Taking an Oblique Point of View: The Challenges of Interpretation and Display in Museums

By Geraldine E. Chimirri-Russell.

Published by The Humanities Collection

Format Price
Article: Print $US10.00
Article: Electronic $US5.00

Museums have traditionally displayed and interpreted art and artifacts from a wide variety of cultural groups using specific, although limited, exhibition techniques. In cases where cultures have not left a written history, the dominant cultures have provided an interpretation primarily from their own historic viewpoint. Using the example of Celtic coins minted in the centuries immediately preceding the Common Era it is possible to show that traditional methods of interpretation and presentation are incapable of giving the necessary flexibility to allow for broader comprehension of artistic intentions. The highly stylized images on Celtic coins feature human profiles with dissociated features. The coins have been viewed as two-dimensional works, however, if the coins are perceived as three-dimensional objects that can be freely rotated in space, their properties can be interpreted equally freely. When viewed from an oblique angle, the dissociated facial features can be seen to realign producing a three-dimensional, realistic face seen from a three-quarter, rather than profile view. This optical illusion is found on the majority of examples of extant coins, thus indicating intent on the part of the Celtic artists. Other works in metal produced by the Celts indicate that the rotation of the object to reveal or transform images of hidden faces and animals was expected. Renaissance work such as Hans Holbein’s ‘The Ambassadors’ or Erhard Schön’s ‘Distortion’, have anamorphic features that can be interpreted by a visitor viewing the work from an oblique angle. It is more challenging for the visitor to appreciate the dramatic and fascinating transformation of the images on Celtic coins unless they are held in the hand. The challenge might be great, but it is possible to work with these artifacts to enable the museum visitor to comprehend that not all cultures view and understand visual imagery in the same way.

Keywords: Museum Education, Ancient History, Visual Literacy, Numismatics, Celtic Coinage

The International Journal of the Humanities, Volume 5, Issue 12, pp.115-126. Article: Print (Spiral Bound). Article: Electronic (PDF File; 2.169MB).

Geraldine E. Chimirri-Russell

Curator of Numismatics, The Nickle Arts Museum, University of Calgary, The University of Calgary, Calgary, Alberta, Canada

Geraldine Chimirri-Russell has been working with the numismatic collection of ancient coins at The Nickle Arts Museum for the last ten years. The main focus of research has been on Massilot coins of France, South Arabian coins, Celtic and Sicilian coinage. Work on a catalogue of the museum’s collection of Sicilian coins is close to completition. Presentions at Madrid, Britain and Stanford have mainly focused on the research on Celtic coinage. Working with the museum’s mandate as part of the University of Calgary she is broadening her research to include museum studies and is teaching an introductory course on museum and heritage studies.

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