What belongs

Mary Beard

  • On the Museum’s Ruins by Douglas Crimp
    MIT, 348 pp, £24.95, November 1993, ISBN 0 262 03209 0

There are more than ninety Holocaust Museums in the United States. Thousands of Americans, it seems, are forsaking their traditional Sunday-afternoon session of art-appreciation or dinosaur-gazing, in favour of an hour or two in front of some of the most horrifying images of the 20th century: naked corpses, emaciated survivors, gas chambers. Film footage, of murder, death and dying, that would cause an outcry if shown in the local cinema (let alone on prime-time television) has become ‘family viewing’ in the safety of the museum. The official publicity for all this, of course, is unwaveringly high-minded. It talks piously of commemoration and education: the modern museum should encourage us not only to wonder at the glorious achievements of the past, but also to reflect on, and learn from, its ‘mistakes’. Who could fail to be moved by these displays? Who could fail to welcome a new role for the museum as stirrer of the nation’s conscience?

These pieties have their point. Most museums would be much more interesting places if they engaged the consciences of their visitors, as well as their curiosity or aesthetic sensibilities. All the same, as critics of the new (grandest of them all) Holocaust Museum in Washington have pointed out, pious museology finds it harder to package the Holocaust than it might like to admit. The Washington Museum (motto: ‘For the dead and the living we must bear witness’) falls into all the obvious traps, for all the worthiest of reasons. It is not just that the stark, modernist display of the instruments of death has the effect of turning them into works of art (people already take photographs of these objects; presumably postcards will be on sale soon). It is not just that, in the end, the Museum has been forced to recognise the pornographic quality of its film footage by erecting four-foot high walls in front of the screens to ‘protect our younger viewers’. It is also the question of what the display does with the people who were the victims or survivors of the Holocaust. What can the Museum do to ensure that they do not become mere sideshows, the necessary props in ‘The Auschwitz Experience’?

One problem is clear enough. How do you get the visitor to make any sense of the individual tragedies that make up mass genocide? The Washington solution is a disconcerting version of the charities’ ‘adopt-a-victim’ scheme. As you enter the Museum, you are given an identity card – which matches you up (right age, right sex) with a victim or survivor of the Holocaust, and gives you some basic biographical information about your ‘twin’. Touring the Museum from the rise of the Nazis to the Final Solution, you can check out their fate on the computer screens, until (in most cases) they are murdered. So far, so good – in a way. At least, you are forced to recognise that those people hounded by the hundred into cattle trucks en route to Treblinka were not that single, easy category of ‘pitiful victims’: they were as individual as yourself, right down to their aching feet and stuffy noses. But what do you do with your identity card when your visit is over? Take it home for the mantelpiece, perhaps, and make your Holocaust victim an unusual souvenir of a memorable Sunday afternoon? Or maybe, as Philip Gourevitch observed, just throw it away as you leave the show? After all, the museum Holocaust experience always comes to an end, and your victim can easily be dumped with the trash when you’re safely back in the sunshine – a neat replay of annihilation you might think, if you paused to think.

Underlying all these dilemmas, however, are bigger questions about museum display, about what is (or should be) on show. Can the Holocaust be presented as a museum object? Does it expand the museum’s traditional frame of reference, challenging the comfortable view of the past that goes along with its carefully ordered regime? Or does the institution, in the end, always win? Do the display cases, the labels, the information panels inevitably turn objects and images we scarcely feel able to look at into things that we must see, simply in order to do our job as visitors? Does the museum contain the Holocaust only by labelling it ‘history’, a series of past crimes that we may now observe from a safe distance? What if we were to object that the Holocaust was not ‘history’? Should we then demand its removal from the sanitising grip of the museum?

What, in short, belongs in a museum? On this side of the Atlantic, displays of torture have remained firmly in the realm of fairground display, or its modern equivalent. There is no movement to reclassify the London Dungeon or Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors as ‘museums’; while, for all the virtual reality of its ‘Blitz Experience’, the Imperial War Museum takes care not to be a sideshow of gore and guts. In Britain, debates about the nature of the museum object have focused on other types of display; and there are changing definitions here too. Why, for example, is the South Kensington Natural History Museum now filled with honking, moving, life-size (plastic) dinosaur models, imitation (plastic) rain-forest, and interactive-video displays that will, at the touch of a button, show you film of flies eating dung, or nesting gannets? Why have the rows and rows of stuffed animals and birds (dead, but real) been removed to where only the most intrepid visitor might find them? It is not merely the philistinism of the current management (though it is certainly partly that – try the ‘Mini-Beasts’ display, if you’re in any doubt). Also at stake is a re-definition of what a museum is for, and what should, and should not, be inside it.

The curators of the new Natural History Museum would no doubt claim that its aim is to encourage interactive learning, touching, doing, not peering in wonder from the other side of the glass, hands held behind your back. A worthy enough aim, you might say, until you stop to reflect on what this interactive regime actually allows you to touch. Does it manage to break the iron law of museology, that anything they let you get your sticky fingers on can’t possibly have been worth touching in the first place’? Of course not. The consequence of turning the museum into a hands-on (rather than ‘eyes-on’) experience, is inevitably to remove what is real and valuable, and to replace it throughout with plastic imitation. We are left with a cheap video arcade, masquerading under the name of ‘education’. But there are other factors at work as well. The stuffed birds have not been taken away simply because they are too precious for us to touch. Far from it. They have been relegated out of the public eye because they are now deemed unacceptable objects of display: Victorian trophies, shot in the name of ‘science’, an appalling relic of past cruelty. The Museum is ideologically committed to the new, acceptable face of Natural History, to cameras not guns, observation not murder; the relegation of the birds is a statement of principle, part of a moral crusade.

