Pillars of Power

Smitha Rao Aluri

a playful museum-based approach to art history education

on making a museum

I stare, captivated by the significance and grandeur of towering cylinders, robust cuboids, and other imposing structures.
I move, observing the collections, people flowing through the space, and the social form in museums.
I sit, eyes fixed on the screen of my laptop as I lose myself in pursuit of identifying structures from the past, diving down a rabbit hole of knowledge, story and discovery.
I crouch, mesmerized by the nimble dance of my 3D printer as it brings to life these intricate structures.
I read, revisiting books of great thickness, flipping pages of tightly typeset text that have lain untouched for  years.
I work, donning multiple hats – researcher, designer, curator – as I try making a museum, an ode to these structures.

assembled 2′ high 3D printed reproductions of pillars 

the pillar <why the structure>

In my attempt to make art and architecture history more accessible, meaningful and engaging, I began researching  various avenues in arts education and museum engagement. The vast expanse of art history with its various ‘eras’ and ‘isms’ can be daunting, even for the most seasoned scholars. This called for a simple yet impactful foundational subject to base my explorations on – the pillar. With their presence across time, culture, and region, they offer a tangible and relatable starting point for learning.

An everyday element, the pillar needs more appreciation, as it spans sculpture, architecture, and painting, and tells rich stories through a range of styles, materials and uses. Examining it through different lenses, including representation, structure, symbolism, form, space and emotion, can help us gain a deeper understanding of our past and help contextualize our present.


My own experience studying art history in undergrad felt dry and remote, lacking the immersive and tactile aspects I think are necessary to fully understand and appreciate the art. While there are many ways to encounter art, I believe the best is in person. Over time, the meaning and value of artworks have been gradually altered by the proliferation of mass reproductions such as images and videos, which often lack proper contextual information. Today, museums are adopting open access programs to allow free, unrestricted access to digital images of their collections. 

investigating form

Many structures and sites over the years feature pillars, pilasters, columns, pedestals, colonnades, cloisters, arches, all starting from a single vertical form but of varying complexity, design and purpose. Due to this abundant representation, I found it challenging to zero in on a specific and fitting user encounter. I finally decided to work on a standalone exhibit focused only on pillars and related freestanding structures. After considering their various historical and cultural contexts, I am concentrating on pillars that are infused or associated with power, ritual and reverence.

power <the lens>

Pillars, throughout the history of art, have been used as a potent symbol of strength, authority, and religious significance. The exhibit, Pillars of Power, delves into the ways in which pillars have been utilized to reinforce power structures throughout global history. They have served as mediums to not only impose social hierarchies, but also signify the connection between the divine and earthly realms.

Even today, though the style and form of pillars may have changed considerably, they continue to reflect the power and authority of the organizations that inhabit them. From the ornate pillars of ancient temples to the towering columns of modern skyscrapers, the use of pillars reveals much about the cultural and societal values of a given place and time, as well as how those in positions of authority seek to convey their power and influence.

about the exhibit <outline of displays>

The exhibit showcases carefully reproduced replicas of existing pillar structures. It comprises three displays, each offering a unique perspective on the historical significance of pillars as symbols of power and ritual across various cultures and time periods. The first display is a projection of pillars from different regions and time periods, presented irrespective of their original context. This serves as an introduction to the vast and varied use of pillars throughout the world.

Next, is a series of pillar models presented in pieces like building blocks that visitors can assemble and align to reconstruct complete pillars and find written clues. These clues, along with corresponding notes that briefly describe how the pillars embody a particular power structure, reveal the following: construction date, place of origin, materials used, and height. Displaying these structures scaled down, in physical form, encourages them to focus on the stylistic variations, texture, and details of the pillars.

Having fit different parts to build a whole pillar, it is now time to see how these structures fit into a larger context. Visitors are, through a digital interaction, invited to match different pillars with images of their original setting, and check if their answers are right.

These experiences are a play on ‘exquisite corpse’, a collaborative drawing and writing approach initially used by the Surrealists. Although there is an order to the displays, each is a different teaching tool and can be experienced independently, catering to different levels of interaction. Whether a passerby or someone eager to engage hands-on, this exhibit has something for everyone. Come and discover the rich and varied history of pillars as potent symbols.

on making a difference

Today, many pillars exist in different conditions and states, with some only surviving as conjectural reconstruction drawings, while others have been restored, photographed, scanned, and very well documented. However, there is a lack of substantial resources that present a concise comparison and study of pillar structures globally. Instead, they are often studied separately under art movements, regional art or as a part of architecture. This raises the question of why there is no comprehensive study on pillars, considering that there are books focused on other objects and forms like clocks, porcelain dolls, and folding fans.

Additionally, there has been an acute concentration on the Greek and Roman orders, making them the most popular kinds of columns. Their well documented and defined system of proportions and decorative elements have played an important role in shaping Western architectural traditions, leading to easy recognition and replication. I wanted to intercept this bias by laying equal importance to columns across the globe.

While children’s and science museums place a lot of importance on interaction, play, and discovery, the same cannot be said for art museums. This begs the question of what the varying levels of engagement one can create with art within the museum space are and how future exhibits might be different. 

In conclusion, the Pillars of Power offers a new playful approach to arts education and serves as a model for museums to create effective exhibits that engage visitors of all levels. By offering a range of experiences, from passive observation to active participation, visitors can interact with the exhibit at their own pace and level of interest, without succumbing to museum fatigue. 

Art history education and museum exhibits have traditionally been focused on a narrow view of high art, with little attention given to the engineering and design aspects, as well as the process of execution. It is essential to highlight these concepts to help foster a well-rounded understanding of the art’s, and therefore, our history. What would be the point of these artifacts from the past if not for learning from their value, their meaning and the context that they hold?

There is a growing need in the field of art and architecture, to create exhibits that are both informative and relevant. By making art accessible and meaningful, we can break down the false dichotomy of high versus low art, and increase public engagement and interest in cultural heritage. Pillars of Power proves that it is possible to create exhibits that are purposeful, educational and enjoyable, and that the simple yet rich pillar can be a starting point for exploring the cultural and social influences that have shaped our built environment.

assembling the pieces to recreate the pillar
magnets embedded into the pieces so they snap to fit in place

Smitha Rao Aluri

Experience Designer, Creative Technologist & Educator
I use insight-driven, human-centered design to curate, create, and craft engaging, memorable, and immersive experiences through visual design, storytelling, XR, games and interaction.

I love working at the intersection of play, design, technology and my many interests.