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The Effects of Labeling, Lighting and Assemblage on viewer perception of the displayed object

Tara Horn

April 20,1998

anth 383

       Exhibitions are most commonly seen in the everyday appearance of shop windows.  Retailers use the exhibition of their goods to communicate to the customer something about the object.  Through their use of the display case, lighting and the orientation of their goods they are telling the consumer the object is valuable and desirable.

       Exhibitors in museums also have this power to communicate through exhibition design.  Unlike the shop displays though, the messages conveyed through museum exhibition are varied and complicated and far more reaching.  An exhibitor has the power to affect how we will view an object.

            The mode of installation, the subtle messages communicated through design, arrangement and
            assemblage can either aid or impede our appreciation and understanding of the visual, cultural,
            social and political interest of the objects and stories exhibited in museums. 
            [Ivan Karp, 1991 pp. 13-14]


Museum exhibitors not only have the power to communicate through their displays, but they also have the ability to direct the patron’s perception of that object.  Just as many believe a photograph is an accurate representation of reality, many patrons take what they are given in an exhibit as fact, even though both the photograph and the exhibit are subjects of the creators' interpretation.

            This power of an exhibit to affect perception is clearly seen on a great scale with the 1867 Paris Exposition of Louis Napoleon.  The exposition was put on the for the purpose of demonstrating the power and stability of the new French regime.  Through the exposition mundane objects of everyday life were placed into the new context of the museum where they acquired a new status as emblems of the power of the new French government.  These objects which were once commodities had, through the mode in which they were displayed alongside paintings and sculptures, become ‘art’.  Still in the Louvre today one can see this effect of display mode in the case of the Mona Lisa.  Even a patron who had never heard of the painting before would be able to perceive its importance upon seeing it.  Displayed in a large room with several other masterpieces, the Mona Lisa is the only painting protected by a case and velvet roping.  It is obvious that the exhibitors believed this painting to be more valuable than the others and this meaning is conveyed to the viewer.

            The very fact that an object is being exhibited makes a statement.  To display and item suggests to the viewer that the object is worth looking at -- it has an intrinsic value.  In the broadest sense there are two basic models for exhibitions.  There are those used for the display of objects, as in the case of fine art, and those used for telling a story, as with cultural artifacts.  The paradox is that an object in either of these two display modes may be one and the same, it can be seen either as art or as a cultural artifact, depending on its exhibition context.

            How is it that the same object may be perceived so differently depending on its manner of display? Three tools exhibitors may use to communicate a message about an object are the labels, lighting and the assemblage context of that object.  These factors may be manipulated in different ways to convey certain attitudes or more specific meanings that the viewer will use as a basis for interpreting the object.  In this way viewers may have differing interpretations of an exhibited object, but those interpretations will occur within the contextual attitude conveyed by the exhibition mode.  An object’s  latent and implicit meaning is made manifest in display (Masao Yamaguchi 1991).  Those meanings which are to be made manifest are interpreted by the exhibitor, through the exhibition style.

            The label exists in an explanatory relation to the object.  An object on display is removed from its original environment, the label is an aid which helps to reorient the object, by telling what the object is,  who made it or where it came from and possibly what its use was.  Both the kind of information given and the actual information will influence the reader.  The kind of information given, the categories that are used on a label play an important part in determining whether the object is viewed for its aesthetic qualities or its cultural relevance.  The actual information plays a role in determining the cultural significance attached to the object.

            The fewer categories of information given, the more likely it is that the object will be seen for its aesthetic qualities.  When an object is placed on display it gains a kind of autonomy at the expense of its original place in everyday life (Yamaguchi 1991).  The information on a label helps to recreate in the viewer’s mind the original context of the object.  When the information provided is minimal, the object maintains a greater amount of this autonomy.  When a patron reads a label that states only who made the object, where it came from  and when it was made, they will see that it is the object itself that has intrinsic value.  When the label offers no utilitarian function for the object, the viewer may presume that it is fulfilling a primary function of being exhibited and viewed.  The object will be seen not as representative of a cultural system, but as something to be viewed and appreciated for its appearance rather than its function.   

