I am currently in the process of formulating some thoughts on objects in collections (read more here and here) which I hope will coalesce into a proposal for an object-oriented exhibition.  While thinking and reading about what happens when objects are put in exhibitions, I came across a useful concept from film theory: The Kuleshov Effect.

The Kuleshov Effect is a well-documented and often referenced concept in film-making, accredited to the Soviet film editor Lev Kuleshov. During the 1920s Kuleshov made a film showing an actor, edited together with a plate of soup, a dead woman, and a woman on a recliner. Supposedly, audiences would praise the acting, noting the subtle and minute shifts in the actor’s expressions showing hunger, grief, or lust. In reality, Kuleshov re-used the same clip of the expressionless actor – the effects were created entirely by the juxtaposition of images. This is what the footage looked like:

Here is Alfred Hitchcock explaining the effect, interestingly referring to it as ‘pure cinematics, the assembly of film’:

Kuleshov had laid the ground for Soviet montage cinema, which culminated most famously in Sergei Eisenstein’s The Battleship Potemkin (watch it here, it still carries a visual punch few movies can match – and his careful attention to objects makes it essential viewing for exhibition designers, me thinks). The Kuleshov Effect speaks to the fundamental inseparability of experience and the importance of context, not just in film making where meanings are created out of the editing of images but also in exhibitions where something similar happens with the placement of objects.

Good exhibition design capitalizes on the potential effects objects have on each other. This cannot be parsed out and made into a formula for successful object placement, rather it is a matter of sensibility towards the effects of objects that develops by looking at a lot of objects and thinking about them as objects, and not just as tools with which to lay out whatever story you have in mind. Good object placement brings the objects to our attention in unexpected ways, inviting both presence and meaning responses – we feel something when we look at the juxtaposed objects and that affective response makes us want to delve deeper into what is happening in the specific situation.

The worst kinds of exhibitions to me are those that display no sensibility towards the complex potential effects of objects. This most often happens when all the energy is put into an overarching representational frame which drowns out the objects, making them lifeless props for a story already in place. It also happens when objects are displayed without thought to their effects on one another and their juxtaposition in the display space – often they are laid out on flat surfaces inviting a flattened viewing, their liveliness sucked out of them.

What I would like for an object-oriented exhibition to do is to bring the complex and myriad ways in which we experience objects to the surface – sure, there are plenty of stories in things but there are also multitudes of things in stories, and they exert their own gravitational pressures and pulls on them. Displaying the lively qualities of objects is a way to bring those pressures and pulls into the exhibition space. Paraphrasing Hitchcock, something that builds upon a ‘pure exhibition making, the assembly of objects’.

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