Sorry

M+ no longer supports this web browser.

M+ 不再支持此網頁瀏覽器。

M+ 不再支持此网页浏览器。

20 Jun 2022 / by Winnie Lai

The Cabinet: An Experiment in Looking

Installation view of a row of three large panels. The central panel shows a projection of a green and blue screen with a search box. The panels on the left and right display assortments of six to seven paintings, posters, and photographs of different sizes. In front of the three panels is a low barrier, to which are attached several iPads. Two adults and three young children investigate the screens, while a woman wearing a black jacket with the word 'M+' emblazoned on the back.

Visitors interacting with The Cabinet. Photo: Winnie [email protected] Voices; M+, Hong Kong

What ideas fuel M+’s changeable, interactive gallery? Associate Curator Winnie Lai explains

If you’ve visited M+, you might have come across a gallery where panels displaying paintings, posters, and photographs move in front of your eyes. Here, there are no detailed work descriptions on wall labels; there are only questions on a screen asking what you think about what you see. This is the experience of The Cabinet, an open storage system and interactive digital experience that is distinctly different from the typical white cube gallery.

Installation view of a row of three large panels in a white-walled gallery. The central panel shows a projection of a large and small monochrome painting overlaid by a text box. The panels on the left and right display assortments of six to seven paintings, posters, and photographs of different sizes. In front of the three panels is a low barrier, to which are attached several iPads.

Visitors bring The Cabinet to life. Photo: Lok Cheng / M+

As you enter The Cabinet, you will find three large panels on display. The two on the sides showcase works from the M+ Collections; the one in the centre invites you to join a game of interpretation with friends or fellow museum visitors via publicly available iPads or your own mobile device.

The game prompts you to share your views about the works on display in two rounds. In the first, a question asks you to look closely at a work or group of works and share a specific interpretation or detail of interest. After each player has input a response, a selection of these entries are displayed anonymously onscreen. The second round invites all players to react to each other’s responses through commenting or voting, before the game moves on to the next prompt.

Cabinet Playthrough
Cabinet Playthrough
2:15

In the game of The Cabinet, players digitally share their creative interpretations of the physical works on display

In total, there are forty moving panels automatically shuffled every two hours, creating a seemingly endless supply of new objects and artworks for visitors to observe and interpret together.

What inspired this experiment in looking? The answer spans collecting and sharing practices from sixteenth-century salons to twenty-first-century mobile phones.

Cabinet of Curiosities

A memorable museum visit is often made up of serendipitous encounters. Discovering an unexpected artwork or object in the gallery that makes you look or think twice, that speaks to you and moves you, is a powerful experience. Sharing that moment with another person can make it even more special. The Cabinet heightens this sense of the magical chance encounter.

We took inspiration from sixteenth-century collections of wondrous and eclectic objects: the Wunderkammern, otherwise known as the cabinet of curiosities. These cabinets acted as displays for the private collections of European aristocrats, showcasing anything from historical relics and archaeological specimens to works of art, antiquities, and other cultural objects. Meant to be encyclopaedic as well as sensational, they were seen as microcosms of the world in their arrangement and selection, reflective of the particular interest and worldview of the collector.

The cabinet of curiosities is often considered the origin of the museum, with its potential for making meaning out of a collection through display. It aims to invite curiosity in the items on display, in reading the correlations between them, and in discovering ideas beyond one narrative thread—telling us as much about the objects themselves as the people who put them together.

Open Storage as Gallery Space

So, what does our cabinet of curiosities say about M+?

First, you’ll need to know about its predecessor: the Pontus Hultén Study Gallery at Moderna Museet, Stockholm. Our Stockholm counterpart was designed by Italian architect Renzo Piano to host donations from the private collection of the museum’s first director, Pontus Hultén. The system runs on a user-on-demand mode, where visitors can call out a specific panel to view the works. Apart from hosting seminars, workshops, and small exhibitions, the space is used mostly for research by appointment.

Our first executive director, Lars Nittve—former director of the Moderna Museet—proposed building a similar open storage gallery at M+ as an alternative way for visitors to engage with our collections. The team started planning in 2017, when museum construction was still underway. We decided to take the on-demand, mechanised study gallery concept a step further by turning it into a collective viewing experience integrated in our public galleries.

Photograph showing two long rows of white panels hanging from a metal storage rack. Two metal conveyance tracks hang from the ceiling between the panels.

This panel storage system, with its mechanised conveyance tracks, keeps The Cabinet's front-facing display regularly updated. Photo: Lok Cheng / M+

The curatorial team aimed to create a sense of wonder in the encounter with our collection, encouraging visitors to look deeper and bringing personal meaning to the forefront. We started with a series of big questions: what can The Cabinet do that other galleries cannot? How can we use it to rethink curating, collecting, and exhibiting? What can it tell us about how we engage with visual culture, or the physical space versus the digital?

