The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

30 March 2011

Hop the Twenty-Fourth - The Institution and the Unheimlich

David Francis, A Place Both Wonderful and Strange - Interpreting the Uncanny at the British Museum

The uncanny is a curious combination of attraction and repulsion. Uncanny objects have long been part of the museum experience, and museums can, should they desire, engage with this uncanniness, and generate those experiences of the unheimlich in their display.

Jentsch and Freud provide the cannonical texts which discuss the concept of the 'uncanny,' which relates to 'ken,' a word meaning known. The uncanny is the unknown, the uncertain, the shifting and obscure. When we do not know the difference between life and death, when we do not understand how our world is working, and our relationship with it, this is how the unheimlich makes itself manifest. This is also made manifest in the cybernetic work of Mori, in which the relationship between the living and the non-living-but-not-dead is problematised in the 'Uncanny Valley.' The uncanny is also that which was hidden and now revealed, something which is doubled or repeated, that self-other which is not self-self, a loss of control

33% of visitors come to the British Museum to see the mummies of the Egyptian gallery, and they elict this exact reaction of attraction and repulsion. Of course, it is not only the mummy which creates this experience, but other kinds of strange, juxtaposed and weird objects - tears and curses in a bottle.. How, then, can museums produce more of this sense of the uncanny?

David Lynch's work Twin Peaks provides a perfect example of the way aesthetic productions can create a sense of the unhomely. The possibility of objects coming to life is something which have long been associated with museums - and earlier collections. Church reliquaries were long thought animated in some form, to have an agency and creative power. The Emblemata, at the Bodlian Library in 1627, hung a crocodile in a church as an emblem of evil - the physical world, in the reliquary or cabinet, becomes a space in which the world can be figured. Creating these systems of spatial arrangement fed into the form of systematisation in which objects such as the Fijian Mermaid become not the focus of uncanniness, but a part of the uncanny system as a whole.

We have desire to recreate the cabinet, thus figured, as evidenced in The Last Tuesday Society or the Pitt Rivers Museum, but what are the resulting ethical implications? We don't often engage with the uncanny in the traditional museum display - but it can be done, not just through labelling, but through design and other forms of interpretation. At the Caribbean Before Coloumbous exhibition at the British Museum, they used sounds and smells to evoke the sense of the environment - but this didn't really work. In the Ancient Egyptian Book of the Dead, then, they created a kind of labyrinth which mirrored that of the journey of the Egyptian spirit through the afterlife. Soon, they will be using the atmophere of a Torres Strait Funary event to display a feature object - a Crocodile Headdress.

I've often wondered as to the value of discomfort in the museum space. So much we focus on creating pleasurable experiences, but there is, as evidenced in the popularity of horror literature and cinema, a distinct joy to be had in being disturbed. And of course, being unnerved or scared can create a new interpretation of life, a transformative experience. We engage with traumatic subjects, of course, and sometimes attempt to resolve them, and perhaps this can provide a basis for that disturbing, strange, odd, uncanny interaction. I wonder too, if we are wrong to manipulate the viewer thus - I'm not sure we are, for by entering the museum space, the visitor, on some level, expects a certain amount of framing and manipulation. Can't we embrace that element of theatre, and make beleive, and give our audience credit for understanding that?

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