Some Thoughts on Museums
The museum is a house of hollow accumulation parading as culture. ‘Here is our history’, ‘here is where we came from’. We spend millions of dollars on dead things; collecting, categorising and collating. Millions more spent in the service of bones and brittle art, attempting to preserve them. The painting, dinosaur bone, and Grecian vase do not symbolise anything to us, or at least, nothing of their time. They function within the current order to assure us that our empty accumulation has meaning. All that is explained to us through the collation of historical artefacts is our historical singularity, cut off from any meaningful connection with the past.
The repairs/restitutions/restorations performed on ancient works draws them into the order of simulacrum. We stockpile the past and once the movement of time performs the inevitable – that is, causes decay – we use present methods of science to reverse this. In fact, we do not reverse the process but disrupt it, and imbue the past with the present. Consider a vase where first small sections of paint are replaced, then parts of the clay, then more paint and clay and so until this 3,000-year-old vase is comprised of materials and technology of the 21st century. What are we looking at if not a simulated piece of the past? Does it matter?
It draws to mind the repairs at the cathedral of Notre Dame. After fires destroyed large portions of it, huge sums of money were found to repair the cathedral to its “original” state. Indeed, its original state would be a burnt husk, a state untouched/unrevised/untampered with. The goal of returning the site to its “original” state renders it entirely artificial – a simulacrum of Notre Dame in the exact location of the original, rendering the distinction between original and imitation superfluous. Baudrillard would write that such repatriation is “nothing but a supplementary subterfuge, acting as if nothing had happened and indulging in retrospective hallucination”.[i]
Who was it that decided chronology was the method by which the museum should be organised? Indeed, Monet, Rembrandt & Vermeer may have existed in similar times, but they were not similar men. A painting of a French marina has nothing in common with the one of a woman wearing pearls, even if they appeared at similar times. One portrays the beauty of blended blues at a marina while another awakens the observer with the piercing stare of a modest maiden. Instead of organising the museum and art house according to time, why not according to theme? Imagine a corridor dedicated to the theme of astronomy? There, Van Goh’s ‘Starry Night’ precedes a prototype telescope and from there the first model solar system or an original manuscript of Copernicus’ ‘Revolution of the Celestial Spheres’. This would be a far more intense and integrated experience than putting objects which have nothing to do with each other together by virtue of their time of appearance.
In the museum, we place the paintings of Monet, Rembrandt & Vermeer in a room together, where the visitor may appreciate them for a few minutes. We take the Monet from a parish in France, the Rembrandt from the house of an aristocrat in the Netherlands, and the Vermeer from a Dutch art-house; and we put them together for chronological display in a single hall. These works have been extracted from the time and place which gave them meaning. This convenience comes with consequences. Placing them in the museum eviscerates their context. They exist in a timeless and placeless limbo. Each is misrepresented because that which would contextualise the art is no longer, replaced with other pieces of decontextualized art, ensconced within a meaningless symbolic order. Or, rather, the schizophrenia of the order itself is ensconced, concealed as the democratisation and presentation of art, which is nothing other than the degradation and misrepresentation of it.
The museum is a schizophrenic experience. It speaks about the collection and rescuing of cultural artefacts, but the very fact of their collection commences their destruction. Everything within the museum, perhaps other than the people hawking at innocent tourists, are symbols of death – attesting to nothing other than our macabre fascination of clawing items back from the past and situating them within cabinets, frozen in time. Like animals in a zoo, something dies when they are removed.
Any work of art of cultural artefact within the museum is fictitious. The living breathing culture which imbued the objects with meaning is no longer around. The objects of fascination are cluttered together for convenience and delight. But, to put it together, they first had to take it apart – extracting it from its original environment which once enjoyed these very works. The museum visitor does not see embodiments of past cultures, rather, he sees symbols of our present culture: a culture defined by simulated experience, imitation, and disembodiment. Everything within the museum is a fake, rendered so by the evisceration of context. Only the museum is real, a symbol of a real concern: of the expanding fakery of human experience.
The museum is only the most obvious example of a collection of fakery attempting to provide a ‘real’ experience. When travellers in past centuries went to a town in another country, they would have had quite a different experience to what one has now. Likely, a Rembrandt tapestry would have been seen on the palace wall, beneath which the local people engage in traditional song and dance. Everything was for the natives themselves, the visitor merely observing. Now, however, the tourist sees less of the country than of its tourist attractions. What he sees is not often the living culture but the artificial specimens heralded out, collected and embalmed for his viewing pleasure. The tourist attractions, like the museum, are specimens of the artificial masquerading as the real.
In tourism, we do not look for the real but for caricature. Authenticity is anathema to us, we rather the real conform to our expectations. We do not want Japanese culture, but rather Japanesey – Geishas, sushi, kawaii, and hello kitty. We do not want Italian culture, but rather Italianish – pasta, cheese, thick moustaches and speaking-with-the-hands. The real itself is asked to reconfigure itself to the imagination. Reality conforms to an image of reality. It remains real but simultaneously becomes a cheap imitation of itself. It is the death of reality and the birth of a simulacrum.
[i] Baudrillard. J., Trans. Sheila Faria Glaser. 1994. Simulacra and Simulation. University of Michigan Press: Michigan. 11.