Our initial curatorial team of five members reviewed all the two-dimensional works in our collections and voted on those with the most potential for open interpretation. With a mindful balance of works from different mediums and disciplines, we narrowed the selection to some 200 works. When distributed across the forty panels, these create an image saturation effect that echoes the visual landscape of billboards, commercials, phone screens, and social image-sharing that occupy our daily lives.

The works are grouped on each panel for reasons ranging from a sense of visual resonance to similarity in composition, colour, or subject matter. One panel might feature works showing solitary figures, close-ups of faces, or circles; another could showcase varying shades of red, repeating patterns, or landscapes. We intentionally left the logic behind these groupings unspoken in the gameplay. Why? Often, we are confronted with a multiplicity of visual images in our daily lives, and it is left to us to decipher the message or the intent.

At The Cabinet, your viewpoint matters more than what the images are supposed to say. In your opinion, why are these works placed together? How does a grouping influence your view of an individual work? What do you notice in this arrangement?

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is painting of a woman and child on a wooden floor next to an open fire. The child touches a pot of boiling water hanging over the fire with a look of pain, while the woman reaches for the child with a shocked expression. Below it is a painting depicting a wolf with a mouse on its back under a round, white moon. Next is pencil drawing on paper of two men spooning on a bed, one of whom is wearing a laurel wreath around his head. Above this is a coloured pencil drawing depicting a woman in a skirt, scarf, and sunglasses standing in a room with two children on either side looking up at her. The woman is in colour, while the rest of the scene is monochrome. Finally, above this is a photograph showing the upper bodies of three chickens facing the viewer against a purple studio background.

What do you think the works from this panel have in common? Clockwise from the top are works by Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Ji Dachun, Ho Sin Tung, Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, and Yang Zhenzhong

Panel mock-up displaying seven images. Clockwise from the top is a painting depicting a white and yellow sphere against a dark purple background. Next is an ink painting depicting a series of nested geometric shapes: a pale yellow circle in a grey square, which sits in an ivory square against a grey background that is divided by two dark grey vertical lines. On the row below is a photograph taken from above an unfolded, leaf-shaped, white hand fan with a black handle. Next is a photograph showing a round white plate of rice noodle rolls covered in soy sauce. This is followed by an ink painting in which two layers of black ink form a thick ring. On the bottom row is a pencil drawing of a group of children wearing identical striped pajamas and sitting in a circle. Lastly is a sketch of a geodesic dome.

If these works were displayed together in an exhibition, what would be the exhibition's title? Clockwise from the top are works by Hon Chi-fun, Kan Tai-keung, Wong Wo Bik, Ho Sin Tung, Buckminster Fuller, Martin Parr, and Morita Shiryū

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is a pencil drawing depicting an expansive night sky with numerous bright specks above an uneven, light grey horizon. Below this is another pencil drawing showing the top of a pine tree from below, and an oil painting of horizontal bands of pale hues on a white background. Next is a monochrome photograph showing a high-angle view of a street lined by tightly packed buildings and partially obscured by overhanging shop signs and scaffolding. This is followed by monochrome drawings of a building interior and flowers in a vase.

What emotion does this group of images evoke in you? Featuring works by Hu Liu, Richard Lin, Nobuyoshi Araki, Remo Riva, and Lai Shiu-fong

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is painting of a woman and child on a wooden floor next to an open fire. The child touches a pot of boiling water hanging over the fire with a look of pain, while the woman reaches for the child with a shocked expression. Below it is a painting depicting a wolf with a mouse on its back under a round, white moon. Next is pencil drawing on paper of two men spooning on a bed, one of whom is wearing a laurel wreath around his head. Above this is a coloured pencil drawing depicting a woman in a skirt, scarf, and sunglasses standing in a room with two children on either side looking up at her. The woman is in colour, while the rest of the scene is monochrome. Finally, above this is a photograph showing the upper bodies of three chickens facing the viewer against a purple studio background.

What do you think the works from this panel have in common? Clockwise from the top are works by Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Ji Dachun, Ho Sin Tung, Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, and Yang Zhenzhong

Panel mock-up displaying seven images. Clockwise from the top is a painting depicting a white and yellow sphere against a dark purple background. Next is an ink painting depicting a series of nested geometric shapes: a pale yellow circle in a grey square, which sits in an ivory square against a grey background that is divided by two dark grey vertical lines. On the row below is a photograph taken from above an unfolded, leaf-shaped, white hand fan with a black handle. Next is a photograph showing a round white plate of rice noodle rolls covered in soy sauce. This is followed by an ink painting in which two layers of black ink form a thick ring. On the bottom row is a pencil drawing of a group of children wearing identical striped pajamas and sitting in a circle. Lastly is a sketch of a geodesic dome.

