COM and Checkpointmedia. Dieter Rams’ “Ten Theses for Good Design” is also briefly touched upon. In addition, colour-coded digressions are interspersed at various points between the concise summaries, covering topics such as “The Invention of the Showcase”, “Barrier-free Design” and other practice-oriented issues. The panorama is complemented by a glossary ranging from A for indulgence to V for vanitas.

S. 218–219
“The Language of Spaces” p. 218–219 © 2021 Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, Basel (click to enlarge)

Summarising-objectifying representation

Each chapter of “The Language of Spaces” is divided into short sections in which mainly facts are gathered. Given the enormous amount of material, most positions can only be touched on anyway. Thus the matter becomes quite positivistic and objectifying; interpretation, discussion and problematisation come up short. Concepts are neither questioned nor classified historically-critically (national museums can no more be viewed neutrally than the latest varieties of immersive exhibition concepts). While the history of staging seems to develop by itself, Thümmel fails to develop a critical concept of showing and staging.

It is also irritating that the “invention of (exhibition) scenography” and the use of the term “scenography” beyond the stage space of theatre, film and performance is dated around the year 2000. It may be that specialised scenographers have been increasingly called in since then – especially in the new conception of museums and their collection presentation, i.e. in a zeitgeisty “facelift for the museum” – or have even taken the lead. The matter itself is much older and more multifaceted, as the book explains in detail. Thus, much remains vague and blurred in summary descriptions. In short, one misses precise indications as to why and how something was shown, hidden, highlighted, which historical upheavals brought about, prepared or reflected which changes in showing and presenting.

Guidance or manipulation of the eye?

Thus, important questions fall victim to the desire to draw an overall panorama: Where does the coexistence – or competition – of artists, curators, graphic designers, exhibition architects and media designers lead? What interest is being pursued in having scenographers direct? And does the triumph of scenography in the 21st century speak for a triumph of staging over the staged material? When Thümmel states (in anticipation of her selection of exemplary exhibition designers) that the “question of scenography” is: “How can the viewer’s gaze be seduced towards a certain point, how can tension be created?” The dialectic of scenographic staging is not only about seducing (with the best of intentions) to perception, to an experience or at best to insight or knowledge. Staging, especially when it relies on emotions and overwhelms the senses, also serves to patronise, if not manipulate, the gaze.

The Language of Spaces/Die Sprache der Räume

Cover „Die Sprache der Räume“
The Language of Spaces (Die Sprache der Räume) © 2021 Birkhäuser Verlag GmbH, Basel

Die Sprache der Räume. Eine Geschichte der Szenografie

Erika Thümmel

FH Joanneum (Hrsg.)
Birkhäuser Verlag, Basel 2021

259 p., hardcover., 173 b/w and 551 colour illus.,
ISBN 978-3-0356-2271-3

39,95 euros


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