The scope of exhibition display includes spatial arrangement, installation design, as well as the visual and contentual aspects of presenting information. Exhibition display is the physical and interpretative environment, in and through which artworks and artefacts are presented. Since the expansion of curatorial practices in the 1990s (~discursivity ~performativity ~curatorial), exhibition display has become a significant field of both historical-theoretical and artistic research. [1] The recent proliferation of exhibition formats and the increased self-reflectivity of curatorial strategies gave rise to various approaches on the historical research and current practice of exhibition design.  New aspects of these inquiries include the relation of exhibition display to the articulation of power, or its role in activating and involving the audience (~interpretation ~exhibiting cultures ~new museology ~participation ~discursivity).However, as exhibitions were highly influenced by the display techniques of commercial and propaganda exhibitions since the early 20th century, the analysis of their display cannot be confined to the field of visual art. Application of the scientific understanding of human perception (take, for example, the myriad optical devices, the reorganization of knowledge and the genealogy of the observer—as we know it through the writings of Jonathan Crary) have also had a definitive impact on the formation of exhibition design.

The modes of display formed along curatorial and institutional decisions represents the primarily communication tool of exhibitions, which shapes its perception profoundly. In accordance with the different techniques of display, visitors are addressed differently. Display then orients the visitor, builds, unfolds, and masks relations, articulates political statements alongside aesthetical ones. It reflects the accumulation of various political, economic, and aesthetic aspects and mirrors them—even if unintentionally (~interpretation). Since the second half of the 20th century, the most prevalent display mode of art has been the model of the white cube (~white cube). The white wall exhibition space, previously (at least prior to art practices related to institutional critique and the appearance of Brian O’Doherty’s essay analyzing the genealogy and the meaning of the white cube) thought to be neutral and transparent, upholding the supposed autonomy of the art work, has become a seminal model for display, due to its conceptual, visual and spatial characteristics. [2]

Along with the political upheaval of the late 1960s, the “demysifyication of the hidden structures of the artworld” [3] challenged the well-established value system (~interpretation, ~performativity). Revealing the preconditions of producing and displaying art among the institutional frames of the art field, which was previously hidden from the eye of the public, display became a focal point of critical engagement of artists and curators likewise (~new museology ~interpretation ~exhibiting cultures ~performativity). Consequently, exhibition display—as the once dominant model of the white cube itself—became denaturalized (~white cube).Along these lines, and informed by conceptual tendencies and institutional critique of the late 1960s, artists (and curators increasingly) began to use exhibitions as their primarily medium, placing exhibition installation, interpretation or mediation into the focus of their (often critical) analysis (~interpretation ~exhibiting cultures).For example, politically engaged progressive art from the 1960s on applied techniques of display which had been frequented by propaganda exhibitions previously: prosaic and didactic modes of information visualization, as well as photographs, statements, and diagrams became integral parts of art installations. [4]

Learning from artistic practices (as well as interiorizing criticism, and at the same time extinguishing it), art institutions have themselves initiated self-reflective projects—often in collaboration with invited artists—which were aiming to critically explore their context and position (~interpretation ~new museology ~discursivity ~performativity). Decades later, in the 1990s-early 2000s, new institutionalism (~performativity) provided a fertile ground for a self-reflexive understanding of exhibition and project display; although, in certain cases, balance seemed to have shifted towards formal achievements, leaving the much praised discursivity (which would be generated and served by the redesigned public spaces of the institutions for example) for those who have already been involved in the discourse.

Right before the Millennium, growing interest towards exhibitions history was substantiated by researches on exhibition display and design. Taking the Museum of Modern Art in New York (MoMA) as a case study, Mary Anne Staniszewski wrote an extensive volume on the complex political, ecological, and cultural context of exhibition displays from the 1920s on. She wrote about—what she calls—collective “amnesia” as the history of exhibitions is concerned: the erasure of the exhibition as a medium, an aesthetical and historical category, from the collective subconscious of art professionals. To counter this “amnesia,” her book, The Power of Display [5] analyzes progressive historical exhibition displays of the 1920s and 1930s, which were conceived by leading avant-garde artists of the period. Staniszewski presents trend-setting examples of European exhibition design by the time MoMA was about to be founded, and investigates the presentation strategies of design and propaganda exhibitions as well as the various appearances of photography in the frame of exhibitions. She criticizes MoMA for being much less innovative, as display techniques and exhibition design are concerned, than in its early years, for not intending to challenge the model of the white cube, and thus pushing all responsibility of the exhibitions’ appearance to the exhibiting artists. This non-reflexive attitude of the Museum leaves the comments and critique of the commissioned artists working in collaboration with the institution unattended, as the institution presenting these projects precisely wishes to prove their flexibility and reflexive attitude.

