A Privileged Source of Information


Katia Dianina


The new museum age is upon us. Only a decade ago, the “poetics and politics” of museum display were subjected to scrutiny, deconstruction, and plain criticism. Essays like James A. Boon’s melancholy piece, “Why Museums Make Me Sad,” appeared on the scene at that time. Douglas Crimp wrote his reflections “On the Museum’s Ruins” and, still earlier, Theodor W. Adorno famously compared the museum to a mausoleum.


Today we celebrate museums – museums for children and adults, local and national, universal and specialized. Scores of new museums open up yearly, accompanied by plentiful guidebooks, catalogues, and publications of general interest; scholarly presses have also seen a deluge of critical studies on museums’ past, present, and future; new Museums Studies departments open up in colleges and universities around the world. Museums are again in motion.


What is it about the world of museums that continues to fascinate us, despite decades of sadness, skepticism, and mourning? What makes the return of the museum possible, after it was essentially pronounced dead?


Among the many ingredients of museum experience, architecture is the most visible – and most striking. The first museum age (roughly the second half of the nineteenth century) advanced the classical temple-like building as a home for many museums; it also gave birth to the controversial emblem of modernity, the Crystal Palace, an ephemeral structure of glass and iron that housed the 1851 International Exhibition in London. In our new museum age, too, architecture noticeably serves as an integral part of museum display. Consider the edgy unease of Daniel Liebeskind’s Jewish Museum in Berlin, or the titanium glamour of Guggenheim Bilbao, or Frank Gehry’s design for a fully transparent museum of contemporary art to be built in Paris.


The content of modern museums is as compelling as their form. There are museums of literally everything – cheese, sex, beer. Museums have adapted to the needs of the contemporary tourist industry in many other ways, too, adding restaurants, gift shops, and computer rooms to their infrastructure. They have essentially turned into entertainment complexes of sorts, which, in a sense, they are, as museums increasingly compete for the same leisure time and money of their visitors.


But more than anything else, it is the museum’s story that continues to hold the interest of the public. The story in this context does not mean the history of the museum collection; it is what each one of us makes of the museum experience. In other words, the story is not about the museum but about the audience, or rather the plurality of audiences.


To make people see and appreciate culture, it is not enough for the museum display case (or even the whole building) to be transparent. For the modern museumgoer is no longer content with passively observing the museum display, no matter how edifying. For each community, for each individual, the museum experience is unique because we bring to it our own life stories. Our background, our knowledge of certain subjects and ignorance of others, our life’s experience, our communal (national, local, subgroup) culture – all these factors inform the outcome of a museum visit.


As an illustration, take the increasingly popular “genre” of children’s museums. There is little that would remind us of a classical museum-temple in these playgrounds of imagination, where children make their own stories of the world as they experience it by “touch and tell.” Children’s museums do not instruct; they delight; they provide a space where visitors can make discoveries of their own. Which they do. And children love going back to their museums! Here we have the museum meeting visitors on their terms: like many of its visitors, the story of the children’s museum is often pre-verbal.


For more traditional museumgoers the story can come in the form of guidebooks and catalogues, labels and posters, audio tours and live guides, exhibition reviews and films. Verbal medium has always been part of material display. Near the turn of the twentieth century, the American specialist George Brown Goode even argued for priority of text over objects in a well-devised museum: “An efficient educational museum may be described as a collection of instructive labels, each illustrated by a well-selected specimen.” The transparency of the museum display does not come from the see-through glass; it derives from the verbal accompaniment to display, as found in labels, guidebooks, and reviews.


More than elsewhere, in imperial Russia, the museum age was marked first and foremost by an eruption of public discourse, which targeted every exhibition of art and technology and which, among other things, offered basic lessons in visual literacy to poorly educated audiences. These stories widely circulated around the country in the newspaper pages and helped deliver museum culture to the general public.


