The difference between art and design is a long-debated subject that will most probably continue to be discussed for many years yet to come. While both fields deal with creating a visual composition, they are often set apart by their intent. One common claim is that the function of art is to generate inspiration by creating an emotional bond with its viewer, that is to suggest otherwise about design. Others might argue that forming emotional connections can also be seen as a basic human need, and therefore serve a function. Just think about your digital accessories and the how drawn we all are to certain designed products, on the deepest emotional level possible.

The merging of different practices and the tension created between them is ever-present in the latest exhibition by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna, Austria’s largest art museum. The curators of the show approached the challenge without a classic background in art curation, being a filmmaker known for his deeply visual narrative style, and a designer, writer and illustrator with an education in art history, set and costume design. The couple were invited to comb through the museum’s historical collections, and the result is the marvelously named exhibition, “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures.”

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf
Installation view of Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

Advancement through trial and error

It took Anderson and Malouf about two years to dig through the museum’s 14 collections of over 4.5 million objects. They eventually selected 423 pieces, of which 350 had never before been shown to the public. These items are displayed in the exhibition over eight small and cozy dimly-lit rooms, creating a sense of intimacy. The duo’s unique humor and overall quirkiness is present throughout every corner, notably the peculiar groupings of paintings and other historical objects that challenge the art of curation in a new and oh-so-Andersonian kind of way.

In the exhibition overview, Anderson himself describes the great difficulties involved in transforming this vision into reality. He writes about the complexity of conveying the idea behind his and Malouf’s approach to the curators of the Kunsthistorisches, who at times struggled to understand the reasoning behind the grouping of certain works. Some of the choices include placing a painting of a seven-year-old falconer (Emperor Charles V) next to a portrait of a four-year-old dog owner (Emperor Ferdinand II) in order to “emphasize the evolution of natural gesso.” Or choosing to place a 17th century emerald vessel opposite a 1978 bright green costume from the production of Hedda Gabler to “call attention to the molecular similarities between hexagonal crystals and Shantung silk,” as explained in the exhibition’s accompanying text.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf
“Emphasizing the evolution of natural gesso,” Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Kunsthistorisches Museum.
Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf
“Calling attention to the molecular similarities between hexagonal crystals and Shantung silk”, Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Kunsthistorisches Museum.

“True,” Anderson writes. “One of the Kunsthistorisches Museum’s most senior curators…at first failed to detect some of the, we thought, more blatant connections; and even after we pointed most of them out, still questions their curational validity in, arguably, all instances. But, should our experiment fail on these levels, we are nevertheless, confident it will, at the very least, serve the purpose of ruling out certain hypotheses, thereby advancing the methods of art history through the scientific process of trial and error.”

Curating art by methods of design

One might wonder how a walk through the eight rooms of the museum’s confined space would be affected by a Wes Anderson-like narrator’s voice taking you through each object and mimicking the short, dry style of description you can witness in his cinematic repertoire. But due to the already odd and amusing nature of Anderson and Malouf, walking between the exhibition walls without prior knowledge makes this experience weird, in the best sense of the word, and quite delightful.

By choosing to draw your own connections between the items on display, you start noticing the styling, positioning and grouping of the objects in a way that makes it a better and more meaningful experience (especially if you’re a fan of the Wes Anderson cinematic universe). When choosing, for example, to momentarily ignore Anderson’s gesso explanation and simply look at the design of room three – filled with paintings of young children of some pedigree and a kid’s armor placed in a glass box in the center – the message and the story become highly visual, and the comedy of it shines through, whether intentional or not.

The name of the exhibition, “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures” brings up the approach of curation by design and connotation, rather than by the common rules that apply when curating art history. It creates a juxtaposition between thought and intention on one side, and a sense of randomness and provoked-thought on the other, which is something to be said about art and design alike.

One might consider this collaboration as the museum’s effort to appeal to the masses. While that might be true, it is also a brilliant way to keep a museum that is no longer renewing its collection, fresh and modern. But beyond the business of art debate, this museum’s choice is a forward-thinking understanding of user experience, with the visitor taking the role of the user. Curating with a strong emphasis on design creates a way to communicate and stir feelings in the hearts of the viewers. By opening the matter of curation up to interpretation, this exhibition demonstrates what both art and design – and brilliant minds – are all about: combining disciplines and making connections that lead to a radically unique way of thinking.

Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures, Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf
The coffin of a Spitzmaus (shrew) mummy, installation view.

 

“Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures”, Kunsthistorisches Museum Wien, 6 November 2018 to 28 April 2019. Following its presentation in Vienna, the exhibition will travel to the Fondazione Prada, Milan.