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 Second Sounding: A Museum Ideal Lost in Translation to Reality

The 1920s were a turbulent time in the Rhineland; the horrors of the Great War were still felt, here and across Europe. But in 1925, the Millenium Celebrations saw the birth of the Rhineland Museum, and this institution is the basis of Katrin Heike's PhD thesis, which details its history from its birth, until its death in during the Second World War. This institution was seen, from it's conception to its opening, as something of an ideal; and it is these ideals, their change, and their eventual loss, which are the focus of her presentation today.

The Rhineland Museum is a utopia in more than one way. Having been an ideal, wonderful site, it has since become a utopia in a second sense - a wonder which can never, now, be fully satisfied. I do wonder how true this is of many museums; given that they often begin from ideals and aims - including those related to those of minority and marginalized groups discussed by Richard - and how often they bump up against practical reality and changing political contexts.

To begin in 1925: the new Museum was given a commission, limited to showcasing the economic and social ideals of the Cologne mayor. It was to be put together by experts, and strove to present the history of the Rhineland, in social, political, cultural and geological terms from prehistory to the present - certainly a laudable aim, and, as many attempts have shown, probably somewhat utopian in the second sense. The museum had no collection, or building, of its own at this stage. Only an idea.

The institutions aims had to acquiesce to reality, however, over the next few years, and the golden dreams of 1925 suffered from financial difficulties. Even though it was the mayor's favorite project, the global and local economic crisis had its effect.

For the sake of completeness and didactic reasons, they used casts and models for many of their objects - partly due to low purchasing budgets, and because many existing museums held the originals. Does that, I wonder, make this utopia a simulation? And if so, what implications does this intersection of the authenticity dialogue with that of the ideal and utopian have for the collecting habits of museums, and the ways in which they present objects and topics.

A few years after the first concept was developed, it was decided that the museum be built on former army barracks. A new museum building was never really considered, and thus the driving concept behind the institution had to be modified. The 10 thousand square meters for the exhibition planned in the original commission had to be rather altered.

What was to be presented, and how? Again, we come back to the question of authority. As we thought about in Richard's presentation, who decides what to present - what was thought to present the 'best' of the Rhineland, what was the best didactic environment in which that could be presented, and who decided? Of course, in 1933, the Nazis came into power, and they had a significant hand in the shifts of the Museum in the period until its opening. It's name, in this period, was changed to the "Haus der Rheinischen Haimat" - emphasizing their ideal of homeland. Utopia, then, is contingent, and the Utopia of one may be the hell of another. Even still, it won the Parisian Gold Medal in 1936.

After the war, it is interesting to note how the old museums destroyed, including the Rhineland Museum, should not be reestablished. It was too close, too painful. Both ideals - the original, and the later - were lost.

Katrin questions, then, whether we settle a utopia in any particular site - they're contingent, specific, and can change. Like human rights, they're negotiated, and dependent upon the context in which they're presented. Can we, in these situations, find any certainty, have any practical impact? Hopefully, the later presentations we see will show this to be the case. Thank you, Katrin, for making us think, and showing us a lost dream.

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