Mark Akopyan: An Exhibition Can Get in Trouble Because of the Labels

10 October 2018

Curator of the Shchusev Museum of Architecture Mark Akopyan spoke about how to work with a complex museum environment, how to choose an architect and why labels are a pain for each curator. The architecture of exhibitions and the exposition design is one of the new and ultra-relevant directions in the development of the global museum culture.

— Mark how do you start to prepare for an exhibition?

— From the curator’s idea. You can divide curators into two types. The first type are independent, they organize interinstitutional exhibitions — they don’t belong to any institution and they only focus on external projects. The second type — I’m one of them — work in one institution, and they know the archives of institution better than anyone else. Exhibitions by curators like these, as a rule, are connected to the collection the museums they work for. For example, if we talk about our recent exhibition Architecture of Stadiums, it mainly consisted of the items from the Museum of Architecture, in the seventy to thirty ratio. But in total, there were fourteen participants, including state archives, St. Petersburg museums, and private collections — for example the collection of Yakov Chernikov.

Any exhibition of this level is preceded by a vast research. If it took us about a year to organize the Architecture of Stadiums, the research itself had started a year before. In my opinion, one year is an ideal deadline for preparation of an exhibition project. This deadline accounts for the exposition itself, material selection, the catalogs — independent work requiring at least as much and, sometimes, more effort than the exposition itself.

— At what point do you invite an architect?

— About six months into the project. We need to provide him with maximum background, the message that the curator and their team want to deliver to the audience, and the architect needs to know it, understand it, before he or she starts the work. The design has to help reveal the history.

— Shchusev Museum of Architecture has one of the oldest and most unique exhibition spaces in Moscow. Does it also limit the architect in some way?

— We have three different spaces: the 18th century formal enfilade of the Talyzin estate, the Apothecaries Department — 17th century chambers, and the Ruina cottage — a space in the loft style. The grand hall is in the classic style, with columns, bas-reliefs, and the remaining frescoes; this is where our exhibition took place, on the total area of 1500 sq. meters. It is really a very special space: the halls form an enfilade, one after the other, and this pattern itself already dictates the theme of the project. There are larger and smaller halls, and, particularly, the smallest hall is five times smaller than the biggest one. All of this, I repeat, communicates the historical development in the context of the space itself, and defines, in its turn, the opportunities for spatial experiments.

In our exhibition Architecture of Stadiums, we wanted to play with the contrast between the classical grand halls, without breaking their harmony. This is the way we chose — when modernity is integrated into an enfilade layout — and we obtained an incredibly light and complete project. We worked with each hall separately, they look completely different, and that the same time they are parts of the same history. Between the halls, the was a gap of few years, sometimes decades, and the Architecture of Stadiums was supposed to have both temporary and permanent structures to later become a part of new exhibitions.

— You are saying that the exposition architect had to literally build new walls in the museum?

— Technically, yes. The thing is, on one side of the enfilade there are windows, and it’s a big problem both for the curator and for the architect. Windows reduce the exposition space, they leave the areas in between the walls, they crunch the useful area creating a lot of other limitations. Finally, windows are just dust and noise from outside. Our task was, on one hand, to build a structure that would cover the windows, on the other, that would meet all the requirements for the temperature and lightning mode, fire safety, preserving an unhindered access to the radiators and, the windows themselves. Agnia (Agnia Sterligova, architect of the exposition Architecture of Stadiums) found the best solution, creating passages from the walls to the windows in seven halls, and if we talk about our favorites, it’s the eighth hall to me. It’s a rectangular dead-end hall, that was dedicated to Luzhniki. Inspired by the main stadium of the country, Agnes suggested creating a golden oval area in it. This hall is the crown of the exhibition, making you like the soccer players, going through the 20th century, like through some selection competitions, and in the final you get into the legendary sports arena. Stadium itself has golden color in its frieze; this idea of the national victory, gold, triumph, and celebration was reflected in the eighth hall.

