Thursday, 3 January 2013

"To say" and "to do": why objects in museums are not self explanatory

If we focus on everyday-life items, archaeological museums have many issues in common with ethnographic museums. This is why I am reading a book written by a great Italian anthropologist, Alberto Mario Cirese, who I was lucky enough to have as a teacher some years ago.
The classification, interpretation and display of objects in ethnographic museums was one of its main research interests and I found papers and books such as Oggetti Segni Musei (Objects Signs Museums) still incredibly relevant to the present scholarly debate.

Cirese complains about the practice of exhibiting everyday-life items on walls or in glass cabinets with little or no information about their use. Curators are biased because they already know how the objects were employed, so they assume this information is easily accessible to the audience and it is somehow embedded in the objects themselves. 
Not only experience tells us that this is not true, but, according to Cirese, logic suggests it as well.
Aesthetic objects, as statues or paintings, have a strong communicative value. They are objects meant “to say”, to make themselves comprehensible (through logic or emotion) to the viewers. This is why they tend to work quite well in museums or even in churches or streets.
But everyday-life objects such as looms, pots, tools, machinery they are not meant “to say” something but “to do” something, to work instead of communicate. Thus they lack the visual information necessary to be understood at first glance. Nonetheless, when they are exhibited in ethnographic (or archaeological) museums they are supposed “to say about how they work” as they have suddenly became self explanatory only because they have been moved to a museum context.

Obviously, there are many intermediate positions between this opposition (my language skills make it very difficult to render in English such an effective terminology as the one used by Cirese who opposed «segnico» to «fabrile»). For example, as Cirese reminds, there are objects that have both a practical and a communicative function such as ex voto

Ethnographic Museum in Formentera
from formenteraweb
However, in an archeological context where so many information about use are lost, even these kind of objects need to be contextualised to be understood (figurative votive offers to ancient divinities might be not as understandable as the ones closer to the scholar’s own cultural background). It also worths to mention what Leroy Gourhan called «aesthetic functionality*»: the attempt of good craftsmen to achieve best practice combining pleasantness and functionality, use and decoration.

Cirese claims that the only way to make objects understandable to an a non expert audience (ie an audience that has no idea about the original use of the objects themselves) is to recreate, as much as possible, their context of use. In case of tools, he believes it would be mandatory to show the object IN USE, to communicate its very relevance. 
The task is not easy, especially with those objects whose context is not fixed (a house, a shop) but intangible (or «volatile» as Cirese would have preferred to say) such as rites, games, celebrations.
According to Cirese, a realistic reconstruction (with mannequins, for example) wouldn’t have been effective because the attempt to reproduce reality is doom to fail and it is bound to be disappointing if not ridiculous. On the contrary, a synthetic representation that is explicitly not realistic but identifies and isolates only those characteristics of reality that are relevant to the exhibition purposes, could successfully deliver contextual information.

It really saddens me that Professor Cirese is no longer with us and I would be really happy to ask him if, in his opinion, non-realistic 3D digital visualisation could serve this purpose and even suggest new opportunities. 
I genuinely think so.

 (*my translation from Italian)

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