If these works were displayed together in an exhibition, what would be the exhibition's title? Clockwise from the top are works by Hon Chi-fun, Kan Tai-keung, Wong Wo Bik, Ho Sin Tung, Buckminster Fuller, Martin Parr, and Morita Shiryū

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is a pencil drawing depicting an expansive night sky with numerous bright specks above an uneven, light grey horizon. Below this is another pencil drawing showing the top of a pine tree from below, and an oil painting of horizontal bands of pale hues on a white background. Next is a monochrome photograph showing a high-angle view of a street lined by tightly packed buildings and partially obscured by overhanging shop signs and scaffolding. This is followed by monochrome drawings of a building interior and flowers in a vase.

What emotion does this group of images evoke in you? Featuring works by Hu Liu, Richard Lin, Nobuyoshi Araki, Remo Riva, and Lai Shiu-fong

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is painting of a woman and child on a wooden floor next to an open fire. The child touches a pot of boiling water hanging over the fire with a look of pain, while the woman reaches for the child with a shocked expression. Below it is a painting depicting a wolf with a mouse on its back under a round, white moon. Next is pencil drawing on paper of two men spooning on a bed, one of whom is wearing a laurel wreath around his head. Above this is a coloured pencil drawing depicting a woman in a skirt, scarf, and sunglasses standing in a room with two children on either side looking up at her. The woman is in colour, while the rest of the scene is monochrome. Finally, above this is a photograph showing the upper bodies of three chickens facing the viewer against a purple studio background.

What do you think the works from this panel have in common? Clockwise from the top are works by Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Ji Dachun, Ho Sin Tung, Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, and Yang Zhenzhong

Panel mock-up displaying seven images. Clockwise from the top is a painting depicting a white and yellow sphere against a dark purple background. Next is an ink painting depicting a series of nested geometric shapes: a pale yellow circle in a grey square, which sits in an ivory square against a grey background that is divided by two dark grey vertical lines. On the row below is a photograph taken from above an unfolded, leaf-shaped, white hand fan with a black handle. Next is a photograph showing a round white plate of rice noodle rolls covered in soy sauce. This is followed by an ink painting in which two layers of black ink form a thick ring. On the bottom row is a pencil drawing of a group of children wearing identical striped pajamas and sitting in a circle. Lastly is a sketch of a geodesic dome.

If these works were displayed together in an exhibition, what would be the exhibition's title? Clockwise from the top are works by Hon Chi-fun, Kan Tai-keung, Wong Wo Bik, Ho Sin Tung, Buckminster Fuller, Martin Parr, and Morita Shiryū

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is a pencil drawing depicting an expansive night sky with numerous bright specks above an uneven, light grey horizon. Below this is another pencil drawing showing the top of a pine tree from below, and an oil painting of horizontal bands of pale hues on a white background. Next is a monochrome photograph showing a high-angle view of a street lined by tightly packed buildings and partially obscured by overhanging shop signs and scaffolding. This is followed by monochrome drawings of a building interior and flowers in a vase.

What emotion does this group of images evoke in you? Featuring works by Hu Liu, Richard Lin, Nobuyoshi Araki, Remo Riva, and Lai Shiu-fong

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is painting of a woman and child on a wooden floor next to an open fire. The child touches a pot of boiling water hanging over the fire with a look of pain, while the woman reaches for the child with a shocked expression. Below it is a painting depicting a wolf with a mouse on its back under a round, white moon. Next is pencil drawing on paper of two men spooning on a bed, one of whom is wearing a laurel wreath around his head. Above this is a coloured pencil drawing depicting a woman in a skirt, scarf, and sunglasses standing in a room with two children on either side looking up at her. The woman is in colour, while the rest of the scene is monochrome. Finally, above this is a photograph showing the upper bodies of three chickens facing the viewer against a purple studio background.

What do you think the works from this panel have in common? Clockwise from the top are works by Ozawa Tsuyoshi, Ji Dachun, Ho Sin Tung, Wilson Shieh Ka-ho, and Yang Zhenzhong

Panel mock-up displaying seven images. Clockwise from the top is a painting depicting a white and yellow sphere against a dark purple background. Next is an ink painting depicting a series of nested geometric shapes: a pale yellow circle in a grey square, which sits in an ivory square against a grey background that is divided by two dark grey vertical lines. On the row below is a photograph taken from above an unfolded, leaf-shaped, white hand fan with a black handle. Next is a photograph showing a round white plate of rice noodle rolls covered in soy sauce. This is followed by an ink painting in which two layers of black ink form a thick ring. On the bottom row is a pencil drawing of a group of children wearing identical striped pajamas and sitting in a circle. Lastly is a sketch of a geodesic dome.

