When we first started planning for the design of Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance in the fall of 2011, we faced a major challenge: how to deliver the wealth of information we wanted to convey about the artworks. Historical context, stylistic comparisons, and scientific analysis were just a few of the stories to be told, in addition to the short descriptions provided on individual object labels.

As the designer for the exhibition—working with curators Christine Sciacca and Bryan Keene, as well as educators, editors, digital content specialists, and many others—I was concerned about creating an engaging and harmonious experience inside the galleries. How would we do it?

Installation view of Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance showing pews and iPads

Installation view of Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance showing the design treatment for a gateway object, Giotto’s Peruzzi Altarpiece from about 1309–15. (North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, Gift of the Samuel H. Kress Foundation, GL.60.17.7). At left, The Virgin Mary with Saints Thomas Aquinas and Paul, about 1330, Bernardo Daddi. The J. Paul Getty Museum. At right, the Carmina regia manuscript, about 1335–40, Pacino di Bonaguida. The British Library

Last year the Getty successfully incorporated content delivered on iPads into our Pacific Standard Time exhibitions and, as of last fall, we were in the final stages of developing digital content for the four objects in the Life of Art exhibition.  Why not take the next step, we thought, and attach an iPad onto the display case itself for more in-depth exploration? We would need to be conscious of which artworks received this special treatment, not wanting to populate the galleries with a multitude of screens.  The team discussed assigning iPads only to artworks that were highlights of each section or had stories that were representative of the section’s theme.

A week later our colleagues from the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) visited the Getty. The exhibition will travel to the AGO in March, and we in the Design Department hosted a meeting to share ideas. At this meeting we discussed the concept of the “gateway object.” The principle of the gateway object, which came out of the British Museum a few years ago, is that visitors are drawn to artworks rather than text. Visitors will often pass a gallery’s text overview, which is intended to situate the objects in a room, and head straight to an artwork that grabs their attention. Our own visitor surveys confirm this pattern.  Given this, it seemed appropriate to identify art objects that are key to the exhibition’s story and place overview text with them, thereby simultaneously exposing the visitor to the art and to this important information.  Working with the AGO, our team agreed to identify gateway artworks for each section of the exhibition. At the Getty, our colleagues in Collection Information & Access began work on in-depth interactive content that would enrich and complement the text for these gateway objects, to be presented on iPads in the galleries, as well as online.

This approach posed an interesting design challenge. For the first three galleries we wanted a church-like atmosphere. Placing a large overview text and an iPad beneath an altarpiece could diminish the artwork’s presence. For artwork on the wall it was even more complicated. Ultimately we decided to place pew-like benches in front of the artworks. This solved several problems. We were able to place the overview text and iPads on the back of the bench far enough away from the artwork so as not to distract from it, but close enough to be associated with it. We decided on two benches per work rather than one, and this simple addition really improved the design of the gallery. Two benches facing an artwork reinforces the importance of gateway object.  It also provides more seating, allowing us to incorporate another tethered iPad for the visitor to browse while sitting down. And finally, two long benches create a more church-like space for the artwork.

The next question was how to design the benches. They needed to work with our contemporary display cases, but we didn’t want to make them look like bus stop benches, either. In the end I took inspiration from pews at the Basilica of San Francesco d’Assisi , whose clean lines read nicely as both religious and contemporary.

Schematic drawing of the benches in Florence at the Dawn of the Renaissance

Schematic drawing of a bench (side view) showing the placement of one iPad on the seat of the front bench, and the other on an angled panel affixed to the back of the rear bench.

Digital rendering of visitors interacting with a gateway object, and its text and digital components

Digital rendering of visitors interacting with the space.

As installed: Front view of the benches in front of one of the gateway objects

The final product: front view of the benches as installed in the completed exhibition

The graphic panels attached to the back of the benches provide information highlighting key topics the visitor encounters throughout the exhibit.  For instance, in the first section (shown above) the gateway text discusses Pacino di Bonaguida’s innovative stylistic approach to storytelling.  Subsequent panels discuss Giotto’s attention to natural detail, the role of the artwork within the church, multi-episode narrative, and technical studies. The sixth and final gateway describes Pacino’s prolific workshop.

If visitors are only drawn to the gateway artworks, they will still be introduced to the key themes of the exhibition: innovation, naturalism, religious function, narrative style, scientific analysis, and artistic production. These gateway objects help visitors understand and appreciate the crown jewel of the exhibition, the illuminated manuscript known as the Laudario of Sant’Agnese, which dramatically occupies the final gallery.