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Living in a city that defines itself as a cultural capital means that access to the arts sometimes gets taken for granted. Over the past few years the National Gallery of Victoria has consistently been bringing blockbuster shows to Melbourne as part of their “Winter Masterpieces” initiative, including both Dali and Picasso exhibitions.nWandering around the NGV’s latest offering, Vienna: Art and Design, it’s easy to become complacent and forget how much work actually goes into putting a show like this together.We caught up with John Eccles, senior exhibition designer at the NGV, to chat about what actually goes down in putting a show like this on the walls.

When you’re designing an exhibition like this that’s bringing a 20th century european vision to a 21st century Melbourne audience, how do you account for that?

You don’t want to ham up some of the elements of it. For this one because it’s so related to design, it’s easier to give it a little more of a blank canvas to present everything on. I worked with another exhibition designer on this, Katherine Horseman, and she helped out heaps on it as well. We’ve gone for a fairly minimalist approach to it, to try and let all of the objects speak for themselves.

And we’ve had to break up all of the objects into groups so you can engage with the story and the chronology as well.

How hard is it to create a narrative with this sort of material?

It’s pretty difficult sometimes because sometime you’ve got a whole lot of one aspect of a story to work with, and not so much of another to work with. And trying to make it fit into the rooms that you’ve got available, and making sure that people can get past everything they’ve got to get past, the key points.

And how much are you limited by the physical space? I mean you’ve only got a certain amount of room to work with.

That’s where when you’ve got a huge potential check list of works to come in, you need to work out what sizes they are and start plotting them in, using models and elevations and all that kind of stuff.

How long have you been designing exhibitions for?

I’ve been here for the last four years. And this one so far is certainly the biggest one, there’s almost three hundred works here so it’s quite a lot to fit in.

And are most of these pieces on loan?

Yeah, We’ve got a few key pieces here that are from the NGV’s collection, which is good, because it’s nice to actually put those things against something they wouldn’t normally be with, put them in context.

That was something I was interested in, when you take works like these to a city like Melbourne that doesn’t have such a strong cultural background how much does that change the context of the work?

Well that’s something that was taken in to consideration. It’s interesting because we even have further on [in the exhibition] a few elements of what had been, it’s a reconstruction of a frieze room that’s in the Secession building, and that itself is even something that is a physical presence in another building and we’ve sort of mirrored it a bit, but you can’t recreate something that exists somewhere else. You’ve got to be sympathetic to it.

And how did you go about doing that?

Well a lot of it that defines it is its structure, so that is a key piece to putting the whole exhibition together and having that room around it, and having room either side to put works to go on each part of that.

So you’re incorporating elements of design and architecture and it’s not just an exhibition as much as it is an experience?

Exactly, and with this one too we’ve had one of those design challenges of being able to put two dimensional works together with three dimensional works and keeping the groupings that are important to each other, so that each of the objects can speak to each other. But it’s definitely a challenge to get over, it’s a combination of display cases and open display, as well as wall hangings.

And how have the public reacted to it so far?

Really good so far, it’s nice because I think there a few relations here, with the Melbourne community engaging with the past from Vienna. A lot of people have something to relate to.

So when you’re designing a show like this how much work do you have to put in? You’ve got to appeal to a fairly wide demographic without excluding anyone, how do you go about that?

It’s making sure that whatever display techniques you use, you put enough visibility for everybody. You’ve got people with different needs as well, so we’ve tried to keep it as open as we possibly can. It’s hard in some instances, like with small objects you’ve got to keep them contained.

We are able to put it on a fairly blank canvas and saying these are what they are as artworks – as objects – not interfering with it too much or putting too many moments of distraction from the artworks or anything.

Do you think that’s a fairly new approach in term of exhibition design?

It’s a hard one, because it’s easy to get carried away sometimes and it’s a hard thing to keep things consistent. And what we’ve tried to do in this one is keep a level of consistency with everything: from display techniques being similar for all objects to combinations of objects as well.

Because there’s a lot going on here. . .

There’s a lot going on. And it’s also trying to give everything its moment as well, so not privileging one thing over another…it’s a hard thing to do. But with each exhibition you always have a sort of ‘Bang’ moment that you want to make more of.

So where are the key points in this show?

I think there with certainly a lot of the Klimt portraits, they’re great things even as far as traffic flow is concerned, as a way of bringing people through the space.

