Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World’s Fairs, 1851–1939 is officially on view at Carnegie Museum of Art. The exhibition is a massive undertaking, the largest exhibition of decorative arts and design at the museum in nearly a decade. We’ve received a number of queries as to how we actually did it.
While some may say it takes a village to mount an exhibition like Inventing the Modern World, in this case it took more of a sprawling urban center. We owe thanks to a large network of talented individuals—including our colleagues in the Exhibitions, Registrars, Conservation, Publications, and Technology Initiatives departments, our skilled professional art handlers, our generous co-organizers at The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, and a host of dedicated outside contractors—all of whom were truly invested in creating this knockout exhibition.
Co-organized by the Carnegie Museum of Art and The Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art (NAMA), the genesis of the exhibition extends back more than a decade. When chief curator Jason Busch and NAMA curator Catherine Futter were researching the topic over the last four years, they traveled across the globe on multiple trips, scouring museum collections for the most stylistically and technologically innovative objects exhibited at the fairs between 1851, the first international exhibition in London, and the 1939 New York World’s Fair. With such a large number of examples to choose from, each object had to earn its space on the exhibition checklist. (See some of the highlights.) We worked hard to secure loans, negotiating with museums and private collectors on shipping, insurance, and display requirements.
Once the checklist was finalized, comprising nearly 200 objects from 45 lenders across the globe, it was time to start thinking about the layout for our venue. Jason and I worked with NAMA exhibition designer Amanda Ramirez for nearly a year to plan the layout and design of the show. At the same time, we were working with our Publications department to finalize the exhibition catalogue and beginning to compose the 200+ wall labels and text panels for the exhibition.
Sample elevations and floorplan of the exhibition’s entry gallery
For a show that was more than a decade in the making, we had only seven exhilarating weeks to deinstall the previous exhibition, prepare the galleries for construction, build new walls and platforms, paint, and install exhibition furniture as well as 238 objects—all while primping the galleries with final touches for opening weekend. Here’s a peek at what we’ve been up to leading up to the exhibition opening.
Weeks 1–2: Once the previous exhibition was deinstalled, it was time to clean the galleries and prepare for new construction. The space transformed quickly as the fantastic crew from Giffin Interior & Fixture Inc. began building new walls, bringing in custom platforms, and painting the galleries.
Week 3: We continued to build and paint walls and lay out furniture platforms as the custom-built exhibition casework began to arrive. With the assistance of Bob Tolnai, fabrication technician at NAMA, the casework was placed and the galleries started to look more and more like an exhibition space. Decorative features such as fabric treatments to evoke bunting from the 1851 Crystal Palace, vinyl graphics including one modeled after Siegfried Bing’s Art Nouveau at the 1900 Paris fair, and photo blow-ups of fair displays were installed to provide visitors with context. Our 2-D plan was starting to become reality!
Weeks 4–6: This is when the real fun began. Truck shipments full of crates containing artwork arrived. Curatorial staff, art handlers, and registrars worked alongside a special team from NAMA (associate registrar Jill Kohler, conservator Joe Rogers, and registrar Janet Hawkins) to unpack and condition report all objects prior to installation, making sure they arrived in the exact same state in which they left Kansas City. Small objects were installed in vitrines while larger artworks were placed on platforms as the exhibition truly started to develop.
Week 7: The galleries were ready for the finishing touches. Two-dimensional artworks were hung, along with didactic panels. Vinyl quotations were applied to the walls and platform and wall labels were installed. After one last final cleaning of the galleries, the exhibition was ready to open!
I hope you’ve had a chance to visit Inventing the Modern World during its opening week, and if not, we hope to see you in the galleries soon!