A new exhibition at the Nelson-Atkins in Kansas City uses technology without going too far.
Once, art museums were like fortresses. They were built of stone atop forbidding mountains of stairs. Today, museums might be nestled under glass pyramids, or sheathed in undulating ripples of stainless steel, or built to look like boats and the hood of a sports car. A city in China has plans for a comic book museum that's shaped like a speech bubble.
Just as the buildings have changed, so have the exhibits inside them. Today museums must compete with a host of entertainment options that didn't exist a generation ago. Customers who could be down the street seeing Titanic: An IMAX 3D Experience instead are unlikely to be satisfied with the old school, cattle-like shuffle past painting after painting, just as patrons with smartphones in their pockets don't want to read names and dates off of little white cards. Even the Louvre has gone high-tech. The venerable institution has partnered with Nintendo to put gallery maps, high-resolution imagery, and a dozen languages of audio commentary in every visitor's palm.
Patrons who expect multimedia bang for their buck get it at "Inventing the Modern World: Decorative Arts at the World's Fairs 1851-1939," a new exhibit at Kansas City's Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art. The ambitious show, which opened on Saturday and runs through August 19, explores how World's Fairs did—and still do—offer a means for nations to assert themselves on the international stage. World's Fairs also became the first platform for introducing new styles, manufacturing techniques, and consumer goods on a global stage. Popular products first presented at a World's Fair, for instance, range from mayonnaise and Cracker Jacks to the sewing machine and telephone. The bejeweled Cartier clock is eye-popping. The prototype Herman Miller plexiglass chair will make any design-lover swoon.