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Stuart Silver, Designer of Museum Blockbusters, Dies at 84

Stuart Silver, Designer of Museum Blockbusters, Dies at 84

Stuart Silver, who as the inventive design director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in the 1960s and ’70s turned the presentation of art into a gasp-inducing genre of theater, giving the staid institution mass appeal and inspiring widespread changes in the style and spirit of museum exhibitions, died on May 6 in Manhattan. He was 84.

The cause was complications of bone marrow cancer, his daughter Leslie Silver said.

Mr. Silver’s self-described “theatrical techniques” and the philosophy they suggested — “that a museum was a place of pleasure, that a spectacle could also be enrichment,” as he put it — were characteristic of a whole era at the Met.

The driving force and chief evangelist behind the new approach was Thomas Hoving, who in 1967 became the seventh director of the museum in its history.

“I brought the ‘blockbuster’ exhibition to the Met,” Mr. Hoving wrote in “Making the Mummies Dance,” his 1993 book about running the museum, “but designer Stuart Silver brought them to life.”

Mr. Silver made his most popular design for the ultimate blockbuster show, “Treasures of Tutankhamun,” which opened in December 1978 and ran till the following April. He put visitors in the position of questing archaeologists. They began by walking up a staircase leading into a photo mural of the gloomy entrance to King Tut’s tomb in Egypt. The first gallery was bathed in darkness, recreating a cryptlike atmosphere. Each object in the show appeared in the order in which it had been removed from the tomb.

The show sparked what The Times called “Tut fever.” Tickets sold out weeks before it opened to the general public.

Mr. Hoving took over the Met with a mandate to revitalize what he called the museum’s “moribund” culture. His first exhibition, “In the Presence of Kings,” concerned royal artwork from around the world and across time, and Mr. Hoving wanted an eye-catching advertisement for it: a purple banner with gold lettering to be draped across the museum’s facade.

“Don’t expect me to get involved in this vulgar circus,” said Constantine Raitzkey, the man then in charge of design, according to Mr. Hoving’s book. “I quit!”

Mr. Hoving asked his secretary for the second in command in the design department. She said there was no second in command. “Send up anybody!” he replied.

Mr. Silver, a 29-year-old whose job was to make signs and posters for the museum, appeared in sneakers and a soiled gray smock. Mr. Hoving told him to design the “Kings” show.

Four days later, Mr. Silver returned to Mr. Hoving’s office wearing pressed chinos and a tie and carrying a dollhouse-like model. He had recreated paintings with paper cutouts, rendered sculptures in Styrofoam and invented a set of rectangular Plexiglas cases, to be lit up and suspended from the ceiling, that would, he told Mr. Hoving, shine through the exhibition hall like sunbeams.

Mr. Silver had not just designed the show; he had also reorganized it. Now each room had a theme — the royal banquet, the royal hunt.

“I almost hugged him,” Mr. Hoving recalled. “The design was lavish, yet clean, with enough drama and zap to appeal to a large public.”

When “Kings” opened, the Times art critic John Canaday wrote that Mr. Hoving “could not have got off to a better start,” crediting the show with “depth” and “brilliance” and adding, “Stuart Silver’s installation is a triumph.”

Mr. Hoving went on to increase the number of special exhibitions from about a half-dozen a year to about 50. In addition to “Kings” and “Tutankhamun,” he and Mr. Silver collaborated on “The Great Age of Fresco” (1968), which drew more than 180,000 visitors in its first month to see fragile artworks by the likes of Piero della Francesca and Giotto imported from Italy. Another big draw, in 1970, was “The Year 1200,” which featured about 300 objects lent by 16 countries and caused “inadvertent yelps of ecstasy” in one characteristic viewer, The Times reported.

“Visitors gasped when they entered the gallery,” Mr. Hoving wrote.

As a designer, Mr. Silver thought in cinematic terms — pacing, the establishing shot, the close-up. He used changes in color to indicate thematic shifts and lighting to direct traffic. For “The Great Age of Fresco,” he added touches of stage design, placing the artworks under fabric arrangements that recalled the vaults of Florentine churches.

He described his job as realizing a curator’s vision.

“Asking a curator to design an exhibition is like asking a writer to illustrate his work,” he told The New York Times Magazine in 1983.

Stuart Martin Silver was born on May 4, 1937, in New York City. His father, Hyman, was a garment factory supervisor, and his mother, Miriam (Bornstein) Silver, was a part-time saleswoman at the Stern’s department store in Midtown Manhattan.

Stuart grew up in the Inwood section of Manhattan, near the Cloisters, the Met’s medieval art and architecture branch. He would play hooky from school and attend concerts of classical music there.

He enlisted in the Army in 1956 and served as a disc jockey at a military radio station in South Korea. He was honorably discharged in 1958.

He graduated with a bachelor’s of fine arts in design from Pratt Institute in 1960 and then embarked on a series of commercial design jobs in Manhattan. At a small studio that designed paperback book covers, he struck up a friendship with a colleague, Elizabeth Munson. They married in 1962.

Mr. Silver left the Met in 1978 and became a vice president at the furniture designer Knoll. In 1988, he struck out on his own and formed Stuart Silver & Associates. The company served as designer or co-designer for museums and fairs, including the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in California.

In addition to his daughter Leslie, Mr. Silver, who died in a hospital and lived in Scarsdale, N.Y., is survived by his wife; two other daughters, Jessica and Lauren Silver; a sister, Claire Howard; and a granddaughter.

When Mr. Silver left the Met, The Times ran a profile of him that said his “innovative techniques” had “revolutionized museum exhibitions throughout the nation.”

In an interview, Philippe de Montebello, the director of the Met from 1977 to 2008, agreed with that assessment.

“The whole drama, the whole theatricality of special exhibitions is what was new in what Stuart Silver brought,” Mr. de Montebello said. “He can be called a pioneer in the field of museum exhibition design.”

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