On Friday I visited the The Metropolitan Museum of Art to experience the new 19th c. Galleries for Painting and Sculpture. According to the Met website, the gallery reopened in 2007 and displays works from 1800 through the early twentieth century. The main idea of the art exhibition isn't terribly difficult to decipher, and signage as well as the museum map indicated what type of art is showcased in this section of the museum.
In the case of this exhibition, the space design appears to be designed to not distract from the paintings and other works featured. It is very clear that you are expected to study the paintings and sculptures within the space. In this way, the design was successful.
The organization of the works was not at all apparent to me as I walked through the space. I'm not very familiar with 19th century art and the standard museum guide map doesn't detail what is featured in each room. As I continued to walk around, I found a useful map posted in transition spaces that explained what was featured in each area. The logic of the organization seems sound, but visitors without a pre-exisiting knowledge of the artists or movements of the period do not absorb the meaning of the organization of the space. The layout of the rooms also causes guest flow to be non-linear and there is no suggestion of a 'correct' route to travel through the space.
After consulting the map, the works were organized by significant artist (Monet, Picasso) or significant movement (pastels, symbolism). The designers included short informational placards near each work, but I often didn't have an urge to read them. There were a number of young children traveling in groups with museum volunteers and the challenges of presenting a passive art exhibition to a young audience were very clear. They often wanted to touch things, didn't read the placards and generally seemed bored. The exception was the Paris apartment immersion room, which captured the attention of the groups for a significant period.
I'm uncertain if the design of the exhibition enhanced my perspective on the topic. Admittedly, the subject is not of strong interest to me. Choices made in the physical design of the space and a number of architectural details definitely improved my enjoyment of the works. Listening to other visitors, I recall one woman lost looking for a specific artist who said out loud: "Degas? I'm getting lost."
The look and feel of the exhibition contributed to the success of the space. I noticed a lack of electronic devices within the space. No iPads, no touch screens, no audio players. More significantly, I noted a significant amount of architectural ornamentation including baseboards and ceiling molding. Many of the artwork pieces were framed in gold leaf / generally ornate frames. The lighting was a mix of defused natural and artificial light with almost all fixtures hidden behind the frosted glass ceiling (the design of which was reminiscent of the 19th century exhibition halls we explored in the first class.) I also noticed that the fire control, security & fire notification systems were placed out of sight or painted to match the transition area colors. Even the traditional design of the benches contributed to a cohesive presentation in the space.
The attention spent to hiding artificial lighting fixtures and the wood molding were both outstanding contributions to the design of the space.
If I were to adjust the interpretation of the content I would put more effort into providing content & cues to help visitors who are not familiar (or have forgotten) about the influences and artists of the time period. Certainly the art can be appreciated without this information, but it might make it have a deeper impact on the viewer.
Overall it appears that design for this subject at the institution doesn't call attention to itself, but subtle cues are used to reinforce the time period.