10 September 2007

Palimpsest: Museography and Museological practice in Exhibit Design

Derrida’s erasing-erased writing - his palimpsest - is the re-inscription that continually displaces the reversed hierarchies of metaphysics.
Leavey intro. to Derrida, 1980, p.11 (quoted by Keep)

When we were first approached to do an exhibit installation – a short term display of rarefied objects in a New York Gallery – we had no precedents to work from, much less context a given context to generate a design, as we had been accustomed to in our architectural and urban work.

This lack of models, created its own anxieties, so we were quick to fill this void with a genuine strategy that spoke to the origin of the artworks, in this case Zenga tea bowls and ink drawings on hanging scrolls. By definition, these works needed an austere space, inviting a departure from what the gallery spaces had to offer. The only recourse for us was to perform a kind of erasure of the existing gallery. To provide the optimal viewing of these works, our efforts would focus on erasing the hard “givens” of the gallery, reversing obvious hierarchies, and eventually re-inscribing new traces on the gallery floor.

Our second and third exhibits conserved and reused portions of the previous installation, to save time and money. We had caught on to the other dimension of our, yet, unnamed strategy: it is an economic choice as well.

Much later, after experimenting with more than 14 exhibits within one series of galleries, our approach to each new design became a genuine working method. Erasure and rewriting over a previous layout – a palimpsest - provided the model we had been searching for. Neither a device, nor a metaphor for our process, the palimpsest is an action that allows for a layered approach to exhibit design.

The palimpsest performs a dual role: it may reinforce a curatorial voice, while simultaneously allowing a viewer to have an intuitive response to a series of art works. This layering of voices, the permeability of the design, is what we strive for in our museum work. We do this with a keen interest in art - both ancient and contemporary - and for sheer pleasure.

That was just shy of ten years ago. Now we have moved on to doing more permanent gallery and museum designs, while keeping faith with the palimpsest.

Note: We are indebted to Alexandra Munroe, former director of the Japan Society Gallery in New York, who commissioned our firm to design all 13 of the exhibits under her tenure from 1998 to 2006, and to her catalog forward titled: Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin, for the exhibition at Yale Art Gallery and the Asia Society, "The Art of Mu Xin" 2001-2002.
Image Credit: IMREY CULBERT for YES YOKO ONO Retrospective, Japan Society 2001