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MFA museum designer showcases masterpieces with careful display

How to showcase a small Japanese woodblock print that is one of the most iconic images in art history? For longtime MFA museum designer Tomomi Itakura, it was part of the puzzle in displaying more than 230 works from artist’s Katsushika Hokusai’s seven-decade career. The answer lay in centering the storied masterpiece in the center of three walls, right in the heart of the 9,000 square foot gallery where the MFA Boston exhibit, Hokusai, opens Sunday, April 5. For Itakura, it was just one of many “aha moments” that occur while working on museum installations. Itakura spoke with Globe correspondent Cindy Atoji Keene about what it’s like to put together a big show like Hokusai.

“This is the 85th special exhibition I have worked on during my nine-year tenure at the museum. Since this exhibition opens at the same time as another major exhibition (3/11 In the Wake), it was all hands on deck in the design department with production on both exhibitions. But the actual planning started about a year ago, when I sat down with the curator and we decided on the narrative and thesis of the show, based on the objects to be displayed. The Gund Gallery has modular walls on a grid system, but for Hokusai, the layout of the walls were predetermined. I had designed them originally for the following exhibition of Dutch paintings and I couldn’t change them for Hokusai. Based on a floor plan of the gallery and the 16-foot-high ceilings, the biggest challenge was bringing everything together harmoniously and keeping the visitor interested. Hokusai had a very colorful career and did a whole lot more than The Great Wave. The design for the whole show uses color to help the small prints not get lost in the space — each section is a different color, and the colors are painted as 8-foot tall bands that start one foot up from the floor. Designers try to avoid ‘the bathtub ring’ effect, which is a lot of things hung with the same spacing along the wall, which looks monotonous and boring. I have a special affinity for this exhibit because I am Japanese but at the same time, I like to think that I am captivated by designing for any kind of art for all periods, media and culture. Still, I have relatives who lived in the Edo period and it is very neat to have that kind of connection; also I can read the Japanese characters or text on the pieces so that is fun.”

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