Zoë Ryan is the John H. Bryan chair and curator of Architecture and Design at the Art Institute of Chicago. Few have likely spent as much time thinking about how architecture and design should be shown in museums as Ryan. In fact, she is writing a book about it. Along with working on that book, Ryan is also in the process of launching a new gallery at the Art Institute, to showcase the museum’s vast Architecture and Design Collection. Outside of the Architectural Fragments gallery, permanently on display in the museum’s Grand Staircase, much of this collection has never been seen by the public.
Currently, Ryan, associate curator Alison Fisher, and assistant curator Karen Kice are surveying and documenting the entire catalogue in order to better understand the museum’s holdings. That information will help the team position the work and fill any gaps in the collection, which is rich with pieces by architecture and design’s most vaunted names, balanced with work by many lesser-known figures. Rather than create a purely chronological or historical display, Ryan is interested in rethinking established architecture and design narratives. The new gallery will be spaces of exhibition experimentation, with pieces and shows periodically rotating. Work will be shown in such a way to draw new connections between figures, movements, and times.
“The collection gallery will be a testing ground for rethinking how we display architecture and design,” Ryan said. “We will continually rethink, refresh, and redo the exhibition rotations to forge new connections, emphasize a range of narratives, and continually question what the history of architecture and design means today, in our time of rapid social, cultural, and political change.”
Ryan’s forthcoming book focuses on 11 historical architecture and design exhibitions and the impact they had on their fields. The first phase of research for the book is on show in the Art Institute’s current exhibition, which shares a name with the forthcoming book—As Seen: Exhibitions That Made Architecture and Design History. Ryan will draw from this research to present the museum’s collection.
“The As Seen book is an opportunity to reinforce the important role that exhibitions have in contributing to cultural discourse. Exhibitions have played a critical role in positioning ideas, marking pivotal moments in time, and documenting the environment in which new narratives or arguments unfold,” said Ryan. The release of As Seen: Exhibitions That Made Architecture and Design History is planned to coincide with the opening of the new gallery.
One of the major challenges of showing architecture and design in museums is making the work accessible to the public. Though renderings and models can often be understood by laypeople, technical drawings and sketches often require more explanation. The museum has five galleries dedicated to Architecture and Design exhibitions. Currently, they only show pieces from the museum’s collection in conjunction with temporary shows. The collection gallery will be created by converting one of those current 5,000-square-foot galleries. “Our goal is to make clear the important role that architecture and design play in our everyday lives,” Ryan added. Ryan and her team plan to position architecture and design in a greater cultural conversation. To do so, the gallery will draw links between architecture, design, and the greater collection of the entire museum.
Despite Chicago’s many architecture and design institutions, this new gallery, backed by the curators’ critical vision and the Art Institute’s unmatched collection, will be unique in its breadth and scope. Undoubtedly the new gallery will add to the ever spirited conversation surrounding architecture in Chicago. With new access to primary source information, perhaps many of the debates about the city’s architectural history can be settled, while a whole new set of questions can be raised.