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

5 November 2013

Transmutation #9 - Things are changing: about objects and exhibition design in German Museums

Mario Schulze, a PhD student at the University of Zurich, studies changing approaches to design in the museum. Today, he speaks to us about objects, and exhibition design.

He begins with a picture story, telling the shortened version of his presentation from the end to the beginning. He begins with the display of 'Commodity Beauty - a Time Travel', held at the Martin Gropius building in Berlin. Four years earlier is the next image, in the same institution: 'Impermanent exhibition of the permanent collections'. The 1987 exhibtion, 'Pack Ice and Pressed Glass', is the next to be shown. The next selections come from Frankfurt Historical Museum - the first being 'Women's Movement and Women's Everyday Life' of 1980. 1972's 'Destruction of Frankfurt in the Second World War' follows. The last image was taken in 1968 in the permanent collection of the Rothschildpalais in Frankfurt.

Stories of clearing and installation take place inbetween these displayed stories. Connecting histories of design between theories of objects and things allows Schulze to ask 'what is a museum object?', and 'what does exhibition design derive from these ideas of objects?' Between the 1960s and the 2000s, the object changed from a relic of the past, a voiceless thing, to something with a voice, a present relevance in the material now. And this change is reflected in the attitudes of museums, and how they themselves develop. He understands 'things' as abstract, rather than constant fundaments of reality. Things are always a collection of materialities, environments and sociality.

This idea of material things, taken from social science, is crucial for museums, particularly those which are explicitly about identity. There are stages of this development: objects as direct evidence, the mistrust of objects and their replacement with texts, and the return of the objects as newly nuanced and multivalent things.

The Historical Museum of Frankfurt was founded in 1878. 1968 saw the opening of the first permanent exhibition to be built after the second world war. In 1972, the Museum moved to a new brutalist building, and responded to ICOM's call for museums to have more public relevance. It had the first Children's Museum in the country. The museum sought to be attractive to all, not just the elite.

But curators were sure that everyday workers were not interested in the objects, and that they objects were mute to them in a way they weren't to connoussiers. So they created a walkable guidebook, privileging text. They were criticised for this, told they were degrading objects. In 1980, they reacted to this by integrating a lot more objects. The Women's Movement and Everyday Life displayed integrated pictures, too, but most interestingly, perhaps, they installed a pool setting - indicative, according to the curator, of female liberation and emancipation, as well as evidence of everyday activity. In this installation, a small jar of Nivea cream becomes a semiophore - indicative of meaning, of youth, women's lives. Now objects can convey political messages - if shown in the right context, the objects become texts.

The Archive of the Werkbund Berlin, the Museum of Everyday Life, wants not just to display the everyday, but set out for a new reality. As in Frankfurt, the displays were intended to be inherently political. The exhibition titles show this impressively: as does Pack Ice and Pressed Glass. In the first room, Dreamy, there are no texts - only the catalogue, not supposed to be in the display, is the meaning of the room explained. These objects are not just to be deciphered, but to experience and sense. But the enterprise seems to have its head in the clouds - how are you supposed to not understand, and feel, when you are being told to decipher all the time?

In the 'Impermanent Exhibition of the Permanent Collections', the Museum displayed itself, but also its continuing commitment to political discourse. It was supposed to give a feeling of the mechanical operative construction of our everyday lives. There is no text, but again, an abstract message. The things alone talk, remind us that they are dependent on them, says Schulze - but I do wonder how much this presupposes the inherent meaningfulness of things.

So, what is an object in a museum? The only way to answer this is to focus on what a museum object was and what it will be. He tried to tell us of the history of material objects, and of the material turn, in two institutions. What things are, and can say, Schulze says, is bound up with people who select, the environment of display, and the people who look. And this is, as Schulze reminds us, inherently related to dialogues of power. Who has the right, and the ability to make meaning?

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