The Missing + The Present = The Story

In 2002 I had the priviledge of participating in a Jessie Ball duPont Summer Seminar for Liberal Arts College Faculty at the National Humanities Center.  The seminar I engaged in was entitled, “You Must Remember This: The Creation and Uses of Cultural Memory.” One of the pivotal moments of that three-week experience was when the artist Fred Wilson spoke with us about his work in creating museum exhibits where juxtapositions of objects, or lack thereof, make an impact. For example, when Mr. Wilson created an exhibit at the Maryland Historical Society, he included pedestals with busts of people whom most visitors would not know (and yet these people had busts stored in the Society’s holdings). He also included empty pedestals with names that most visitors would know, like Harriet Tubman; such pedestals were empty because these famous citizens did not have busts stored in the Society’s holdings. As noted in a case study of Mr. Wilson’s work, “What they put on view [or own] says a lot about a museum, but what they don’t put on view [or own] says even more”–that message has stayed with me for over a decade. As we toured museums in Russia, that idea echoed in my mind.

Early on we visited the Kremlin. A museum located there, The Armoury, has a glorious collection of objects which were part of the tsars’ lives. As we passed display case upon display case of stunning tableware and elaborate vessels for drinking games, I was thinking about the stark contrast it would be to show everyday people’s tableware. Moreoever, the vast amount of space needed to house the tsars’ wares was surely much larger than the space needed to house a typical family’s wares. If we created an infographic for the size of the collections, the tsars’ objects would dwarf that of typical families’ wares. By contrast, if we created an infographic of the number of people who used the objects we saw on display compared with the number of people who used the typical family’s objects, that great difference in size would be reversed. So much space is devoted to documenting the lives of such a small number of people; so little space is devoted to documenting the lives of the masses. This point hit me even more strongly when we viewed the section of the Armoury with Catherine the Great’s wedding dress and other finery. Our guide told us that one of the dresses had so many tiny stitches applied to get the precious jewels and pearls onto it that the creator went blind. The artifact to mark a life of hard work was surely beautiful and the artist may even have seen it as a masterpiece. Yet the dress was one of countless dresses–at least one woman owned 15,000 dresses–and this fact seemed to emphasize how little the lives of many were valued. The lack of even a plaque to tell some of the artist’s story reminded me of Fred Wilson’s message–what is not present in a museum says even more than what is present.

Being mindful of what is missing in a museum complicates the story being told. Similarly, being mindful of the placement of what is present in a museum can also enrich the experience. For example, on our last full day in Russia, several of us visited the Museum of the Defense and Siege of Leningrad (I mentioned some of this in a post about Navigating “Normal“). The layout of the museum echoed those 900 days of Leningrad under siege: the story of the war surrounding the city was told along the walls (red markers in the photo of the museum map below), while the story of life within the city under siege was told in a center island (green markers below). Moreover, a beating sound emanated from the center displays. At first I thought it was a clock in a reconstructed room from the city, but reading further we learned that it was a metronome that was played after radio broadcasts ended for the day. “The Heartbeat of Leningrad” let listeners know that they were not alone in the city.  Walking around the innner displays, surrounded by the displays about battles and soldiers, all the while hearing the heartbeat, brought me into the museum’s story in a meaningful way.

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As a self-proclaimed “museum rat,” I look forward to many more visits to the world’s collections.  On each visit, I will be looking for what is missing as well as how what is present is displayed.  Fred Wilson has convinced me that negative spaces are important (see also my post about the Heroic Defenders of Leningrad Memorial), as are juxtapositions of objects.  The Museum of the Siege and Defense of Leningrad has underscored how physical organization of artifacts can further draw a visitor into the story.  I hope that you, too, will be mindful of these messages on your next museum visit.

2 Comments on “The Missing + The Present = The Story

  1. I loved the insight in this post about museum design and the significance of what is (or isn’t) exhibited. On a similar topic, I have been curious by historic ‘monuments’, especially where they are constructed (or converted) and how they are presented to the public.

    Last spring, I took Dr. Cho’s Bioarchaeology class. In it, we learned that the location of burial sites in relation to the living population is telling about that society’s views on death, the body, and past generations. But what does a city’s relationship with its historic monuments tell us? What is the difference between creating modern apartments next to medieval homes and setting up security cameras and X-ray machines inside famous forefathers’ homes?

    In the US we tend to line our monuments in strategic locations that are accessible to tourists–like the motley of presidential dedications in Washington DC. And these monuments are very clearly distinguished from the current society–their sole purpose is to BE the past. Not the present. The excessive security, ticket booths, hot dog stands, lines, and fanny packs that surround these national monuments further distance the citizens from the histories these structures witnessed. Once, a great man died in this room. And since then, no one else has lived here. Too often with our historic structures, once the great historical event took place, the story of that building ceases and a stagnant monument frozen in time replaces it.

    But it seems like in Europe, the distance between the past and present is not so monumental. People can go to regular church services in medieval temples. Plazas that witnessed Reformation massacres and Soviet throwdowns now house Starbucks and Christmas markets. European monuments merge into the living history–their stories do not end once soldiers exchange gunfire over hallow ground. So what if children go to school in a monastery established by Philip the Second of Spain? What if a tremendously disturbing and revealing statue commemorating the victims of communism is in a pedestrian park in Prague? What if the Red Light District is constructed around Amsterdam’s oldest cathedral?

    If history is best remembered as a story versus a hundred-pack of notecards then why are all of our historical monuments plaques and information brochures? Why must we make experiencing a historical event be a special outing or noteworthy occassion? Why can’t we just stroll in a neighborhood in a suburb of Stockholm and stumble upon unmarked Viking burial mounds guarded by an 800-year old tree? By separating ourselves from the remnants of the American past we signify that history does not affect us now–that the past was then and this is now. But is it really?

  2. Sarah’s fascinating comments gave me a new angle to think about the time I visited the Petersen House (across the street from Ford’s Theater) where Lincoln died. My response to entering the bedroom where a president died was to be solemn, yet the middle school boys in the room at the same time were jovial. For years I attributed this difference in behavior in that “secular shrine” to the difference our ages, 20 years old as compared with roughly 12 years old. That may be part of it, but I think Sarah’s point helps me understand at a different level: while in that room, I was connecting with the past and those boys were in the present.

    Sarah’s comment challenges us to think about how separate past and present are, or alternatively, how tangled they may be. One of the first times I taught my seminar on Reminiscence, students raised interesting questions about what is and is not included in autobiographical memory. One student was born in the U.S., but said her grandparents’ and parent’s experience as immigrants were part of her identity—but were they part of her autobiography? That particular group came to the consensus that the woman’s conversations with her father and grandparents about their experiences were part of her autobiography because she experienced those first-hand, but the immigrant experience itself was not part of the student’s autobiography.

    Experiences of others can be part of our identities even if they are not part of our autobiographies. The Reminiscence student’s self was grounded in being a child and grandchild of immigrants who faced challenges that she did not. Like that student’s older family members who shared their stories with her, museums and monuments serve to share cultural heritage and reinforce the importance of historical events in our present identities. Again I return to the questions I was mulling in the Location, Location, Location post: where is the most effective place for a monument? If monuments are part of our everyday experience, such as in the hallways of a St. Petersburg university, are most people so caught up in the present that we don’t notice them, or do they permeate our consciousness and become part of most people’s present selves?

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