Psychology of curating with colour

In curating, museum, and gallery work, we increasingly talk about sensory and immersive experiences, but what does this mean in practice?

Back in March 2019 I enrolled and completed a short introductory course called Introduction to Psychology: Sensation and Perception on FutureLearn. It was supported by mentors and provided by Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. My motivations came from my curiosity about what it is that makes exhibitions and gallery displays memorable and atmospheric, and how sensation and perception play as much of a role in this as the information and stories we interpret on panels and labels. In curating, museum, and gallery work, we increasingly hear about sensory and immersive experiences, but what does this mean in practice? What are the functions and interplays of taste, smell, hearing, touch and sight?

You are not expected to be psychologists so we suggest you resist the temptation to advise others on how to practice psychology or to take up the role of therapist.

Introduction to Psychology: Sensation and Perception, Monash University, FutureLearn, March 2019.

In a series of articles on the CRC blog, I am reflecting, two years on, on what I learned and how the psychology of perception can be applied to curating. The sensory deprivation of not being able to hang out in shops, galleries, cafes, museums and stores over the last year has perhaps given me pause for thought, to better appreciate that screen and goggle-based experiences really aren’t a substitute for wholesome sensory experiences. The quote above, from the course introduction, is my disclaimer, and a wise suggestion for anyone exploring psychology in the realms of curating to remember.

Colour doesn’t exist

Colours don’t exist. They’re there as your brain’s way of signalling what wavelength of light the eye is seeing.

Introduction to Psychology: Sensation and Perception, Monash University, FutureLearn, March 2019.

Probably the most resonant of revelations came at the beginning of this course. That colour is a creation of our brains. Colour lacks inherent materiality. We create colour, ourselves, individually. Wavelengths of light processed by our eyes and brains are converted into schema of colour. Most clearly we understand this phenomenon of colour perception when we look at rainbows.

Depth perception (how near or far something is) is also something our brains create for us. But if colour doesn’t exist, and sighted people frequently argue over or discuss whether something is blue or purple, why do we pore over colour schemes for exhibitions and displays? And what does the psychology of colour perception mean for the use of colourising old black and white photographs and film?

Colour is addictive

Colour choices can be powerful in determining the experience of an exhibition, and perhaps why so many contemporary art exhibitions appear in white boxes, so there is, seemingly, no interference or competition with the centrality of the art and artist. White is a combination of the whole colour spectrum but can still conjure up comparisons and feelings such as being ‘clinical’, ‘clean’, ‘neutral’.

A welcome contrast to the white box of so many art galleries was the exhibition of kinetic sculpture and camera-less film art of Len Lye, Stopped Short by Wonder, at Christchurch Art Gallery, Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017. With a predominantly black foil (background colour) the bright, shiny steel and metallic moving sculptures were exhibited with carefully positioned lights, maximising the use of reflection and shadow and enhancing form, with the tallest of the sculptures soaring off into a dark sky. The thoughtful use of coloured lights played with our perceptions of some of the exhibits’ movement, and with their natural sounds, took the experience to the next level, captivating our eyes (and ears) like a moth around a flame. The effect was so addictive we returned three times, and then went to see some more in New Plymouth at the Govett-Brewster Art Gallery-Len Lye Centre. Also check out the Len Lye Foundation for more information on the artist, his engineering, sculpture and art.

Making exhibits pop

A good colour scheme can give museums’ many, many brown objects and paintings the lift they need.

Most historical and archaeological museums seem less fussed about thinking about colour in their curating. The exception comes when there is a big capital redevelopment or gallery refurbishment. Of course using colour successfully, on walls, floors, plinths, ceilings, upholstered mounts, and graphic design schemes, makes your budget go up and therefore can be a feature of exhibitions that gets cost-engineered out. But is it worth the investment if your exhibition will be all the more memorable for it?

A personal favourite that bucks the trend of hessian, ‘greige’, or rows and rows of painfully lurid red against battleship grey, are the permanent galleries of the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM) in Exeter, Devon, UK. RAMM’s strapline is ‘Home to a million thoughts’ referencing their extensive collections across all major traditional museum disciplines, archaeology, natural history, fine art, social history, ethnography, etc. During the museum’s 10-year revamp culminating in 2011, colour choice played an important role, together with exquisite object conservation and mounting, in giving the leading role of each gallery to the objects themselves. Given we can’t touch much in museums I felt the combination of colour and display style gave us the nearest sensation to texture and materials that I had experienced. A good colour scheme can give museums’ many, many brown objects and paintings the lift they need in an exhibition setting. The trick RAMM got right is not to use a single shade throughout.

