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.
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.