Museums have always served a pivotal role in society. They personify culture, and are institutions in their own right. Notable architects have always vied to design a museum, the idea that it represents cultural beliefs and a certain freedom of expression has lent the designing of a museum to be a liberating activity—its importance as a ‘type’ in itself often outweighs the context it is in.
The design of a gallery space inside the museum is a more subtle art, however. The space in which objects are exhibited works in tandem with the architecture of the museum and is inseparable if done right. That is not to say that its rigidity should not allow for multiple exhibitions—a well-designed gallery space affords exhibiting objects in the way that was intended by the architect, and at the same time gives room for future curators to call this space their own.
This paper tries to take the notion of the ‘ideal’ gallery space design a step further. Of course, objects in a museum are not placed in isolation. These could be paintings on the wall, sculptures on pedestals in space, photographs in glass cases, displays hung from the ceiling- the exhibits are presented in relation to each other, in relation to the space they’re in, and on an even larger scale, in relation to the architecture of the museum itself.
To think of a gallery space in such terms is critical—this implies that there exists a field of co-visibility, a field in which perception and vision are influenced by virtue of the relational qualities of all the elements that make up the field.
Logically then, the gallery space and the way it has been set up becomes a powerful tool in affecting the way in which a visitor experiences the museum. The space then has the potential to guide the visitor in interesting ways, create fascinating vistas, frame views, and encourage exploration or discovery.
The curator would have the capability to create a dialogue between the exhibits themselves, weave stories and narratives, have the artifacts talk to the architecture itself, and engage the visitor in unique ways. It can be said then, that the manner of staging the display, the relative adjacencies and the sequences that have been set up are critical in creating a unique atmosphere, and is key in ‘curating’ the visitor’s experience.
The study of space syntax was popularized in the late 1900s as a tool to measure the inter-relational qualities between space, its formation, its use, and the society it is present in. It is a way to analyze configurations and the way people might use space using a variety of tools such as the measure of ‘choice’, the number of turns a pedestrian might take while walking, the shortest route possible, how ‘integrated’ a path is, etc.
To this end, using syntactical tools to study museum architecture, and especially gallery space, is highly appropriate—it would qualify the intended views and paths set up by the artifacts, and give more agency to curators to make decisions, or to reflect on them.
The Genius of Carlo Scarpa
The theories presented above are best expressed in the Castelvecchio Museum designed by the masterful Carlo Scarpa.
Situated in the city of Verona in Northern Italy, the museum inhabits an old medieval castle. The castle was later restored by Scarpa himself, who is responsible for the design of the museum, the internal gallery space, and in setting up the precise locations and positioning of the artwork itself.
The plan in itself is quite simplistic, it is a series of five square rooms that are connected by a single central corridor. The artifacts are mostly sculptures from the early Romanesque period, and they occupy space on the walls and on pedestals on the floor.
While the nature of the visitor’s path that was intended by Scarpa is a mere straight line to access the rooms, an entirely new, more convoluted path is simultaneously at play, and this is where Scarpa shines. Upon inspection, one realizes that none of the statues face a single direction. Some gaze toward other statues, while some collectively look at a random point in space.
Since some statutes are only viewed when one strays from the linear path, the visitor is encouraged to walk around these statues and follow their gaze. In this way, Scarpa manages to choreograph the movement of a visitor, and therefore the architectural space, the artifact, and the viewer are involved in a premeditated dance.
It does not quite end there. As one follows the gaze of the statutes, it quickly becomes apparent that what the statue is looking at is not mere coincidence. The Virgin fainting is directly positioned to look at the crucifixion of Jesus, and St. Bartholomew looks upon it from far across the room- in this way, the visitor is now more than just a viewer, but rather an active participant in the scene recreated by Scarpa.
It is quite clear, then, that the art of designing a gallery space can be extremely nuanced, and must straddle several scales—the tectonics of the museum, the space to exhibit, and the pieces themselves. Achieving a complete harmony between the three, and setting up a dialogue across scales is then thought of as a way in which an architect/ curator can engage visitors and create unique experiences in gallery spaces.