If these works were displayed together in an exhibition, what would be the exhibition's title? Clockwise from the top are works by Hon Chi-fun, Kan Tai-keung, Wong Wo Bik, Ho Sin Tung, Buckminster Fuller, Martin Parr, and Morita Shiryū

Panel mock-up displaying six images. Clockwise from the top is a pencil drawing depicting an expansive night sky with numerous bright specks above an uneven, light grey horizon. Below this is another pencil drawing showing the top of a pine tree from below, and an oil painting of horizontal bands of pale hues on a white background. Next is a monochrome photograph showing a high-angle view of a street lined by tightly packed buildings and partially obscured by overhanging shop signs and scaffolding. This is followed by monochrome drawings of a building interior and flowers in a vase.

What emotion does this group of images evoke in you? Featuring works by Hu Liu, Richard Lin, Nobuyoshi Araki, Remo Riva, and Lai Shiu-fong

Prompting You to Share

In this way, The Cabinet features your voice. The game’s prompt design evolved from our thinking around principles of visual interpretation and conversation. One of our core references was Visual Thinking Strategies (VTS), developed by museum educator Philip Yenawine and cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen in the late 1980s. This art curriculum ‘fosters collaborative, inclusive, community-building dialogue’. The essence of VTS is facilitating artwork viewing in a group setting through three guiding questions:

  • What’s going on in this picture?
  • What do you see that makes you say that?
  • What more can you find?

The first question involves open discussion about anything from observation to emotions to personal associations. Then, visitors are asked to give evidence of their opinion by looking deeper and drawing associations. The last question encourages further observation or consideration of others’ viewpoints. In the process, VTS gives people a chance to learn to listen and consider different ways of seeing. The experience emphasises how there is no right or wrong answer in art appreciation.

The Cabinet takes these VTS principles as inspiration and asks you, the visitor, what you see and what makes you say so. We invite you to draw connections between the works on display and your observations, guiding you through the process of reading visual cues.

Mirroring the Digital Sphere

How we ask you to share your observations is meant to mirror how we communicate online today. Features such as comments, likes, polling, hashtags, emoticons, and danmu (bullet comments) were reference points in creating our interactive experience. Visitors input their thoughts in the manner of a caption or a hashtag and vote for what resonates. These features that emphasise the collective, live gaming experience and payoff moments, such as getting top votes, show the influence of gamification theory in our design process.

Screencap showing an image of a panel of artworks against a purple background. Over the image are the words 'You've submitted the most popular response!' and an applause icon. Below the image are the words 'At least a hug a day' and a smaller applause icon.

To amplify this collective moment, we project every step of the game onto the central panel. This allows us to include even the non-players in the room—just like the digital sphere, where engagements can be active or passive, and dialogue can sometimes unfold as a spectacle for others to see.

From time to time, The Cabinet will display earlier visitor inputs, showing an accumulation of exchanges and unique perspectives. These visitor responses might imagine a dialogue between characters in the works, highlight forgotten details, or add contemporary relevance through pop cultural references. We hope people find inspiration, resonance, or surprises in the contrast of words and images and feel excited to share their own views and observations. Collectively, we might uncover something more.

Installation view of a row of three large panels in a white-walled gallery. The central panel shows a projection of a monochrome photograph of four dark-haired women. The panels on the left and right display assortments of six paintings, posters, and photographs of different sizes. In front of the three panels is a low barrier, to which are attached several iPads.

Featuring paintings, posters, photos, and even album covers, The Cabinet's displays are meant to echo the diversity of images that saturate our daily lives. Photo: Lok Cheng / M+

At a time when visual images are an integral part of our lives, informing how we communicate and understand the world, it is crucial for us to think deeper and be more aware of this process of reading images. With an understanding of how visual interpretation and conversation work, we can feel empowered to use these tools—to know ourselves better, to communicate differently, and to ultimately transform ourselves, our interactions with others, and the world.

‘Visual culture is a way to create forms of change,’ writes theorist Nicolas Mirzeoff.[1] ‘Once we have learned how to see the world, we have taken only one of the required steps. The point is to change it.’[2] The Cabinet invites you to become an agent of change.

The Cabinet is currently on display next to the Courtyard Gallery at M+’s Level 2. Come play the game on your next visit to the museum.

  1. 1.

    Nicolas Mirzoeff, How to See the World (UK: Penguin Random House, 2015), p289.

  2. 2.

    Ibid, p298.

Winnie Lai
Winnie Lai
Winnie Lai

Winnie Lai is Associate Curator, Learning and Interpretation at M+.

M+ Members

  • Access to the M+ Lounge with your guests
  • Access to M+ Private Viewing for General Admission only
  • Priority booking and member discounts
  • Priority lanes access for General Admission only
  • Free access to the M+ galleries (General Admission only) and selected cinema screenings

... and much more

M+ Membership benefits list updated in November 2022

Loading