The National Museum : 19th Century Ideas on Tactile Display

The museum experience has a bad rep with the modern traveler: between crowds of onlookers obstructing the view of popular works of art, staff with an unpleasant air of bureaucratic authority and transient feelings of being overwhelmed at the sheer numbers of unfamiliar objects to be inspected in seemingly never-ending successions of glass cases within oppressively large buildings, many art and culture lovers nowadays may well prefer the controllable intimacy of a small exhibition or historic house visit, or turn to the digital collections and virtual displays that many museums provide instead of visiting the dusty and musty museum. It’s not only that digital displays give people from faraway locations a chance to see important works of art they could now otherwise see. It is also that those who are near enough a museum to visit it, often choose not to. One of the reasons, I’m sure, is the ability to look for works of art in a more goal-oriented manner than the typical museum is designed to encourage, which is rather more for browsing than searching. This is only a small tip of the iceberg that is the remove between us today as a culture consumer, and the audience of our forbears for whom these shows were really put on.
The classic „National Museum“ that graces many a European capital with a large, impressive stately building somewhere in a prominent location of the city centre—think British Museum, think Berlin Museum Island, think Paris, Budapest, Prague—is a testament to the 19th century forma mentis that likes to classify and catalogue, to collect and archive, and most of all, to own culture.
Museums appeared all around Europe during the 18th, 19th and part of the 20th century to store and display cultural treasures such as ancient Graeco-Roman or Renaissance sculpture, pottery, or paintings acquired abroad under mostly controversial conditions and by infamously famous archaeologists such as Lord Elgin or Heinrich Schliemann. Back home in the all-new, all-industrial megalopolis of the new colonial empires, modern gentlemen with electric lights in their homes and the ability to telephone, could then wander up the grand new boulevards, step into the tall museum through a marvelous gilded fence, and, perambulating underneath the archways and colonnades of the house’s neoclassical architecture, instruct themselves in the art and thought of ancient Greece and Rome. Archaeological museums were not all: science museums, natural history museums, museums of modern art, soon a plethora of museums rose to success, simultaneously as the educational system slowly began to broaden its social reach and to diversify itself in academic disciplines.
This somewhat caricatured impression does, if nothing else, allow us to see by contrast how different we are today, how traditional national museums are not an easy fit for the global citizen. Dubbed „a museum of a museum“ or referred to as „the last colonial museum in Europe“ for its brazen distortion of historical fact and misrepresentation of Africa, Belgium’s Congo Museum perhaps is the most clear-cut emblem of our own times’ estrangement from the past. Or take the Museum Island in Berlin, which was badly damaged during the Second World War, and was considered unworthy of much repair in the 1950s already, and left more or less abandoned. It eventually re-opened its doors properly in the 2000s, raising more questions than it answers.
The old museum buildings are positively huge, infinitely intricate in their design, difficult to maintain, and difficult to change. In many cases, they were purpose-built for the presentation of their particular content, so that changing anything around inside the galleries might be out of the question. This in part explains why, instead of overhauling these gigantic museums (or even museum complexes), arts councils in many European cities rather gave the go-ahead to brand new arts and culture centers, which mushroomed all over Europe, throughout the early 2000s, to provide space for the arts and performances of our own age—some were absorbed into the city’s culture and instantly became irreplaceable, others, like an arts center called „the Public“, located in the UK Midlands, attracted vitriolic news coverage after not succeeding in its mission as expected and/but leaving behind a trail of arts funding drainage. Certain museums have thoroughly restructured and reinvented themselves and manage to transcend the sclerotic anachronism pressing upon them. The British Museum, for instance, has undergone several dramatic changes in order to keep up with the flow of time and change, as has London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, to name but two examples, and the world of museum enthusiasts awaits with curiosity what exactly the Belgian Congo Museum will do to update its look and stance—a decision is imminent. Nowadays in museums, we can sample the artifacts offered, and also, we can contemplate the medium, in all its gigantic layout, its classificatory obsession, its highlights, its distortions, its omissions. In the time that museums have begun to seem less exciting to the mainstream of culture lovers, they also have inadvertently become a difficult-to-erase, tactile and interactive display of the history of ideas in Europe.