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Kirkland Museum's Unique Display


Unconventional Museum Experience

The three principal collections make the Kirkland unique, and the unusual method of display further sets the museum apart nationally. The Colorado Collection and Vance Kirkland Collection are always displayed in salon style with the International Decorative Art Collection. This provides a unique museum experience to visitors with fine art being shown in the same galleries with decorative art. Comparative displays are done with more than one art style in a gallery and vignettes are often arranged with vintage furniture along with a period radio, lamp and phone, as if you had walked into a person’s home.


The Unique Experience at Kirkland Museum

Kirkland Museum's Founding Director & Curator Hugh Grant was invited to give a PowerPoint presentation at Bard Graduate Center in Manhattan in March 2010 about how he developed and is still developing Kirkland Museum and its individual method of display. Grant has adopted six unusual methods which reinforce each other as a philosophical approach for a unique experience at Kirkland Museum. Here is a description in his words, taken from his Bard lecture:

[Please note that these photographs do not necessarily show the museum as it is currently displayed. These objects are not guaranteed to currently be on view.]

 1. I display in a salon style, which can and, at the Kirkland, does mean two different things.

  • Fine art is shown in the same room with decorative art. For thousands of years, in castles, mansions and houses, people have placed decorative art together with fine art. Therefore it seems natural to display like this. Large city museums mostly separate them, allowing them to hang posters or graphics on the wall with scenes of historic room installations, photos of the artists, etc. So, in most museums, if you see furniture in a room, you do not see paintings on the wall, and visa versa. Exceptions are The Barnes Foundation near Philadelphia—which has gone through the tremendous fight to move it downtown; and The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston—but, of course, those were private houses at one time. Another exception is here in New York —the Neue Galerie. I hadn’t seen the Barnes, the Gardner, or the Neue Galerie until I opened the Kirkland in 2003. But it is comforting for me to find I have company in doing this salon atmosphere.  
  • Salon style can also mean that paintings and other art are displayed very close together.  Although I have only double hung paintings so far, the paintings at the Gardner are triple hung and at the Barnes they are quadruple hung. We have a precedent: Vance Kirkland used to say, “I like to see what I’ve got.” So instead of stashing many paintings and objects in his basement he hung his house and studio salon style.


2. I display objects in a study collection manner, where more objects are displayed per square foot. That way many of the lines can be seen with a variety of colors, shapes and patterns. (For instance, here’s an entire case of Teco ceramics.) 

I decided to show all 11 colors of American Modern, designed in 1939 by Russel Wright, including the rare Steubenville Blue, and here is the only pitcher in that color ever found. Because those pieces are fired at low temperature as earthenware, their colors are radiant.

And one can only realize the magic of Eva Zeisel’s 1942 Museum line of tableware by showing many of the shapes together, as they curve and interact with each other and relate as a harmonious whole.

The deco period line of Catalonia which anticipates modern, designed by Reuben Haley in 1927, is even more extraordinary when a number of the seemingly melting shapes and unusual colors can play off each other. Most large city museums have adopted the sparse mode of display which often highlights a few spectacular examples of art works with dramatic space around them. But again I wanted to give visitors a unique comparative experience at the Kirkland and chose to be different.   

3. I often do vignettes, with a coffee table in front of a sofa, side tables on each side of the sofa, 2 chairs flanking the table, and objects on the tables such as sculpture, a period lamp, a period phone, a period radio, a period clock, etc.

Visitors love this atmosphere; it feels like a house. The designer of the settee and coffee table shown here is Michael McCoy.  He was the co-director, with his wife Katherine, of the Cranbrook Academy design department for 24 years.


Art Deco Vignette                                             Modern

4. I do comparative display: for instance, in the first large room, there is both modern and deco, because modern comes out of deco, and college classes can make comparisons in the same room. The teachers and the students find this very helpful. 


5.  Most museums display furniture on risers, but furniture was never meant to be seen on risers. Visitors to the Kirkland are very excited to see how iconic, historic furniture looks, when displayed on the floor where it is supposed to be.  They can immediately relate to the scale of things that way, relative to them and relative to other things. 


6a.  Labeling represents a major difference between me and many other museums. I normally put small and medium size labels by each piece (and these objects are generally in glass cases).

Larger labels are put on furniture. This differs from most museums which have small markers with numbers next to the pieces, as at the Neue Galerie. At most museums, object information, keyed to the numbers, can then be found either on coated pages somewhere in a wall pocket nearby or listed en masse on the front of cases, on panels. This requires a lot of work on the part of the viewer to match them up and instead I want to make it as easy as possible for visitors to know what each art work is, if they want to know. I have seen people shrug and walk away from an object or case without going to the trouble of searching for the tag information because it isn’t immediately accessible. I put the information tags next to the objects and on each piece of furniture (so I guess you could say, there’s no deferred gratification at the Kirkland). But, of course, this makes my cases even busier than they were before the information tags—nevertheless visitors seem to universally appreciate our regard for facilitating an enjoyable museum experience.

6b.  More on labels: Because objects are displayed in a study collection manner at the Kirkland—where more objects are displayed closer together in a given space—instead of listing the artist’s name first, I put the object name first—for instance on this Art Deco shelf are (l-r) Glass Vase by Marius Sabino, Glow Lamp (which is actually a toilet ball float lamp—you see the brass thing) by Ruth Gerth for the Chase Co., Normandie Pitcher by Peter Müller-Munk, Manhattan Cocktail Pitcher by Norman Bel Geddes and Pretzel Man by the Chase Company.  This way visitors can easily locate the tag of the object if they want to know more about it.  Also I put quite a bit of information on a tag.  The viewers can decide whether they want to read all of it, or they can only read the date and artist’s name if that is what they want to know or are in a hurry. To compensate for not listing the artist’s name first, I list the artist’s name in large, bold, capital letters on the tag.


6c.  Still related to the subject of labeling, I realized that there is an additional angle from which to view the Kirkland decorative art collection, that would help many classes and groups that we get. More than 60 architects are on view at any one time because of the number of objects we have—such as Charles Rennie Mackintosh, Frank Lloyd Wright, Joseph Hoffmann, Alvar Aalto, etc. So I have inserted into the tag of those objects a small graphic of a wrinkled blueprint with an “A” on it for architect. Many architectural schools inside and outside Colorado, including 13 students from Harvard have come specifically to view objects by architects at the Kirkland.


To get a sense of how Kirkland Museum feels, click on the images below to see GigaPans, very high resolution photographs of two of our display spaces taken by Koko Bayer. NOTE: This is not the current exhibition. The objects in these photographs may or may not be on view at the museum.

Click on the image to be taken to the GigaPan site. Once there, you can zoom in to see each detail of the room.

Exhibition Room I

Exhibition Room I

Vance Kirkland's Studio Workroom


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