            The converse of this is true when a great deal of information is offered about the object.  The more information that is given about an object’s cultural function, the more its importance is seen as dependent upon this function.  The item will become less autonomous.  The viewer will see an object that is important for its representative abilities.  The significance of the object lies not in its ability to be appreciated aesthetically, but it’s ability (through exhibition and interpretive aids) to represent the cultural system which produced it.

            When a  patron looks at an object, they understand that it has some sort of significance.  They will look to the label to provide some insight into what that significance is.  They may gather from the label that it is the object itself that is important, or they may see that it has an established cultural role.  Once the label is read, the object will again be viewed, this time the information given will color the viewer’s interpretation. The label may also be able to direct the viewer's eye to specific details which are important.  In the case of an mbulu-ngulu figure of the kota people, the label may point out that the figure is made of brass sheet over wood.  This would account for certain characteristics of stylization and may show the patron that the Kota people esteem metalwork.  The label may also invoke the object’s role in an ancestor cult, where it is used to warn off evil spirits.  This information will most likely affect the viewer’s interpretation, for when he looks back at the figure he may see its open mouth as “minatory and fierce rather than say, joyful or anguished”(Michael Baxandall 1991, pp. 130-132). 

            When an exhibitor writes a label, they may provide a direct interpretation of the object for the viewer.  They may also attempt to stimulate the viewer’s own interpretations by offering interesting cultural facts about the object.  The label can tell the viewer whether the object should be culturally or aesthetically relevant.  The label may also be counterproductive.  If a label is too hard to see or understand the disconcerted viewer may opt to stop trying to understand the object’s significance, thus defeating the exhibit’s purpose. 

            One of the most influential and variable factors affecting viewer perception of an object is its assemblage context.  In the simplest form this would be an object displayed alone or in association with other objects.  More specifically, the kinds of objects displayed together, their spatial relationship and the lighting used upon them must be considered. 

            When an object is presented alone it may often be seen as a work of art.  The museum is an artificial environment where the original environment must be translated in terms of artifact assemblages, placement and installation styles.


 “Recognizing the incongruity of the situation, many museums try to isolate an object in both visual and contextual terms by placing it in a neutral environment. Here it may be seen for what it is, but also perhaps,  for what it is not, that is, as an art object.  Once the most humble of utilitarian objects is afforded the treatment of being framed with in a glazed space and illuminated, it takes on the preciousness of an art object and the public may find it difficult to see it any other way.”(Michael Belcher 1991, p.147)       


 An object displayed alone will be perceived as a work of art because, labels aside, there is nothing to recontextualise the artifact.  An object with no recognizable place in the outside world will be considered as art, form without function.  It is only the object that is presented, not a represented system.  The presence of certain kinds of lighting may reinforce this notion.            
            One popular form of lighting for art objects is boutique lighting.  As the name implies, boutique lighting was originally intended for use on commodities in store displays.  Boutique lighting creates a pool of light that has the surreal effect of seeming to emerge from within the object rather than focusing upon it from without.  This effect can heighten the visual wonder experienced by the viewer and reinforce the impression that the object has an intrinsic and autonomous value.  Because this style of lighting is commonly found in boutiques, its use in a museum setting may create in the patron’s mind an association between the museum object and a purchasable commodity.  This can evoke in the viewer a desire for possession which may become primary to any message attempting to be conveyed. However, this fantasy of possession may become so powerful as to be inverted, the object in its essence is not a possession but rather the possessor of the wonder it evokes in the viewer.  (Michael Belcher 1991)

          In the display of sculptures, dramatic lighting is sometimes used to heighten the contrasts in depth.  This form of lighting may be very effective in increasing the drama of a display, but if not used carefully can have actual physical ramifications for the viewer’s vision.  When there are extreme levels of brightness and darkness to be perceived by the viewer, their eyes will react in such a way as to make the bright areas brighter and the dark areas darker.  The more varied the levels of lighting the more difficulty the patron will have in adjusting visually, and ultimately, their ability to see and appreciate even the figure’s outward appearance will be hampered. 

            The overall level of lighting in a display room is also important.  Comfortably bright display rooms evoke a feeling of openness, and accessibility.  The level of lighting can affect the patrons’ mood.  People tend to be happier and more comfortable in levels of light akin to a sunny day, and happy people are more receptive to new information.  Low levels of lighting may create a somber mood, one where people may be less receptive or more negative in their attitudes.  The mood a person is in will always color their impressions of an object.  If a person is in a sad mood, they will almost certainly find a way to see their sadness reflected in the object, even if unintentionally.

