Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Gone but Not Forgotten: The Second Life of Exhibitions

Exhibitions by their nature are ephemeral. Consider the DAM’s recent exhibition Red, White, and Bold: Masterworks of Navajo Design, 1840-1870  in which classic period blankets came from institutions and private collections from around Colorado and California to be included in the show. It is unlikely that all of those works will ever come together for a show again. However, the impact of an exhibition can be far reaching. For instance the Japanese pavilion of the 1893 Columbian Exposition is widely credited with influencing Frank Lloyd Wright in his architectural designs, which then reverberated throughout American architecture. The exhibitions we organize may have significance in the fields of art history or museum studies that are difficult to foresee. They also bear major importance on the future of our institution, so it is imperative that we document our installations and the processes that led to them to the best of our ability.

Fortunately, over the course of the museum’s history the staff has been diligent record keepers. In the native arts department we have exhibition records going back to the earliest days of the department. Highlights include:

  • Photos of some of our earliest exhibitions in the Denver City and County Building, before the DAM had its own building.
  • Records on the 1939 Golden Gate Exposition in San Francisco in which DAM curator Frederic H. Douglas collaborated extensively on the American Indian pavilion.
  • Correspondences related to the 1941 exhibition Indian Art of the United States at the Museum of Modern Art in New York co-curated by Rene d’Harnoncourt and Frederic H. Douglas
  • Extensive documentation on the 1982-84 international traveling exhibition of Plains Indian art, Circles of the World.

Indian Pavilion, Golden Gate Exposition, San Francisco, CA, 1939.

Through documents such as these, current curators of native arts and other staff can better understand the history of the museum, learn from past practices of exhibition planning, and ensure we’re offering new experiences and information to our visitors. In addition, these records provide scholars a resource for understanding the history of the museum field and how particular exhibitions influenced the study and interpretation of American Indian arts.

Today exhibitions are planned and documented using increasing sophisticated technologies. Red, White, and Bold is a perfect example. In order to plan such an ambitious installation, our exhibition designer created a 3-D model of the gallery and the show’s layout in Google Sketch-up. This allowed the curator to visualize the space before a single blanket was hung and then work with the designer to refine the design for the best result. After it opened, our in-house photographers thoroughly documented the exhibition for posterity. While this has been done with regular photos for years, more recently we’ve been able to create simulated walk-throughs that use 360-degree panoramas to mimic being in the gallery. These videos, called QuickTime Virtual Reality (QTVR), allow future staffers and researchers a much greater capacity to understand the physical space of the exhibition; something that is much harder to grasp when looking back at older exhibitions.

You can explore QTVR 360-degree panoramic views of Red, White, and Bold on your desktop or laptop. Using QuickTime, open the new window, click on the image and drag to change your perspective and click the minus (-) or plus (+) buttons below the image to zoom. Visit Apple.com to download the latest free QuickTime software to view QTVR files. Interested in other exhibitions from the museum's past? Visit these web pages to take a virtual walk through each show: 

The future promises even more thorough documentation of exhibitions. Museums such as the Science Museum of London have recently started experimenting with using a 3-D scanner to document galleries before they are changed to create even more refined documentation of exhibitions, measuring precisely where objects are located in space. It’s reassuring to know that, whether an exhibition continues for years or only a few months, they have a life that carries on.

Eric Berkemeyer is the curatorial assistant in the Denver Art Museum's native arts department. Eric has been at the DAM since 2011. He recommends that visitors don’t miss the exhibition Printed and Painted: the Art of Bark Cloth on the third floor of the Hamilton building.