To turn to a more contemporary example, the recent exhibition Russia! was one of the most successful projects in the history of the Guggenheim museum. In New York alone, it drew over 400,000 visitors. People loved Russia! People hated Russia! The exclamation point in the title is about the only part of the project that both its supporters (mainly organizers, the mainstream press, the general public) and detractors (mainly artists, specialists, scholars) endorsed – the Guggenheim installation deserved three exclamation points!!!


Why did Russian art of the past nine centuries “sell?” Because it was a major public event that resonated in the United States and beyond. Because it received a high level of publicity (President Putin’s patronage) and generous funding

(Russian billionaire Vladimir Potanin’s sponsorship). Because it was a glamorous example of global cooperation between former “superpowers” and their art museums. Because the exhibition increased the international visibility both for its subject, Russia, and its host, the Guggenheim Museum. But most of all, the exhibition came alive because there were so many stories woven around the same 250 masterpieces that traveled from their home in Russia to New York and then to Bilbao.


This recent reception of Russian art in the West is reminiscent of the endless controversies that each nineteenth-century international exhibition with Russian participation stirred, beginning with the one in the Crystal Palace. For it was hardly about art (or technology, or lack thereof) that commentators argued; it was the very image of the country represented by works on display that was ultimately at stake. The image of the nation that Russia! advanced (or rather the many versions of that image) was likewise created less in the Guggenheim than in the pages of newspapers and art journals, catalogues and blogs. For writing about art is what endures when the show leaves town. Writing is also what endows a museum display with a plurality of meanings generated by the many interpreters of any given exhibition.


Aleksandr Sokurov’s film, Russian Ark (2002), is another fascinating story of the museum in motion. The long history of the Hermitage Museum – the Russian ark of the title – is captured fabulously in one uninterrupted shot. The world-famous institution comes alive as an island of high culture that drifts forever between historical epochs and generations of tsars, directors, curators, and visitors. The destiny of the imperial Hermitage, the film seems to suggest, is to rescue culture from oblivion and preserve it for future generations. But then the film ends with a sense of nostalgia and loss, as the lofty carrier of culture and identity floats off the screen into the fog, as if leaving us, the modern audience, behind.


The Hermitage museum itself, in the meantime, has been going global. One version of “museum without borders” comes in the form of an Internet café, e-commerce shopping, and computer gallery where the new generation of Russians comes to play with art (and sometimes considers the originals, too). Another version is the Guggenheim Hermitage Museum in Las Vegas, established in 2000 as the result of a productive partnership between the two institutions, which hosted a smaller Russia! exhibition last year as well. Stories of high culture and popular entertainment come strangely together in these narratives of the Hermitage museum.


Perhaps the strangest museum story of all is that of the old Lenin mausoleum in the heart of a new post-Soviet Moscow. In Soviet times, people stood in long, serpentine lines all across Red Square to get a glimpse at the father of the revolution. Times have changed, and a different kind of curiosity drives the tourist business in Moscow. But the Lenin Mausoleum, an increasingly incongruous artifact in the center of Moscow, has become a very lively topic in ongoing public debates on the future of Russian culture and identity. To many of the younger Russians the dead body in the Mausoleum means virtually nothing, but the history that it represents – and the question of whether this history should or should not be part of their own story – is a matter of no small importance.


The turn of the century is a time to pause and ponder, and the museum is an appropriate site to do so – about the transience of our experience and about the lifelong stories that we each leave behind. The first museum age was about establishing institutions and gathering objects; the second is about engaging audiences. Just as there are different styles of learning, so there are different styles of appreciating and appropriating museums. What works for one visitor

may or may not work for another. In this age of globalism and multiculturalism, to make museums more visible we need fewer transparent display cases and more basic “translatability” of the museum experience into a variety of languages, media, styles.


Not that we need to turn temples into playgrounds or make basic visual literacy mandatory for all. But museums that serve as playgrounds for imagination and as public forums will not make us sad. The debates on culture and society that museums provoke, the many controversies that they stir, make them always contemporary, always timely.