Behind the scenes at BMA Exhibit: Curator and designer conspire to make the items from the Victoria and Albert Museum visible without exposing them to environmental harm, inquisitive fingers and plain old theft.

October 07, 1997|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,SUN STAFF

It is after hours at the Baltimore Museum of Art. The ticket window is closed. The day's visitors have gone home, and so have the volunteer tour guides.

But a sort of art is being made.

In a large gallery, designer Karen Nielsen is high above the floor in a cherry picker, tinkering with the lights. Curator Brenda Richardson stands below, contemplating the placement of several art objects. Since early summer, the two women and a team of staff members have been working nearly round-the-clock to install the museum's next exhibition.

In six days, "A Grand Design: The Art of the Victoria and Albert Museum," an examination of how the renowned London museum's collections were formed, will open. At $5 million, it is the museum's most expensive exhibition yet.

In many ways, it also may be the museum's most challenging.

The display traces 145 years of institutional art collecting, a story that spans five centuries and two continents. It also includes 250 objects ranging from an 800-pound painting and a cravat made of limewood, to a chair that resembles a giant hamster cage and a 16th-century tapestry of gossamer fragility.

"At the BMA, we've designed exhibits of carousel horses, of paintings, of Looney Tunes cartoons, of antique toys," says Nielsen, director of design.

"But I've never done anything quite like this: After this, I feel like there's nothing I haven't installed, nothing I haven't seen."

"A Grand Design," which was organized in conjunction with the V&A by BMA deputy director and curator Richardson and the BMA's former director Arnold Lehman (who left in August to head New York's Brooklyn Museum of Art), took 10 years to plan.

As curator, Richardson is responsible for articulating the artistic vision that underlies the exhibit. As design director, Nielsen is charged with translating that vision into physical reality.

Pared down

"The hardest part is taking the history of the V&A, which encompasses 4 million objects, and putting that history into 9,400 square feet at the BMA," Nielsen says.

As she talks, the designer sits in her windowless office. The walls are lined with photographs of the 250 objects in the exhibition. A computer is on her right, and a family-sized bottle of Maalox is in her desk drawer. Behind her, crammed into one of the few spots on the wall not covered by photographs, is the exhibition's floor plan -- something that, as Nielsen points out, resembles the starship Enterprise.

Before sitting down to plan "A Grand Design," Richardson and VTC Nielsen first did historical research. "Brenda and I went to the University of Maryland library and found pictures from that period. We took magnifying glasses and reading glasses and sketch pads, and from that I could design something that captured the atmosphere," Nielsen says.

Then, she sat in her office and gazed upon the hundreds of pictures taped to the walls. Though the designer did travel to the V&A to study the museum, there were a number of objects she didn't see until after planning the exhibit.

The technique was not without pitfalls.

"You see that pitcher?" Nielsen asks, pointing at a photograph of a blue-and-white Staffordshire earthenware jug. "I thought it was about 10 inches tall. It's about 40 inches around and 3 feet tall. I told the English [curators] that, and they thought it was hilarious."

In the past few months, the museum's second floor has been transformed. "A Grand Design" begins in the Thalheimer galleries, fills the neighboring May galleries and spills out into the atrium. Where there were walls, there now are spacious galleries. Where there were small galleries, there now are halls, nooks and passageways. Even the lighting system has been restructured.

"A Grand Design" begins with a painting by English artist Henry Courtney Selous that depicts the opening of the Great Exhibition of 1851, the international trade show that inspired the founding of the V&A museum.

The painting, titled "The Opening of the Great Exhibition," welcomes visitors into the Baltimore show. It also provided the inspiration for the decor of the first gallery: The colors -- reds, yellows and blues -- as well as architectural elements seen in the painting are echoed throughout the first section of "A Grand Design."

The huge painting contains the solution to another technical problem as well.

It hangs across the gallery from an intricately woven, silk-and-wool tapestry portrait of Queen Victoria. Below the tapestry sits an 1867 inlaid cabinet.

The problem is that the 110-year-old tapestry is fragile and can be exposed only to very low levels of light. But in such dim light, no one would be able to see the detailing on the cabinet.

However, the painting depicts Queen Victoria standing beneath a "bal de chin" -- a fringed, umbrella-shaped object, which was held over the heads of royalty like a shield.

Using the painting as her blueprint, Nielsen designed a bal de chin. The she placed it over the fragile tapestry portrait of Queen Victoria.

And she turned up the lights.

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