Museum Musings

I'm on holidays, traveling in Holland. Obviously, being me, I have been going to museums everywhere - we bought a Museumkaart, and admission to most of the major museums is therefore free, making the 39-euro cost very worthwhile. So much for the touristy tips, however.

What I really wanted to write about was the variety of museum display techniques I have been encountering. In Den Haag (The Hague, for the rest of us), we went to the Municipal museum, because I wanted to see the 18th century dollhouse, and I heard there was a costume collection. Though the dollhouse was awesome, it was inexplicably housed deep in the contemporary art rooms, making the experience of finding it rather unpleasant. (Not a fan of modern art.) The costume collection, as well as bits of everything else, was housed in the basement, called the Wunderkammern - a hodge-podge, vaguely themed selection of bits and bobs from the collection designed to make visual links between objects - things about childhood, colour, music, etc. It was very po-mo, and kind of annoying, because none of the objects were actually labelled - you had to make your own meaning, though the selection and arrangement forced a meaning on the viewer anyway.

In contrast, the Teylers Museum in Haarlem (can't find the English version, sorry) is a preserved 18th century Wunderkammer in itself. It was the private home of a collector, whose executors decided to open his collection to the public when he died in the 1780s. Much of the original structure is preserved, as well as the arrangement of the specimens. There is a new wing, where new exhibitions are put on, but most of the displays are in that typical crowded arrangement one usually sees in photographs (or maybe at the Pitt Rivers, though a talk by the collections manager at the conference I went to last week suggested that the displays at the PRM hadn't actually been at all preserved from his own time). It was very cool to see all the antique instruments and specimens of science (back when science was beautiful, before it went nano and became invisible - how do you interpret the invisible? Although the Wellcome did a cool thing by printing out the Human Genome in huge thick tomes, 6 volumes in size 9 font for each chromosome, all Gs and Ts and As and Cs...) but you really had to already know what you were looking at, because the interpretation was minimal. How do I know what a Leiden jar is? (Answer: I nearly failed chemistry and never took physics, so I don't.)

The two museums - one arranged very recently, the other over 2oo years ago, had a very similar effect on me. One is overwhelmed at the displays, is intrigued at the apparent similarity between objects, but is given no real guidance as to what it is one is looking at, exactly. Only having some specialist training and knowledge in cultural and visual history could I guess at the overall meaning intended by the curators. It made me think about even better-interpreted museums, ones with text. You really need a great deal of cultural capital, to use a Bourdieu-ian term, to engage with museum galleries. Even if there is an infinite amount of text, the referents will not be clear to a hypothetical Martian, and they cannot build on any existing knowledge to assimilate the new concepts shown to them. It all makes me feel sad and helpless - is this whole museological thing actually futile?


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