After a year of anxious interactions, losing ourselves in reveries of art in a public space can feel like a gentle first step back to the social lives we had before. Stepping in front of a work of art can create a controlled plane that exists somewhere between our private inner selves and public outer selves, a toe dip into the idea that we’re not just brains attached to Zoom cameras but full people who are shaped by our society and our history. What happens in that plane when you stand in front of the MFA’s statue of Lady Sennuwy? As symmetrical as she may seem, you may notice her sitting just right of center on her block, and the block left of center on its steel mount. You see the gray granodiorite, marbled through with a golden highlight that lends itself to the contrast of cool color backgrounds. Her portrait-ready expression and posture are relatable at a scale that is almost the same as your own, but you recognize that she conveys a much larger presence.
I accounted for these details when creating a pedestal and a framing background for Lady Sennuwy. To be an architectural designer is to know the quirks of an object, thinking through such material details in order to subdue distracting aspects and amplify the essential features. I also imagined the larger experience of seeing this object among a group of artworks. What do you see first, and how is that displayed to prime you for the rest of the gallery? What’s next, and how is that presented to recapitulate or contrast and build the story? Lady Sennuwy currently sits in the gateway to the new “Masterpieces of Egyptian Sculpture from the Pyramid Age” gallery. She prepares you for an intimate experience with the other sculptures there.
Dual motives drive me when designing narrative art spaces: I want to allow you to confer with art and absorb art historical insight, and I want to envelop you in a full environment, spiriting you into a setting that is present and embodied but also transcendental. This is a collaborative project; I plan the design with others on my team—the curator, the graphic designer, and the interpretive planner. In the “Masterpieces” gallery, we wanted to create a shroud-like space that narrows the attention and allows one to commune directly with the art. Through sequencing, lighting, color, and architectural expressions, we provide a hallowed ground for some of the greatest pieces in the Museum’s collection. We constructed a threshold to emphasize the feeling of stepping into a hidden world and took advantage of existing columns from a previous installation to build niches into which we placed sculptures. Each pedestal is spotlit and painted the same color as the wall, so everything falls away but the sculpture in front of you.
The built environment can augment both the physical presence and emotional power of each work of art. I shape a space where Lady Sennuwy can disarm you with her beauty. The space also becomes a portal wherein her aura traverses multiple millennia to affect you in a gallery in Boston right now. To see very old art is to commune with something that assures us we have been through this before. Through reverence and trauma, art stands before us as a transmission from a maker who also experienced their own shifting circumstances.
It is a poignant exercise to design an ancient Egyptian art gallery at a moment when the passage of time itself is shapeless and hard to grasp. Designing spaces is a way to structure, comprehend, and even memorialize the flow of our experience. As a designer, I want to ensure that the experiences one has back in the Museum are affecting, because seeing art in person is both a treat and a privilege. Growing up first-generation, I rarely went to museums. But the times I did go were absolutely imprinting and aspirational. When people have the opportunity to see art, I want the whole experience to be worthy of that attention.