            When an object is displayed along with other objects, there are several possible implications.  When any two objects are seen near each other in a display, the viewer will assume the objects are connected in some way.  Spatial relationships of objects may be used to communicate ordered categories of the items.  This may be their relationship in time, or geographic region, or taxonomic groupings.  A viewer assumes that because an object is on display that it must be significant or unique in some way.  When several items are displayed together, the viewer will assume they are all of some significance, and unless there is something to tell them otherwise, the viewer may assume the objects in a group are of equal significance to be displayed together.  The types of objects displayed together also affect perception.  For example, an African spear will be seen differently displayed next an African carving than it would be if it were next to a taxidermied elephant. Object assemblage is one of the most effective tools of communication for an exhibitor.

            This effect of object context can be seen in the previous example of the 1867 Paris exposition.  In the exposition, utilitarian objects came to be seen as art.  They were perceived as such in part because they were displayed alongside traditional art of sculptures and paintings.  This illustrates how the kinds of objects displayed together may affect perception.  In this case it was the fine art and sculptures that affected how the utilitarian objects were perceived.  The viewers already had ideas about the fine art objects as ‘art’, and these ideas carried over to the everyday objects.  The patrons saw that the two types of objects had something in common to be displayed together, and their prior knowledge of the fine art objects became the linking factor.  In this case the viewers had a certain familiarity with the objects being displayed, and this also played a role.

             When viewers have prior knowledge of one kind of object being displayed the presence of that object is all the more likely to affect their perception of an associated, unfamiliar object.  While it is problematic to assume that patrons have a familiarity with specific objects, this may be a factor in some exhibitions.  For example, when cultural items are associated with zoological specimens, or juxtaposed against objects common in the patron’s culture.  In the exhibition of the Herbert Ward collection of Africana (Mary Jo Arnoldi 1991), the collection shown in its entirety included artifacts, western style sculptures and animal trophies. In the absence of detailed labeling, the viewers’ interpretations of the artifacts became mediated by the more familiar trophies and sculpture.  The notions associated with the natural objects, the primitiveness of African wildlife carried over to the weapons and artifacts displayed.  Spears displayed along with the head of an elephant became primitive hunting weapons, whether or not these spears held an aesthetic or spiritual significance for their owners was not visible in the display mode.  This notion of utilitarian primitiveness may have also carried over to other artifacts that were necessarily displayed as well, artifacts which originally existed as art or religious objects.  The overall impression of the display was one of the Congolese people as primitive and wild, like the elephants associated with their artifacts.  The impression of primitiveness was further encouraged by the lighting in the room.  The curtains were drawn so as to evoke a somber image of the jungle, an image which conveys mystery and danger, and wildness.

            The sculptures of Herbert Ward also played an important role in creating an image for  the objects.  Herbert Ward himself believed the Congolese to be innocent and primitive, in a state of arrested development.  These notions are reflected in his traditional European style bronzes.  The bronzes were also life-size, giving a further impression of reality.  These bronzes became mediators between the viewers and the objects, particularly in their positioning in front of the artifacts.  People saw the artifacts, and thus the Congolese portrayed, in light of the sculptures because they could more easily relate to the western style.  In this case the fine art did not make the artifacts seem like art because it was not the aesthetics that were being displayed, but the subjects of the sculpture.  In fact, given that the majority of objects were cultural artifacts, the sculptures' image was also affected, in an effect opposite of that seen with the Paris exposition.  Even though the bronzes mediated between the viewer and object, the overwhelming presence of cultural artifacts also made the bronzes become less like fine art and more like cultural effects.  That is to say, the bronzes became representative of a cultural system rather than an aesthetic delight.

            The fact that this display involved a majority of an object type brings up another issue.  In this case the existence of the majority, albeit an unfamiliar one, affected the patrons’ perception of the minority objects, the bronzes.  Even when all the objects displayed together are wholly unfamiliar to the patron the presence of a majority of a type will influence their viewing. One way of restoring an object’s original context is to represent the environment through the use of simple majorities, to show developments or comparisons within groups.  Objects displayed that do not conform to the simple majority will be seen as unique or exceptional, whether or not they really are.  By virtue of such an objects’ apparent uniqueness it will become a focus of the visitor’s attention (Michael Belcher 1991).

