I love museums – in a very conservative way. I want them old
and dusty and free from the plague of pedagogy. One such museum where I have
much time wandering through the
seemingly endless collections of artifacts is the New Carlsberg Glyptotek
established in the early 1880’s. It is a remarkable museum with a winter garden
surrounded by collections from almost all times and places. Most notable perhaps
are the collections from classical Greece, Rome and ancient Egypt. When I take
the kids there, the highlight is always the descent into the ”Egyptian tomb”
where there is an actual mummy on display along several objects and caskets
from graves of pharaonic times. There are no narratives to be found in the room,
but the objects themselves; documents, in Suzanne Briet’s sense,
of a distant and strange time. They exilerate
the mind and triggers our fantasy.
Another favourite of mine is the Museum of Natural History
in Göteborg, founded in 1833. It has both odd creatures in formaldehyde solutions
and large drawers filled with systematically pinned butterflies and bugs in the
entomological department. The specimens are there to be seen as evolution
created them, and yes, they are strange indeed.
When wandering through the collections of these museums I am
often stricken by how time seems to have been standing still since the very
time of their organization. They are in themselves examples of a view on
collecting and the value of organized originality. The fact that the mummies,
sculptures, butterflies and bugs are real is not only important – it is the
very legitimacy of the collection.
Last weekend I took the children to an exibition in Malmö,
a full experience of
”Tutankhamun – the tomb and the treasures
”. It proved to be the very opposite
old style museum exhibitions. It was
a commercial exhibition and as such it could be expected to display the very latest
in exibition standards. Visitors were
given headsets at the entrance and put into groups taken in through a
series of films telling the story of the young Pharao and the excavations of
his tomb in the 1920’s. Facts were given in a semi-dramatized way with readings
from what must have been Howard Carter’s diaries performed in the local South
Scanian dialect. When the actual ”tomb” was entered, the visitors were left on
their own devices and it was possible to stroll around the objects in silence
with headsets on. It was a completely non communicative experience and the
thought of free discovery of the displayed treasures and their meanings was
just not there. The fact is that not even the treasures were there – what was
shown were replicas and copies of the strange and fascinating objects and
documents so remarkably found in Tutankhamun’s tomb.
There was even a replica of a corpse; a
”real” mummy – most definitively not that of the young king.
In this exhibition, the prime concern was not the artifacts
and documents. Instead it was the story (badly told) of what they signified. The storyline was suppose to catch the mind of
the visitor. But what is the story of Tutankhamun in an exhibition setting without
the arifacts? Leaving the event (yes, event), driving home in the misty autumn
rain, we were all bit estranged. It was later on that I realized how much this
exhibition said. Not about Tutankhamun or ancient Egypt, but of this time today
that we call our own. Why bother showing unique archeological findings when it
is possible to make and display replicas and tell a story?
Another analysis, perhaps somewhat deeper, of contemporary
life also comes to mind. Canadian scholar Marcus Boon has, in his brilliant
book In praise of copying, gone through the use and significance of copies and
replicas in society. The need for originality is lost and in a way, he argues,
this does ot necessarily need to be a bad thing. His theoretical argument does
however not come from any of the expected post-modern schools of thought, but
instead from buddhism. Is there such a thing as an ”original” in the first
place? Is there any such thing as "essence"? If not, what is there to see and to relate to?
It is an interesting and deeply anti-materialistic way of thinking.
The problem is also addressed - from the very opposite point
of view - by Italian scholar Maurizio Ferraris. He formulates the concept of
Documentality as an inscribed social act. In this way original artifacts and
documents can be said to form an ontological necessity for the preservation of past
social actions and events. Without documentality, narratives are empty. Without
the original objects, the connection to the social events and objects
constituting not only the tomb of Tutankhamun, but its time is… lost.
The tension between the in-house collections of original
artifacts and documents in classical museums and the display of copies and replicas
of temporary exhibitions is not only interesting. It is important. It tells us
much about how we perceive history and meaning. In both cases the value of
documentation is at centre; in the museum authentic artifacts represents
reality. The documents carry meaning. In the temporary exhibition a story is
told. The documentality of the items displayed is illusory – they do not carry
any inherent value outside of the story told in the headphones handed out to
visitors. It’s basically a tension between the value of documents in modernity
and post-modernity. We may of course
prefer one over the other.
however, keeps nagging me: if the mummy in Malmö was real, but not Tutankhamun
– then, who was it? Does it matter in terms of documentality? Does it matter at
Boon, Marcus (2010) In praise of copying. Harvard University
Ferraris, Maurizio (2012) Documentality: why it is necessary
to leave traces. Oxford University Press.
Picture shows Howard Carter examining the Sarcophagus of Tutankhamun n 1922.