Monday, 19 November 2007

Things vs Experiences II

Daniel Libeskind obviously believes that the traditional museum - a box you keep things in - has passed its sell-by date. His Jewish museum in Berlin creates spaces that are in themselves an artwork and a reflection of the Jewish experience in Germany. A traditional museum has room only for fulness - for glass cases full of objects. His museum has room for a void - for openness to emotion, to free thought and experience.

While museums have always commissioned fine architectural designs, the nature of those designs has changed. In the Victorian age, museums such as Waterhouse's Natural History Museum provided an assertion of the continuity civilised values by the use of classical, Gothic or Renaissance building styles; but they were essentially containers for a collection.

Now, the focus is less on the fine facade than on interiors that can be experienced by the museum-goer. I suppose that must have begun with the Guggenheim spiral ramp, designed by Frank Lloyd Wright (1957).

I have a suspicion though that we are losing objectivity. The great thing about seeing objects in a case is that you can make up your own mind about them. Yes, you have to do the work - you'll have to read up on things before you go if you want to get the best out of the place. But if you want to pursue a particular line of thought, you can do so. (One such line of thought led me into the back bits of the British Museum one day to see, in the flesh, an Eishi woodblock print, with its sharp lines and glistening mica background. It wasn't on display - but you could ask to see the reserves; and I did.)

Now, the museum wants  to tell you how to experience things. It wants you only to see the best, the most typical things. And it's not a hundred miles from there to dumbing-down - lists of 'Top ten things to know about the Romans in Britain' (and I don't mean Howard Brenton's play), or the critically panned Tutankhamun exhibition, high on glitz, low on scholarship.

That said, Libeskind's work is anything but dumbing down. But it does challenge our ideas of what museums are all about.

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