The right colour for the job

When thinking about colour in my own career as an exhibition curator, I recall being in a minority of colleagues when it came to colour choices. Changing the colour of temporary walls depended more on what ‘Trago Mills’ had on offer than anything else. I am sensitive to colour and colours affect my mood. I love indulging in choosing (agonising over) colours, I notice chroma (brightness, reflectiveness), shade and relationships between the manifestation of different colours through different media (textiles, paint finishes, lighting gels).

When we developed the CRC logo and colour-scheme, this was surely my favourite part. Working with designer Paul Betowski we settled on one primary scheme and two secondary schemes that spoke to our philosophy and aims as an organisation.

In the CRC Curatorial Tools box are two swatch books that are my go-to places to start thinking about colour in any design project. They are the RAL Color Swatches for paint and LEE Filters for lighting gels. While lighting gels may get redundant with the infinite choices of smart LED lighting of the type that Philips Hue are developing, they nevertheless focus the mind on what kind of mood and atmosphere you want to create. In this realm theatre lighting designers are brilliant people to collaborate with. Indeed Tom, our Audiovisual Specialist, used to be a theatre lighting designer and brings those skills to our work. For fabrics for use in galleries, take a look at Création Baumann. For graphic design head to Pantone Colour, and for digital only design, get to know your hex colours.

Taste and authenticity in conflict

The 21st century visiting public, fed on a diet of pleasant, faded distressed oldness, were not keen.

If you are interested in the history of using colour to improve or understand authenticity in historical or heritage settings, do some research on historic interiors and their restoration to a particular period. Never make assumptions about historical credibility based on names you see in the Farrow & Ball colour chart (I love the colours by the way). I first encountered the conflict between taste and authenticity when studying neoclassicism, the Grand Tour, and the display of collections at the National Trust’s Petworth House, West Sussex, UK, back in 2001.

The first stage of the ‘Rehanging Petworth’ project (1991-93) aimed to reassemble the 3rd Earl of Egremont’s neoclassical collection with his father’s classical collection for the first time since 1824. Previous to the re-hanging, Anthony Blunt, a former custodian, had, in the 1950s, rearranged the all collections at Petworth taxonomically – museum-style – by schools and periods and the decor was changed from 1920s green, woodchip wallpaper to pinky terracotta paint. However the co-ordinators of the Re-hanging Petworth project made the decision not to return to the white decor as depicted in Turner’s view of 1827 but to restore the dark red scheme depicted by Mrs Percy Wyndham’s view of the gallery of 1865. The justification of not returning to the white scheme of the 3rd Earl’s period was:

…in view of the bitumen damaged condition of many of the oil paintings… and the pleasingly dull oil gilding of the medley of early nineteenth-century frames. Instead of looking like ‘black holes’ framed shabbily on a light ground, the muted red enhances the qualities of the pictures and is a traditional foil to sculpture.

C. Rowell, Petworth House West Sussex [guidebook] (London: The National Trust, 2000) pp. 29-30).
Watercolour painting of a grey-white gallery with hazy sculptures and paintings
The North Gallery with its ‘original’ white foil, Petworth House, Sussex, watercolour by J.M.W. Turner, 1827 (British Museum).
Photograph of a pinky red grand gallery with many paintings and gilt frames and marble sculptures.
North Gallery, Petworth House after National Trust’s restoration (Angus Kirk, Flickr).

As curators we try and narrow the gap between public expectation and historical authenticity. Heritage is full of compromises, some more questionable than others. Given that colour preferences are so personal it can be difficult, and inhuman, to go hard-core authentic when it jars with the present. This was amply illustrated at the Weald and Downland Museum which received several complaints when it restored the status-enhancing Tudor brick interiors to what they would have been like as new: freshly painted, including picking out the mortar to emphasise as much brickness as possible. The 21st century visiting public, fed on a diet of pleasant, faded distressed oldness, were not keen.

How do you feel about colour in your curatorial practice? Get in touch and let us know and we’ll feature you on our blog.