It is important to note that the new discipline of exhibition history—embedded in a broader tendency towards critically conditioned understandings of the past—has been worked out in the context of post-war Western Europe and the United States and is thus framed by the operational system of late capitalism. However, many of its historical and critical observations also hold true when applied to the former Soviet Bloc. In order to establish a context-specific research in Eastern Europe, a constant re-evaluation of the theses formulated in Western theories is need. After the early years of the 20th century—when progressive design was a revolutionary tool in Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union-the subsequent decades brought about a dramatic decline in terms of the public display of progressive art. In the countries of the former Soviet Bloc, the presentation of contemporary art suffered the same restrictive power of the state-maintained institutional system as art in its whole. There were no exhibition spaces dedicated to modern art, and Neo-avantgarde was banned from public spaces. On the rare occasions on which it was shown publicly, its modes of display did not differ significantly from those of classical art. Private apartments, studios, alternative spaces not (for a certain period of time) controlled by the ruling power meant relative safety, if limited publicity, for illegal or non-supported artworks and events, whose display techniques were rather accidental; their importance and mediating power laid mostly in their ad hoc character. As far as exhibition history in the former Soviet Bloc is concerned, the basic research of the past, with its complex references to control mechanisms and propaganda, remains an untapped field for interdisciplinary research. [6]


Nikolett Erőss



References and Further Readings

Barker, Emma
1998 Contemporary Cultures of Display. New Haven, Yale University Press

Crary, Jonathan
1990 Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the Nineteenth Century. Cambridge, Mass, The MIT Press. 

Greenberg, Reesa – Ferguson, Bruce – Nairne, Sandy eds.
1996 Thinking About Exhibitions. London, New York, Routledge

Karp, Ivan – Lavine, Steven D. eds.
1991 Exhibiting Cultures. The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. London, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institution Press

Klonk, Charlotte
2009 Spaces of Experience. Art Gallery Interiors from 1800 to 2000. London, New Haven, Yale University Press

László, Zsuzsa ed. 
Parallel Chronologies – An Archive of East European Exhibitions. tranzit.org. http://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive/

Macdonald, Sharon
1997 The Politics of Display. Museums, Science, Culture. London, New York, Routledge

Noordegraaf, Julia
2004 Strategies of Display. Museum Presentation in Nineteenth- and Twentieth-Century Visual Culture. Rotterdam, Nai

O’Doherty, Brian
1999 (1976) Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space. Expanded edition. Berkely, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press.

O’Neill, Paul
2006 Action Man: Interview with Seth Siegelaub. The Internationaler, 1: 5-7

Putnam, James
2009 Art and Artifact. The Museum as Medium. London, Thames and Hudson

Sherman, Daniel J. – Rogoff, Irit eds.
1994 Museum Culture. Histories, Discourses, Spectacles. Minneapolis, University of Minnesota Press

Staniszewski, Mary Anne
1998 The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art.Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press


[1] See for example Reesa Greenberg, Bruce Ferguson, Sandy Nairne (eds.) Thinking About Exhibitions.Routledge. 1996.

[2] O’Doherty, Brian 1999 (1976) Inside the White Cube. The Ideology of the Gallery Space.Expanded edition. Berkely, Los Angeles, London, University of California Press

[3] The concept demystification is related to Seth Sigelaub. See Paul O’Neill. “Action Man: Interview with Seth Siegelaub.” The Internationaler, 1 (2006): 5-7.

[4] Mary Anne Staniszewski 1998 The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, Mass., MIT Press

[5] Mary Anne Staniszewski. The Power of Display. A History of Exhibition Installations at the Museum of Modern Art. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1998.

[6] Cf.  Zsuzsa László (ed.) Parallel Chronologies – An Archive of East European Exhibitions. tranzit.org. http://tranzit.org/exhibitionarchive