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

27 March 2012

A Fifth Sounding: Invisible Museums and Multiple Utopias

It seems appropriate, somehow, to begin our second session 'Personal Utopias', with two people very intertwined with the PhD community here, our own Elee Kirk, and her partner, Will Buckingham, for some philosophy-like stories, and stories like philosophy...

It's a double pronged attack!

We're used, Will notes, to thinking of the museum as a participatory space, a space of community. But there are things which we don't know how talk about - those which are perhaps too private, intimate, personal, quirky - perhaps just too quiet - to be heard.

Museums, they contend, are already temporary, contained utopias - and that this matters too us. But these contained utopias, and why they matter to us, are hard to articulate. This doesn't really translate well into the idea of museums as shared spaces - there is, as Lyotard noted in The Postmodern Condition, a problem of communication.

In Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, Khubla Khan is regaled by Marco Polo with tales of the cities of the empire, in a paradoxical situation in which the Khan can never know that which he rules. He has lots of data, lots of information - but does this, he questions, add up to knowledge of his empire? Perhaps there is a void around this information, a space which he cannot see or know.

The unreliable storyteller, Marco Polo, is thus employed to tell him of those unknown, unspoken - perhaps unreal - spaces. Perhaps, then, there is something in fiction, in the unknown, and the unreal, there is something to be learned.

There are, Will claims, two forms of knowledge here - that of the Khan, of principles and normalities, and that of Polo, which is of exceptions, contradictions. Whilst the Khan adds exceptions to create reality, Polo extracts them - Polo looks for those spaces in between, and rather than 'reality' is left with a mass of unknowns.

Eventually, the Khan realizes that the ability to rule the empire is not to privilage either rules or exceptions, but both. In order, then, to enhance the museum's personal, private elements, one of the roles of museum-makers is to be, not just the Khan, but to be Marco Polo - to let the fantastic, the imagined, in.

In her research, Elee has been amazed by the huge variety she has found in children's responses to the Oxford Museum of Natural History. In normal life, she has to be a Khan, has to analyze the data provided by the photographs she collected in her fieldwork. Today, however, she's Marco, and presents us with some of the children's inner museums, personal spaces. These are fascinating insights into the inner life of very young individuals, and the focus which they choose to take, from action, to people, to dinosaurs and scary things.

Each of the children, then, has experienced a very different invisible museum. And they will do so when they return at a later time; as do we all. These experiences are hard to articulate, but they are critical in making the value, and meaning, of the museum. And perhaps they exist, no matter what we do.

I would point out, that of course, we still can't get to the actual experiences these children had - and, being in the past, they'll never be able to entirely revisit them either. Elee has mediated these herself already, and we are ourselves mediating them again, creating our own, internal, invisible imaginings of the utopian museum-cities the children built. There is more than one kind of truth - but truth, of a kind, can exist - built in the interstices, built in the configurations - however momentary these configurations are.

At the end of Invisible Cities, the Khan asks about the infernal city. it seems, sometime, that we as museums are living in an inferno of funding cuts and stringent rules. We can, as Polo suggests, either capitulate and become a part of the flames, or we can make space, allow the 'invisible matterings' of museums to endure - it is, then, that we as professional practitioners and researchers should realize that there are things that we can't measure, research, or every fully know, thus to foster, protect, nurture, those private, strange spaces, which no-one, perhaps, will ever really know.

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