onsdag 28 november 2012

On the documentality of a mummy

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 spent  much time wandering through the seemingly endless collections of artifacts is the New Carlsberg Glyptotek in Copenhagen, 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, promising  a full experience of ”Tutankhamun – the tomb and the treasures”. It proved to be the very opposite of  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.
One question, 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 all?

 Books mentioned:

Boon, Marcus (2010) In praise of copying. Harvard University Press.
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.