Rediscovering the gilded age of Angkor at the Asian Civilisations Museum
The spring 2018 exhibition Angkor: Exploring Cambodia's Sacred City features rare Khmer sculptures and French drawings exhibited for the first time in Singapore. How did we connect the architecture of Angkor Wat, the mystery of discovery, and the decadence of art deco?
When the Asian Civilisations Museum (ACM) approached us in 2017 to design a new exhibition in partnership with the Musée Guimet about the French exploration and popularization of Angkor in the mid 19th century, we were immediately intrigued. Having worked on two prior exhibitions at the ACM, we were familiar with the galleries, and keen to learn more about the Guimet’s collection. The French artifacts and artwork guided the main narrative of the exhibition: discovering Angkor from the perspective of French exploration. A less expected theme came from the ACM, which was organizing an art deco themed gala event to coincide with the opening of the exhibition in April 2018. How were we going to connect these three distinct concepts in a fluid and logical way?
We began with a visual exploration of the three themes: the architecture of Angkor, notions of discovery, and lastly, the the art deco era. We followed this visual research with the creation of a conceptual mind map and began looking for connections. What were the common elements that fulfilled these three thematic requirements and worked coherently together?
The first connection that jumped out at us was the shared decadence of Angkor in its glory days and of the art deco era in the roaring 20s. We chose gold as a visual element to connect these two distant periods of time, as Angkor’s temples had originally been completely gilded. Although the city has faded over time due to erosion, we wanted to remind people of how it used to look at its height from the 9th to 15th centuries. The second obvious connection between Angkor and the art deco period was the important role that geometry played in their designs. These lines and geometric shapes became an important influence on our design direction.
“I was really intrigued by the fact that sacred geometry is featured in every aspect of Angkor Wat's architectural details. Everything is related to astrology and religion, for example the temple is calculated so that the sun appears in the middle of the central tower at a specific time of day.”
Senior Graphic Designer
Finally, in order to connect Angkor to the notion of discovery, we used the metaphor of windows and perspectives. We wanted to find a way to include iconic elements from Angkor’s architecture, such as its ruins, textures, passageways, windows, and multiple doorways, which wove their way into our scenography. When we presented these design elements to ACM we got positive feedback from the outset — they were confident that we not only knew how to visually connect these three topics together, but we could also ensure that they made sense within the exhibition content and narrative as well.
The first gallery is devoted to French “discovery” and exploration of Angkor in the 19th century. We were inspired by the beautiful French paintings of Louis Delaporte which we featured on tall banners in the exhibition entrance, maximizing the 6-metre high ceilings of the space. Visitors have the sense that they are walking through a forest, experiencing the discovery of Angkor themselves. Our design direction for these rooms had to work with the collection of French paintings and paper objects, using complementary but not overpowering colours. We also created a stone texture speckled with gold and a subtle stamping on walls, highlighting the sense of ruins and former decadence. This playful repetition of pattern, materials and texture enhances the visitor experience, creating coherence throughout the galleries.
“We’re not using design just for sake of aesthetics, but to make it a seamless visitor experience.”
Senior Graphic Designer
The second gallery is devoted to the Angkor Wat temple itself. We used subtle colours to emulate the feeling of being in the temple and French influence, while windows punctuate the space and convey the notion of discovery and perspective.
“We wanted to recreate the feeling of Angkor, not recreate Angkor itself. With the use of colour, ambiance, graphics, and lighting, we managed to create different moods in different spaces.”
3D Exhibition Designer
In our research about Angkor, we discovered the significance of the Hindu deity Vishnu. When we learned that Guimet also happened to have a number of artifacts related to Vishnu and his incarnations, including a large sculpture and sketch of Vishnu, it was a natural decision to place these together in a common central zone. Rather than display the sculptures as they had been in France, we chose to organize them along a central axis with a mandala on the floor. This was not only an aesthetic decision but derived from our research, where the central axis of a shrine is a key design element with spiritual significance. The Guimet curator was pleased to see that artifacts are displayed differently than in France, allowing them to be appreciated in a new light.
We also decided to display the sculptures on tiers, evoking a sense of how they would have been installed at Angkor on steps and blocks. All of these design touches add to the authenticity of the exhibition.
When the exhibition opened in April, we were pleased that the art deco gala went well, fitting seamlessly with the exhibition design and narrative. We’re proud that the design is polished and detailed, but also functional.
As this temporary Angkor exhibition winds down, we’re excited to continue our collaboration with the ACM on an exhibition to open in 2019 about Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of modern Singapore 1819. Stay tuned!