These changes add up to a comprehensive attempt to deny the Museum its own history, to conceal (as far as its triumphalist building will ever allow) its Victorian ancestry, its origins among the stuffed birds, tiger-skins and elephants’ feet. Such an enterprise of concealment runs strikingly counter to a growing orthodoxy, which holds that the real object of display in museums is the museum itself: its past, its building, its staff, restaurant, shop, labels, visitors, as well as the objects in the cases. The beauty of this orthodoxy is that it can embrace so many different versions of museology. It is not restricted to a Post-Modernist obsession with the status of dehumidifiers as art objects, or with the self-reflexivity of the visitor’s gaze (literally enacted, if you want, with the help of a few mirrors). It can take on board the traditional museum connoisseur too, giving new life to the old debates about (in the case of the British Museum) what colour to paint the front hall, or the design of the display cabinets.

The question of what ought, or ought not, to be inside the museum remains, however: the question of authenticity and its threats. Where do we draw the line between the ‘real thing’ (which some simple definition might make the proper object of our museum gaze) and the ‘cheap imitation’ (fine in the souvenir shop, but not in the display cases)? The ‘real thing’, of course, turns out to be more elusive than the unpractised museologist might imagine. A 19th-century photograph, or a plaster cast, brings us closer to the reality of the Parthenon than the eroded hunks of marble that are its ‘real’ remains. And in some cases the ‘reality’ of the past only exists in forms of reconstruction or imitation; it just depends which kinds of imitation you prefer. After all, those great dinosaur skeletons in the front hall of the Natural History Museum are only copies, no more real than the new honking, heaving (plastic) flesh-covered versions. In rejecting the dinosaur sideshows, perhaps we are doing no more than ranking skeletons (real or not) above moving bodies as our preferred objects of museum display. At least as far as prehistory is concerned. In the Holocaust Museum, skeletons would be unimaginable. There the place of reality (the reality of death) must be taken by a variety of proxies: the fittings of the death-camps, and film and photographs of the murders – with all the risks of voyeurism that that entails.

Douglas Crimp’s On the Museum’s Ruins is a contribution to these wide debates on the nature of the museum object. A collection of nine previously published articles (plus a new Introduction), it focuses on the place of photography within the museum. What difference does a guaranteed place in the museum gallery make to the art of the photograph? Why was it admitted to the museum so late, so long held to be antagonistic to painting, the principal museum medium? And, more crucially, does photography now threaten the ‘museum’s epistemological coherence’, heralding ‘a crisis’ of the museum movement? Crimp offers a series of different, often perceptive answers to these questions, explicitly changing his mind over the period of some twelve years that separates the earliest from the latest piece in the collection. And (appropriately enough) he illustrates his text with a selection of museum, and other, photographs by Louise Lawler. These neatly encapsulate the dilemma at the centre of Crimp’s book: are they simply photographs of museums (of labels, picture-frames, shrouded antiquities, plaster casts, well-known galleries), or are they also museum objects in their own right? It is in many ways a thoughtful collection of essays, and a thoughtful juxtaposition of text and image.

Nevertheless, even the most sympathetic reader is likely to feel that On the Museum’s Ruins is the kind of book that gives Post-Modernism (whether in museology or beyond) a bad name. It is hard to resist a smile of disbelief when Crimp ponderously discusses which is the more revolutionary art form: Robert Mapplethorpe’s nudes (appropriating the style of ‘classical’ photography for explicitly gay eroticism) or Sherrie Levine’s re-photographs of earlier photographs of Ed Weston (appropriating quite literally the material of classical photography, in the attempt to ‘interrupt the discourse of mastery through the refusal to reinvent an image’ – copying, to you and me)? Sadly, even Lawler’s provoking images are not immune to this kind of abuse. In an article entitled ‘The Museum’s Old, the Library’s New Subject’, Crimp turns to consider Ed Ruscha’s Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations, a book of photographs of precisely that, which he found in New York Public Library misclassified (understandably) under ‘Automobiles and Highways’, rather than in the art section. His discussion is illustrated with two of Lawler’s photographs, showing the book lying ‘casually’ open at different pages (the Standard Gas Station at Amarillo, Texas clearly visible in one image; a couple of Mobil stations in the other). The point is presumably to reaffirm the status of Ruscha’s book as art object, simply by seeing it through Lawler’s lens – a book of photographs turned into the focus of a photograph. Maybe for some readers it will act as just such a reaffirmation. My own view is that games like this were a silly waste of Lawler’s talent.

Crimp’s book may seem a long way from the Washington Holocaust Museum. But he too, sees a form of tragic annihilation at the centre of new questions about museum practice, and about the definition of the museum object. Now that photography has been incorporated within the museum, its place has been taken, as object of exclusion, by ‘Aids activist art practice’. It is, for Crimp, the ‘aesthetic responses to Aids’ that turn out finally to expose the limitations of the museum as an institution – bereft of an appropriate reaction, forced to reject the political, and to turn into a merely aesthetic fetish the images of death that Aids produces. Maybe the curators of the Holocaust Museum would do well to read some of Crimp’s strictures. The rest of us meanwhile may prefer to hope that the museum will never triumph over this particular terrain; and to put well out of our minds the prospect of some future ‘Museum of Aids’, complete with identity cards and videos of dying.