— Were there many things that you as a curator had to change the process of work with the architect?

— No, because we saw the same history. Of course, some things have been moved from one wall to the other, from one hall to the other, and the layout itself is a teamwork between the curator, the architect and their team. In our case it was a lot of work: the topic is too massive, the first exposition about the stadiums in Russia, and also the 20th century architecture. But that’s what makes it great in the work with a professional architect, he or she has the feel of the building and the space, can emphasize its strong sides. Look, all the best expositions were created by architects such as Evgeniy Ass and Yuriy Avvakumov.

— How can young architects start designing exhibitions?

— Today, it’s enough to show your work to the public. Twenty or thirty years ago, even in the 2000’s the museum people thought that we were just displaying masterpieces, that they just hung here on the walls, and it was enough but today we need an environment, and atmosphere, a platform for dialogue with the audience. That’s why every exhibition needs an architect and there are not enough experts in this field, the circle is too narrow if we talk about real professionals. It is not the case where all depends on who you know because there is just 10 or 15 authors capable of creating large scale projects that’s why new architects and today’s students have a lot of opportunities: public and private collections are in need of architects and we still don’t have any serious competition in this market, so there will be enough work for everyone.

— What advice would you give to young architects?

— I would recommend to young architects to try to see and hear the curator, and to tell the history through their own perspective but without distorting the original idea but it all comes with experience.

— What are the most common mistakes in creating an exposition, in your opinion?

— Any little thing can ruin the impression. I can tell you about our common museum pain — the labels. Unfortunately, not enough attention is paid to them, and they are a seemingly simple and easily made thing, but if they are wrong, the exhibition as a whole can make a very different impression. Are they illegible, can people of different height see them, what material are they made of? Will they last the whole three months of the exhibition or will they fall off in a week? Moreover, when an architect presents the project he or she does it without labels. But when labels are attached the whole thing looks different. It’s either a question of lack of attention or, on the contrary, an excessive desire to create something very different. We had a lot of trouble with labels. It’s another special characteristic of Shchusev Museum of Architecture: we are not allowed to attach the labels to the wall, we can only put them on the frames. So, we tried white on black, black on white, one font, another font, yet another font and, as a result of dozens of experiments, we chose white calques with the density of 120 g because 100 g is too transparent, and 200 g is too bulky. Now we got light and airy labels that are easily readable and noticeable, ideal labels. And then, of course, come texts. Where will they be, why exactly them, are they easily accessible and readable, will there be a situation when a visitor can just walk past them without noticing. Then come the structures, for example, the platform for scale models that need to be located in such a way that people don’t stumble over them but can easily see them and relate. Then there are some technical moments like fire safety rules and other supervision requirements. They also influence the exhibition: where to put the power sockets, how to get structures approved by engineering and fire safety specialists.

— What exhibitions impressed you the most?

— In Moscow I really like the VDNH team: they have wonderful architects and developers that can hear listen to the unique space of these pavilions with their three-four-meter-high ceilings. Another successful solution: on the exhibition Poste Restante in the Jewish Museum and Center for Tolerance. They chose espalier layout — a brave solution in the times when espalier method is considered obsolete. At first it looks inconvenient, 3-4 meters away, you feel like coming closer and having a closer look, but you can’t do it. However, it’s done in such a way that it’s not annoying for the guests: on the contrary, you can criticize it, you can dislike it but the fact that it turned out interesting and intuitively clear is the main thing.

This is the case when both the curator and the architect had the same idea, they understood each other from the very beginning and they did a great job. I would of course complement the work of our international colleagues. Incredibly interesting curator and architect solutions can be seen in German museums. I can give you two examples, the best exhibition on the Russian Revolution in the German Historical Museum in Berlin in 2017, and Botticelli’s Renaissance: 2015 — 1445 in Gemäldegalerie in Berlin.

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