Backstage—Museum Models: Students Take On Celebrated Architects
Exhibitions are somewhat similar to theatrical performances. Audience members revel in the final production—often unaware of all the staging and preparation that occurs beforehand and behind-the-scenes.
Though Museum Models: Students Take On Celebrated Architects has been on view at WCMA for two months, its history is even longer. Featuring nearly 100 models produced over a decade in Williams College Professor Ann McCallum’s architectural design courses, this exhibition highlights student creativity and explores a layering of architectural history, pedagogic practice, and educational experience.
When Ann first conceived of the project that gave rise to Museum Models, she never imagined that her classroom assignment would culminate in a museum exhibition. In 1989, she began assigning her advanced students the task of selecting a renowned architect, studying that person’s work over the course of a semester, and then producing a three-dimensional model of an imagined museum “in the style of” that chosen architect. Inherent to Ann’s assignment is a sense of historical referencing—looking to established figures in order to cultivate a fresh, yet informed and inflected, creative voice.
I’d like, then, to provide some behind-the-scenes background on an exhibition that is itself an exploration of creative development and process.
For the past ten years, the models that are currently on view at WCMA have been accumulating on shelves in the architecture studio of the Spencer Art building.
While they surely added to the visual dynamism of that space, few people saw them. Upon her arrival at the museum in the summer of 2011, Interim Director Katy Kline encountered the models on campus and learned of Professor Michael Lewis’ desire to see them exhibited in a more public context. Around the same time, Professor McCallum announced that she would retire from Williams College in the winter of 2011, after twenty-four years of teaching architectural design. To honor her vital contributions to the intellectual community—and celebrate a legacy of student production—WCMA decided to mount an exhibition of the museum models.
As curator of this project, I set out to familiarize myself with the many objects, the conceptual underpinnings and implications of the work, and the logistical “nuts and bolts” of managing and mounting the exhibition. After I had spent a number of months measuring walls and plotting installation strategies, convincing our friendly preparatory staff to construct custom mounting hardware that aligned with my design vision (thanks, Greg!), meeting with Ann to discuss the project, and writing text to accompany the exhibition—we began the installation process.
A week before the exhibition was set to open, a hearty crew of WCMA staff members transported a selection of the models to the museum. We packed them into large cardboard crates, two “stories” high, and loaded them onto a truck for the short ride between campus buildings.
Preparators Hideyo Okamura and Greg Smith pack models into crates.
After the models were on site at the museum, we began painting the gallery into which they are now installed—the historic rotunda. Simply changing the wall color of this space completely altered its effect, accentuating particular architectural features of the room that had before blended into a wash of white.
Preparator Richard Miller paints the gallery walls.
Next, I began matching the physical models with historic photographs from McCallum’s archive and her teaching notes, painstakingly identifying all 95 objects by playing a type of “matching game” based on visual recognition.
After having grouped the models together by the year in which they were created, I began to further organize and align them, striving to establish compositional diversity and visual balance between all the objects.
Interim Director Katy Kline and I analyze the juxtaposition of two models against the gray gallery wall.
Meanwhile, our trusty preparators hung a series of shelves ringing the rotunda. The walls of the octagonal room are, of course, replete with corners and odd angles—and all of them are slightly different lengths. This made the production of our shelves, and my precisely-measured installation of diverse objects, a sometimes exasperating science!
Aside from hanging the shelves so that I could place the models, the preparatory crew installed the vinyl text that accompanies the exhibition—a large-scale title and a description of the project.
While we cleaned up the gallery to erase the traces of our process, Preparator Richard Miller operated a machine-lift to change the lighting that is installed along the tall ceiling of the rotunda—aiming the lights so as to accentuate the art objects on view.
Now that it is complete, Museum Models looks streamlined, and perhaps even simple.
Like all exhibitions, though, Museum Models has a backstage, a behind-the-scenes history; this project enacts the creative process that is its subject.
–Miriam Stanton, Interim Assistant Curator
Above Photos by Richard Miller