            Placing several items together in a case can sometimes create a ‘wallpaper effect’, the presence of so many objects will prevent the viewer from being able to focus in on one object.  This would occur when there is no simple majority, but the objects are used to illustrate an idea or theme.  There may be overwhelming visual effects which prevent the viewer from taking any specific note of the objects themselves.  The artifacts become secondary to the theme, patrons will have to look to other visual aids and labels to guide their perception of the objects. 

            A similar effect may occur when an object is displayed within a diorama.  The object becomes secondary to the theme of that display.  The object becomes even less important in a diorama than when displayed with several other objects because it becomes an aspect of a whole scene, rather than a representative object.  The boundaries of an actual object may become unclear when displayed in a diorama.  There may be auxiliary items displayed which, although they are not part of the object may be construed as such.  The presence of the surrounding environment will prevent the viewer from singling out the single object.

            Displaying objects together may be used to highlight similarities, but it may also be done to highlight differences.  A display may take objects with similar functions from different cultures and juxtapose them.  This is done in particular when one of the cultures is that of the target audience. 

            The Juxtaposition of objects from different cultural systems signals to the viewer not only the variety of such systems but the
            cultural relativity of his own concepts and values.  But he is less alerted to his own cultural distance, cultural difference is not built into the display.
            The relationship between another culture and our own does not appropriate but  acknowledges and signals cultural difference.  The effect of visual             similarity is to accent difference.(Michael Baxandall p. 40; 1991)


The juxtaposition of the objects confronts the viewer, forcing him to reassess his knowledge about his own cultural system as it relates to others.  Ideally the confrontation will cause an alienation that allows space for reflection, argument and understanding.  Unfortunately confrontation may also have the effect of simply alienating the viewer, so that he decides he has no room for this new knowledge and decides to forget it completely.  In the first case, the object assemblage may facilitate getting the exhibitors point across, so the viewer recognizes the extent and validity of the other cultural system being represented.  But the assemblage may also confuse the viewer, hampering their ability to perceive and fully comprehend the object being displayed.

          The spatial relationship of associated objects is also important.  When one object is placed closer to one rather than another it may be perceived that it has more in common with that object.  If two objects are displayed such that one is more visually obvious, it may be construed that that object is more important.     

          In the 1988 exhibition ‘Art/Artifact' at the center for African Art in New York (Susan Vogel 1991), one can clearly see how all of these factors affect viewer perception.  The exhibit was designed with the specific intent of showing how design installation can affect viewers’’ perceptions.  The exhibit involved the display of non-art objects as art and art objects as non-art, displayed in such a way as to make the trickery of the design evident to the viewer.

          The exhibit was divided into four sections.  In the first section there were displayed utilitarian objects as fine art.  There was displayed a spear, a grass skirt and a bundled fishing net.  The objects were presented as pure form, there were no labels, and boutique style lighting was used.  The fishing net gained the most interesting results.  A non-aesthetic, mundane and non-signifying object, it bore a spurious resemblance to some contemporary artwork.  It was displayed on a low-lying platform in a pool of light.  The installation worked so well in presenting the object as fine art that the museum even received inquiries from collectors wanting to acquire such a work of art.

            Another section of the display involved fine African sculpture displayed unemphatically in the style of a natural history museum.  Several objects were displayed evenly in a case, although they were of unequal aesthetic interest.  The objects were used to illustrate a point, e.g. the place of the dead.  The evenness of the display suggested that all the objects were to be regarded equally, although some were fine art and others were not.  The quantities of text and pictures served to create the all over ‘wallpaper’ effect, helping to prevent the viewers from seeing any of the objects for the aesthetic value that was their function.  The indiscriminate assemblage made it nearly impossible to really see the fine sculptures as art, though they were clearly visible.  There was also present a diorama, of the installation of a carved post used in funeral rituals.  In the diorama it is similarly hard to single out the post, and the boundaries are fuzzy.  It is hard to tell if certain cloths being used are part of the sculpture, or if some of the smaller posts present are important.  In the display case the posts take on a banal appearance.

