Behind the Scenes at the DAM

Planning the Layout for El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa

Have you ever had trouble hanging a photo on a wall at home? How about trying to hang two or three together in an arrangement? A museum exhibition is the display of art on a much larger scale and as you can imagine the challenges are larger too.

The exhibition El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa is a wonderful example of the difficulties and pleasures of designing an exhibit layout. Level four of the Hamilton building is a space with dramatic ceiling heights and sloping exterior walls. It will display works in a number of media and of various sizes, including eight of Anatsui’s large scale cloth-like metal wall sculptures. In planning the placement of such varied artworks in such a unique space the ability to visualize all of the elements became exceptionally important.

The tip of the level four gallery model with the 19-feet wide Stressed World reduced to a manageable size.

Fortunately, the museum has scale models for each of its galleries. Every half inch of the model corresponds to a foot in the actual gallery, so to get us started I re-sized photographs of each piece in the show to match the scale of the model. They were then printed and cut out, and we were ready to get started. The exhibition team for the show, curator of native arts Nancy Blomberg, exhibition designer Ben Griswold, master teacher Heather Nielsen, associate director of exhibitions Jill Desmond, and I, made an initial placement of the works then met periodically to further refine the layout over time.

Ben adjusting the location of one of the free-standing sculptures.

At times photographic copies alone weren’t sufficient to give a true sense of how a piece might work in the space. For instance, Peak Project is an installation comprised of a variable number of components made from can lids joined together into sheets. To simulate the installation Ben cut numerous aluminum foil squares out to match the scale of each element. We then folded the squares into tiny peaks similar to what will be seen in the final installation

Using a physical model also allowed the team to visualize sight lines, experiment with groupings of objects, consider how the arrangement of works would affect the interpretive labels we would be using, and even allowed us to try out wall colors that might be used in the exhibition. Eventually the basic layout we conceptualized using the model was translated into a more refined set of elevation drawings and floorplans by our exhibition designer. Using a computer Ben was able to establish more precise locations of the objects in the gallery; these final drawings served as the roadmap that the installation crew could use to hang, mount, or place El Anatsui’s spectacular work.

El Anatsui: When I Last Wrote to You about Africa will be on view September 9–December 30.

Image credit: The photo at the top gives a glimpse into the upcoming exhibition. Observant readers may have noticed that the native arts curator playfully inserted Hershey's kisses among the Peak Project models.

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 Sovereign: Independent Voices on the third floor of the Hamilton building.