A sensational method of immersion

fountainAppeal to all the senses is excellent writing advice, and yesterday I discovered it’s fabulous advice for curators, too.

I spent a few glorious hours at the National Gallery of Australia to see their exhibition of a magnificent collection of art and objects – aptly named treasures – from the Palace of Versailles. Marble busts, gilded Rococo statues, paintings, tapestries, furniture, fans, plates, and more – it was certainly a feast for the eyes.

But I take my hat off to the NGA curators, who have thought well and truly outside the box, and incorporated elements to appeal to all the senses.

The main doors had an avenue of urns and plants, which hinted at the sumptuous treasures within. At the exhibition entry I was greeted by a massive photograph of the Hall of Mirrors, complete with two of the gold and crystal candelabras from Versailles. It looked like I was there. Better, it smelt like I was there. The foyer is scented with an orange blossom fragrance (Louis XIV’s favourite flower) designed for the exhibition by master perfumer, Francis Kurkdjian.

It’s fabulous, and instantly evocative – the gallery equivalent of grabbing your readers’ attention on the first page.

hall mirrors

And the rest of the story did not disappoint: clever staging; brilliant use of lighting; evocative music; and audio-visual elements that added depth, sound, and movement to what could otherwise have been static displays. The manipulation of space was wonderful and subtle – a massive room revealed the scale of the carpet and tapestries, but this was balanced with smaller spaces showing domestic details.

dragonI particularly enjoyed the simulation of the garden maze – with walls covered in dense artificial leaves – as a backdrop to the lead statues, such as this dragon.

The magnificent centrepiece of the exhibition – the 1.5 tonne marble Latona fountain – has a room to herself. I entered the antechamber area – fascinating with its details of the hydraulics necessary for Versailles fountains, and display of bronze and brass piping and nozzles – and rounded the wall to … wow.

So, the stature of the goddess Latona is gorgeous. But, as the assistant director of the NGA, Adam Worrell, said in an article in the Canberra Times:

“We didn’t want to bring her as an art object, put her in a room and say, ‘Look how beautiful she is’. We actually wanted you to understand what her life has been at Versailles,” he says. “If we do our job properly, you’ll actually get a sense of standing at the Versailles fountain, looking at the sculpture. If we get it right, it’s definitely going to be the highlight of the show.”

They got it right.

The panorama image, at the top of the post, really does not do it justice. The images behind the statue flow and change, and together with the sounds, create the illusion of  bright movement, and rushing water, and all the decadent, sunlit glory of a sumptuous pleasure palace.


And, just when I was thinking that the only senses left to satisfy were touch and taste, I emerged into the gift shop, and found feathers, and linens, and silks, and Moet, and chocolate, and tiny berry macarons, and a hundred similar delights.

I came away from the gallery absolutely inspired. I can’t recommend Versailles: Treasures from the Palace highly enough. The exhibition is on until 17 April.