            In another display the same posts are displayed as fine art, along with some other utilitarian items.  The posts and spears were displayed each in their own Plexiglas case, and haloed by a spotlight.  In this section the viewer is invited to consider the artistic qualities of the posts, whereas in the previous section they were practically prevented from doing so.  The presence of the objects under Plexiglas suggested that each work is uniquely valuable and must be protected.  Here the posts take on a spectral appearance as sculptures.                                                                                                                                                                                                                    

           For one display a curiosity room of 1905 was reconstructed.  Here there was a mix of manmade and zoological specimens, similar to what was seen in the Herbert Ward exhibition.  All of the specimens were displayed in the open, unprotected by any cases.  There was also a lack of any information, no labels were provided.  The style used implied that the objects are of equal value and interest, and they had no complex meanings.  The lack of information and association with zoological specimens suggested that the objects were interesting but unknowable and they demonstrated no aesthetic intent.  Whereas in the last display of sculpture the presence of cases suggested that the objects were extremely valuable, in this display the absence of any display cases suggested that the objects were not very valuable, and should not be regarded as art.  There were spears in this display of a curiosity room which were also displayed as sculptures under Plexiglas.

            In the exhibition Art/Artifact, one can clearly see the effects of lighting, labeling and object assemblage on the perception of the object.  Lighting can be used to create a mood, or to spotlight and halo an object as fine art.  Labeling can have an affect in both its presence and its absence.  In its presence by the amount of information given and the way that information guides the viewer’s eyes.  In its lacking by implying there is nothing important to be said about the object.  Object assemblage often plays the biggest role in affecting perception.  The types of objects displayed together and whether or not the viewers have prior knowledge of one object type being used affects perception.  The amount of objects being displayed together and their spatial relationships is also a consideration.  If a simple majority is created the viewer may see an exceptional object where there is none.  Most importantly, though, it is the three of these factors together, lighting, labeling and assemblage, which has the greatest effect on viewers’ perceptions.  It is impossible to display a cultural object without appropriation, but exhibitors have the ability to manipulate installation styles to convey a desired message about an object and consequently, the creators of that object.





Baxandall, Michael, 1991 “Exhibiting Intention”, Exhibiting Cultures, Washington             D.C.  Smithsonian Institute press


Belcher, Michael  1991 Exhibitions In Museums, Washington D.C., Smithsonian             Institute press


Greenblatt Steven, 1992 “Resonance and Wonder”, Exhibiting Cultures,             Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institute press


Karp, Ivan and Lavine, Steven D. eds. 1991, Exhibiting Cultures,  Washington             D.C.,              Smithsonian Institute press


Karp, Ivan; Mullen Kreamer, Christine; Lavine Steven D. eds. 1992, Museums and             Communities, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institute press


Vogel, Susan 1991 “Always True to the Object - in our own fashion” Exhibiting             Cultures, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institute press



Yamaguchi, Masao, 1991 “Poetics of Exhibition in Japanese Culture”,

            Exhibiting Cultures, Washington D.C., Smithsonian Institute press





I.  Introduction

            A. Exhibitioning

                        1. Communicating through display

                        2.  1886 Paris Exposition

                                    a. Effects on perceptions

            B.  Labeling, lighting and object assemblage


II.  Labeling

            A.  Labels for art

            B.  Labels for cultural artifacts

                        1.  explanatory effects


III.  Lighting

            A.  Boutique lighting

            B.  Dramatic lighting

            C.  ‘Mood’ lighting


IV.  Object assemblage

            A.  Associations through display

                        1.  Fine art and artifacts

                                    a.  Effects of viewer knowledge

                        2.  Zoological specimens and artifacts

                                    a.  Herbert Ward Exhibition of Africana

                                                1.  Herbert Ward bronzes

            B.  Creating simple majorities

            C.  Wallpaper effect

            D.  Juxtaposing objects

                        1.  Highlighting differences

                        2.  Confronting the viewer


V.  Art/Artifact Exhibition

            A.  Artifacts as pure form

            B.  Art in natural history museum style

            C.  Artifacts as precious sculpture

            D.  1905 Curiosity room display


VI.  Conclusion