The Museum that Ate Itself

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I came across this old snippet of information on the V&As >>research and conservation website<<:

“A collaborative project on display cases has been established between the V&A, the Opificio delle Pietre dure e Laboratori di Restauro, Florence and Laboratorio Museotecnico Goppion S.R.L., Milan. This research will focus in turn on the various aspects of display cases – security, environment, display, maintenance, construction, business issues, integration, services.”

So far, so museologically thorough, and, quite frankly, dull.

However, it then goes on to say: “It is unusual for a museum to regard display cases as assets in their own right and there are no audit trails for these large, expensive pieces of equipment. The V&A has display cases from the late nineteenth century through to modern day purchases, constructed from different materials and selected for aesthetic or security reasons.”

What’s fascinating here is the suggestion that one of the V&As collections is the display cases themselves – and that they might be of interest of and for themselves. As is suggested, cases that range from the 19th century to modern days reveal much more than the objects they contain. They aren’t simply windows through which we look, but are framing devices that reveal how we look at objects. One might imagine reversing our point of view, stand within the case imagine the museum as an exhibit.

That this is an invisible collection is demonstrated by the museums own treatment of them:

“Preliminary results, from a limited number of museums, shows that a planned maintenance and cleaning programme of the interior of display cases is generally absent. Their external surface is usually cleaned daily, depending on staff availability, yet their interior is cleaned only when the object contained inside is removed for ordinary maintenance, for loan, or when dust is really evident!”

The investment of the museum in display cases is outlined “The Museum currently has in the region of 4000 cases. This is a replacement cost in the region of ???20 million (current market value) and such an investment surely warrants a maintenance programme similar to an air-handling plant: that is a regular sequence of checks on their performance.”

The comparison with air-handling plant reminds us that the cases are a kind of infrastructure – part of the elaborate apparatus of a museum.

Collecting, arranging and displaying are immensely powerful acts. They edit the entire history of the world, collapsing time, geography and culture. The museum infrastructure is equally powerful. The technologies of conservation for example are an attempt to arrest the effect of time upon objects.

The suggestion that these museological mechanics might become the subject of the museum – that the museum should turn in on itself – is intriguing. The museum could find itself curating its own fabric.

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Perhaps this might mean mounting a blockbuster show of show cases designed by architect >>Philippe Rahm<< who writes of his installation >>“Polarized Kunsthaus”<< at the Kunsthaus Graz in 2006

“Architecture today is evolving rapidly toward the invisible. The architectonic form is now less based on space than on climate. Air conditioning, lighting and humidity control are contemporary tools in the definition of architecture, especially in the precise, closed, controlled, environment of the museum. This is a new, sensitive territory for architecture. The visible — surfaces and square meters — superposes on other dimensions: chemical, electromagnetic: air, light, temperature, and humidity. The inhabitant is not a passive but an active agent in the process of immersion: by breathing, through the skin, or in the retina. The perception of architecture is not limited to the senses — we must address other modes of perception of space: by the endocrine system, by ingestion, by inhalation. Scientific research is beginning to probe these elusive, microscopic dimensions of space at the chemical, molecular and genetic levels. And in this exploration of unknown fields of space, science inevitably delivers uncertainty — faiths of new wellbeing but also new fears. But where is the limit between conditioning and control, between comfort and manipulation? What is the nature of modern control? Can the space of the contemporary museum manipulate the visitors? What are the shapes of its control? Where is the uncertainty? The threat is about the immaterial, in this perfectly controlled environment of the museum– it evolves in the invisible, in fields unperceivable by our senses. More deeply, it penetrates the interior of our body and our imagination, and secures them or worries them. Science — which progressively penetrates the infinitesimal — reveals new doubtful fields each day.”

In this way we can imagine the V&A as a device that reaches far back into history and through cultures but also deep into it visitors and objects.

Who needs vacuous shows about Kylie when you could have exhibitions where the details of conservation might become spectacular experiences in themselves: humidity and temperature tolerances, PH levels, and lux tolerance could be arranged as blockbuster installations. Cleaning techniques, the fall of dust on glass, infra red shadows cast by alarm systems, temperature patterns, and the break down of cell structure within fabrics might become must see shows.

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