One of the things I’m interested in exhibition design is how you lead people without pushing it too hard. . .

No, I think it’s important to have that as a reason, but everyone will find their own way through it as well. Find the things that you love and move accordingly.

What were the biggest challenges in putting this show together?

When you overcome the space concerns and you’ve allocated space to everything then it’s a logistical thing as to when things go in and when they go up. A really nice thing is still being surprised when crates get delivered. Because you spend so much time just working with them as images, a JPEG, a scaled object, and you don’t get to see all the detail all the time.

What was the process of recreating the room from the Secession Building?

Well we were working with information from a lender overseas and because it all gets flat packed and set around, we’ve got like a kit of parts but it’s making those parts fit for us as well. There’s a fair bit of engineering involved, and ticking all the boxes.

So this is reproduced in other institutions?

Yeah, this same set of panels. I believe it was painted by the conservators who had done all the restoration on the Secession building in Vienna, so while they were re-beautifying the original one they did a whole reproduction of it.

So this is as close to an authentic Viennese experience as I’ll get in Melbourne?

As close as you can get without ripping down the Secession building and moving it around.

Where do you think Australia stands in terms of exhibition design?

I think we’re pretty good, in terms of trying to reach out to a broader public. It’s a little bit more challenging I guess for Australian museums because it’s not the first tourist destination I suppose, people would be more likely to go to Ayer’s Rock but I know for certain that the local community loves it. And you get your regular visitors time and time again.

How do you make art relevant to an audience? I mean obviously something is working, but how do you make sure?

It’s huge teams of people to make the whole thing happen in the first place. And events and things like that also help, so ‘Art After Dark’ as well as a few other things are becoming more and more used as a way of getting people in who wouldn’t normally come to the gallery for entertainment purposes and it’s after work, it’s a good way to do it.

Because I mean even architecturally museums are quite intimidating spaces. How do you move away from that without losing formality?

I think it’s a hard thing to do; it’s hard to get the balance right. But even with this, what we’ve tried to do in the design part, is incorporate elements that sort of take you through. So it’s using graphics and even things like the doors and little bits.

Graphics are great for this exhibition because it’s so design oriented, it’s done for you which is really, really good. So you’re able to borrow some of that as and use it. And with the work, the frames of all the objects all have geometry in them, which is wonderful.

One of the things that I’ve noticed in the National Gallery is that they’re really embracing things like social media, there seems to be a real push in that direction…

Yes. That’s a good way of accessing a broader range of the public that wouldn’t normally be accessible, or might not pop into the gallery regularly. I think the great thing about these exhibitions is that it encourages people to visit what they wouldn’t normally visit. Because [the exhibition] is a larger specialised thing, it encourages people to go upstairs as well which is nice. We’ve got such a great collection of other stuff.

I guess the challenge is getting people in the building in the first place right?

Yes, it’s kind of got to go from the front door, or not even the front door because it’s beyond that as well; I guess the exhibition design part of it begins at the front door. And we try our best to get people to navigate from there.

And have you done any exhibition design for the NGV Federation Square Museum? What’s the difference between the two locations?

The architecture’s massive, and you need to be sympathetic to the architecture of each of the buildings. There are different approaches to both of the galleries, both in the way that you come up to the building and it’s presence within the street as well. So I guess when we do exhibitions for both campuses, we try to be as sympathetic as possible to the architecture that’s there; we try and keep a language that’s consistent for each of the buildings. There’s a Fed Square aesthetic and a St Kilda Road aesthetic.

When you’re putting together an exhibition like this, where you’re looking at the history of a city, how challenging is it to bring together all those elements? Is it harder to work within the confines of architecture and design as well as something traditional like painting?

Most of them are challenging, but you know what? Sometimes it’s actually more helpful to have boundaries that you have to follow. You could go anywhere with it. It’s one of those things, you never want the design of what you’ve put together to be more than what is on display. The important thing is the artwork and you want people to be able to engage with that, so you find a nice comfortable ground where you have a presence but it’s not domineering.

It seems that construction of narrative is a good thing to have for a sense of context, but you might be limiting where you can place things?

Yes, so if you need to tell one part before another, it’s always going to dictate where things are laid out and where you’re going to put walls in. So there’s constant shuffling in the design process for an exhibition, and nothing actually ever finds a home until it finds a home.

Vienna: Art & Design runs until the 9th of October at the National Gallery of Victoria