Posters are a funny medium. They are designed to communicate a message instantaneously, but at the same time leave a lasting impression. Now a museum dedicated entirely to the poster has opened its doors in New York City—the first institution of its kind in the United States.
Poster House strives to present “a global view of posters from their earliest appearance in the late 1800s, to their present-day use,” according to the museum’s website. The new venue spans 15,000 square feet and, as Hakim Bishara of Hyperallergic reported earlier this month, it already boasts a collection of 7,000 historical posters and 1,000 contemporary ones.
Intertwined within the history of posters—which took off in the 19th century, after the invention of lithography allowed for vibrant images to be produced at a low cost—are stories of shifting social norms, changing fashions, pop culture trends, advertising strategies and evolving design sensibilities. In fact, Poster House director Julia Knight tells Victoria Stapley-Brown of the Art Newspaper that the museum is first and foremost an institution dedicated to design; posters, she says, are distinct from most fine arts, which are meant to be reflected upon and studied.
“We don’t want to be an art museum,” Knight explains. “Even though there is clear artistry and beauty here, we still consider this design.”
One of the museum’s two inaugural exhibitions is dedicated one of history’s most famous poster designers, Alphonse Mucha. Born in 1860 in what is now the Czech Republic, Mucha was a towering figure of the Art Nouveau movement, which was defined by its sinewy, curving lines. His work advertised everything from cookies to bicycles, and his posters were so popular that people would rip them down so they could hang them in their homes.
The second exhibition explores the work of Cyan, a German graphic design agency that emerged after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Cyan’s designers “would go on to become some of the first poster artists to utilize early desktop publishing tools like Photoshop and QuarkXPress into their work,” according to the museum, “while also looking back and drawing from the intellectual history of the famous Bauhaus art academy.”
Each year, Poster House plans to feature one exhibition devoted to non-Western artists and one focused on women, reports the Guardian’s Nadja Sayej. In October, the museum will launch a show on Ghanaian film posters, and an exhibition looking at signs from the 2017 Women’s March is scheduled for the same month. The Mucha show is also, in many ways, tied to women’s history. Mucha’s career was launched after he designed a poster for a play starring the French actress Sarah Bernhardt, with whom he entered into a six year contract. His designs often featured women, all porcelain skin and flowing hair; he and his peers believed, according to the Art Story, that “femininity [was] the antidote to an overly industrialized, impersonal, ‘masculine’ world.”
Poster House aims to “cover posters from all over the world and time periods,” Knight tells Sayej of the Guardian. But perhaps above all, the museum seeks to bring posters to the foreground of design collections.
“Design museums feature posters, but they’re used as supplemental materials,” Knight says. “Here, posters are a focal point and not an accessory.”