Museums spend an inordinate amount of resources on choosing colours for their walls. Beyond even the most discerning of home interior decorators, the gallery teams in charge of exhibit wall paint apply an almost scientific approach to their task, sometimes taking weeks to pinpoint the right hue.
They do this, of course, to ensure maximum enjoyment for their visitors.
There is a sound basis for all this pigment fuss: the colour of the walls in a museum can have an impact on the way visitors experience the exhibits. Hence, we have entire teams working in museums, whose members apply their highly-educated and expertly-trained minds to colour swatches, mockups, and replicas of the exhibit halls, all for the sole purpose of colour choice. They may spend weeks at their task, merely debating which white to use, calling to mind those Alaskan tribes with 50 words to describe snow.
Even the Guggenheim, famous for its architecturally white interior, agrees:
“Wall color is often used to convey a particular time, place, or culture, and must highlight the works of art without competing with them. The choice of wall color can influence how a museum visitor experiences the artworks, so this process is crucial to the presentation.”
With so much given over to choosing the right wall colour, it’s interesting to note that the perception of colour can often be completely culture-bound.
Colour is Cultural
Colour teams are concerned with how to best showcase, preserve, and accentuate the art they’re displaying. But what if the colour they’re using sends a completely different message to people of other cultures? What if international audiences at your museum are experiencing the art within your walls in a way that’s completely unforeseen by your curators?
Colour is rooted in culture and tradition. What one person finds meaningful in blue, for example, might not carry any significance at all in another culture. Or worse, it may carry a different meaning altogether. For example, in Western cultures, black is generally considered the colour of mourning. In Asian countries, on the other hand, white is the symbol of death and mourning. Does the default wall colour of so many museums resemble a grand funeral hall to their Chinese and Korean visitors?
Or even within one culture, time can change the significance of colour. Pink, for example, didn’t always carry the potent symbolism of feminism and femininity that it does today. As recent as the early 20th century, men wore pink suits and the only significance it carried was to perhaps denote a working-class position(1).
Context Can Mean Everything
Even the way people perceive colour can be different. In their 1970’s book entitled The World Color Survey, two researchers found that the words used to describe colour can change depending on context(2).
The Candoshi tribe of the Peruvian Amazon, for example, will describe the colour red one way (like ripe fruit) when a red colour chip is placed on a kitchen counter. When the chip is placed on the floor, however, it’s another red (“like blood”). They had still other words for the red chip when it was placed against other background colours or under different lighting.
Now imagine their perception of red when it’s on a museum wall… or more importantly, how their perception of the red hues in a painting may change according to the colour of the exhibit walls. Researchers have found evidence that some cultures don’t even have words for colour (2), hinting that colour is not a universal concept.
Engaging Your Visitors Through Colour
The point is, if we’re going to run our museums in a way that welcomes everyone, reaches out to a wider (global) audience, there’s yet another thing to consider, and that’s colour. The internet is awash with culture-colour references. These sites are a good place to start.
As museums become more global, it might be a good idea to consider colour from a cross-cultural perspective when setting up exhibits. Understanding the artistic effect of colour is key, of course, but knowing the cultural meaning of colours can help museum staff develop an even broader sense of that artistic effect. Just a little more training on culture and colour and those colour teams who work at our biggest museums can make the exhibits more effective for more people.