Now You See It, Now You Don't

Have you ever visited an exhibition and wondered how an object is displayed? I am a mount maker and preparator here at the Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields and that is what I do! I work with curators, exhibition designers, interpretation experts, and conservators to determine the best way to display artwork — while considering many different factors.  

For example: 

  • How can we display static artwork in a way that suggests movement? 

  • Can we preserve a fragile material by thoughtfully distributing weight? 

  • How can an object be viewed seamlessly from every angle? 

In each case the solution lies in the mount design and fabrication. Hidden in plain sight, mounts play a vital role in the presentation, preservation, and safety of nearly all art on display at Newfields.   

Let’s dive a little deeper. Here are three examples from recent exhibitions in the Indianapolis Museum of Art that I have worked on.  

  • slide

    Sketch by Emily Freese, 2021. 

  • slide

    Yoruba people, Egungun masquerade garment, 1925-1950, cotton, wool. velvet, silk, wood, 59  × 23  × 10-1/2 in., Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Harrison Eiteljorg, 1995.117.

Exhibition: Embodied: Human Figures in Art, currently open 
Colleague: Curator 
Request: Can the Egungun Masquerade Dance Ensemble be mounted to look like it is being worn and to evoke movement, swirling, and dance? 
Mount Making Solution: To hint at the presence of a body inside this ensemble, a mount was crafted out of metal, Volara, and Ethafoam®, a polyethylene foam that is common in art conservation. The foam was carved to indicate a head, hips, and back, all of which were attached to a metal structure, which supports the artwork in an upright position, is completely hidden, and indicates a human figure.  

The second part of the request was that the ensemble appears to be in perpetual motion. A support system, once again hidden from sight, was crafted from metal, silicone tubing, Volara, and Ethafoam®. This multi-part mount was designed to conform and support the ensemble’s fabric where necessary. Every single metal mount, for each piece of fabric was then adjusted so the back side was higher and then angled down to the front, which alluded to the swirling motion of dance.  

Mounts always conform to the artwork; the artwork is never forced to fit the mount, and as a result this bespoke mount preserved the integrity of the artwork while creating a mesmerizing illusion of movement.

  • slide

    Stephen Sprouse (American, 1953–2004), shorts, Fall/Winter 1992-1993, synthetic fabric, metallic thread, Velcro, various dimensions, Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Gift of Joanne Sprouse and Bradford Sprouse in memory of Stephen Sprouse, 2020.139A-B. © Stephen Sprouse. 

  • slide

    Stephen Sprouse (American, 1953–2004), high heeled shoes, 1993, synthetic fabric, leather, 7-1/2 x 3-1/2 x 9-1/2 in. (each), Indianapolis Museum of Art at Newfields, Gift of Joanne Sprouse and Bradford Sprouse in memory of Stephen Sprouse, 2020.73A-B. © Stephen Sprouse.

Exhibition: Stephen Sprouse: Rock | Art | Fashion (July 16, 2022–April 2, 2022) 
Colleague: Conservator 
Request: Can the mannequins be displayed so they appear grounded but hover slightly above the ground so there is no weight on the fragile shoes? 
Mount Making Solution: The goal was clear; the solution was complicated. A mount created out of metal, fiberglass, and automotive body filler was designed to hover the mannequins barely above the ground by grasping the mannequin at its stomach and lifting it slightly off the ground. Careful consideration was given to the design, ensuring that it provided adequate support of the heavy mannequin while remaining as inconspicuous as possible to viewers. The result was the illusion that each mannequin was resting on the ground standing on its feet, but each mannequin was floating off the ground and the delicate shoes were safe from bearing the brunt of the mannequin weight.  

Installation view of Stephen Sprouse: Rock | Art | Fashion in the Allen Whitehill Clowes Special Exhibition Gallery, July 16, 2022–April 2, 2022. Artworks © Stephen Sprouse. 

Exhibition: Making Faces: The Remarkable Masks of Master Bidou Yamaguchi (September 7, 2018–February 3, 2019) 
Colleague: Designer 
Request: Can the masks be displayed so guests can appreciate it fully from all angles? 
Mount Making Solution: Another unique challenge was answered with a mount – one that was fabricated to balance subtlety with stability. Unlike the previously discussed artworks, this mask was mounted onto a clear acrylic wall within a display case. This required careful consideration to ensure its upright position while remaining inconspicuous. To achieve this delicate balance, we used the existing holes in the side of the mask to receive the mount, which was fabricated out of metal, Ultrasuede, and a set screw. Also, support was provided to the chin area by branching a small piece of metal on the back of the mask in a U shape from one hole to the other to prevent tilting or movement of the artwork. By designing the mount to follow the unique contours of the mask and integrating it seamlessly into the display case, the Bidou mask could be admired in its entirety while securely being displayed upright and in the round.  

Mounts, though not the focus of the viewer's attention, enable museums to display art in dynamic and engaging ways, ensuring that each piece is both visible and protected. As innovative exhibitions continue, mount makers past, present, and future will remain essential in ensuring art is interpreted properly, displayed safely, securely, and with the utmost respect for its craftsmanship and cultural significance.   

Exhibition Credits: 

Embodied: Human Figures in Art is part of the Gallery Revisioning Project with funding generously provided by Kay F. Koch. 

Lead support for Stephen Sprouse: Rock | Art | Fashion is provided by Target, Absolut Vodka and the Jan B. Rubin Art Exhibition Fund. Generous in-kind support is provided by RALPH PUCCI International, KCD PR, and Louis Vuitton. Additional support is provided by Amy Curtiss Davidoff and David Phillips. 

Support for Making Faces: The Remarkable Masks of Master Bidou Yamaguchi was provided by Christopher and Michelle Reinhold.