On Tuesday 24 of November, ECLA faculty members and students gathered at Berlin’s Institute for Cultural Inquiry to celebrate the launch of a book co-edited by their very own colleague and friend, Laura Scuriatti. The Exhibit in the Text: The Museological Practices of Literature represents a fascinating journey into the influential role of museums in literature throughout the centuries.
Starting in the eighteenth century and continuing up to the twentieth century, the book edited by Laura Scuriatti and Caroline Patey explores the way in which the presence of the museum as a setting, or of the concepts associated with museology, have shaped literary works. Amongst those discussed are The Ambassadors by Henry James, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey, Romola by George Eliott and House of Life by Mario Praz.
The evening started with a warm and brief introduction delivered by Prof. Dr. Thomas Rommel, who highlighted the importance and topicality of the subject-matter. Laura demonstrated its richness in the hour following with an inspiring presentation of the threads of inquiry that the concepts pertaining to the sphere of the museum – such as collection, classification, catalogue or taxonomy – can produce. She noted its crucial significance in contemporary literature, for example in the books of Umberto Eco, Orhan Pamuk or Dan Brown.
For many authors, the reference to museums provided more than a mere setting for the development of events. Museums contain an underlying metaphysics, in the sense that they represent structured and open accounts of what the world is and its way of being as it is. Collecting objects is thus a means of imposing a world view, through structure and explanation, and as such constitutes an attempt to translate infinity into a human format.
Further on, Laura talked about the principles by which a collection is assembled and how any collection contains a narrative line. In this way, any collection reveals itself as a focalized and narrated way of perceiving a series of events or objects through the perspective of a single subject. In a collection we have an open system of objects which belong together solely by the virtue of their being assembled by a certain person.
Behind the practice of collecting lies a two-step process: the first step is a negative one that implies stripping the objects brought together of their function and their meaning; the next step consists in providing the respective objects with a new value as part of the whole. Through this process we are provided with a new ontology; the objects of a collection fail to communicate their original meaning and gain instead a new significance dependent on their place within the collection.
Museums appear to be more than receptacles of public and private memory: they can recreate the world, a new world, from elements that were created in the past, solely through the act of assembling them in a specific way and investing them with a different and subjective meaning. Thus, putting together an exhibition is an operation that raises questions about the self: not only about the self of the collector who chooses which elements fit together, but also about the self of the visitor who follows and believes in the story created by the exhibition.
As an extension of the topic discussed by Laura, we continued the evening by viewing the screening of Nowhere Home. Space and Place in British Modernism, a documentary written by Caroline Patey and directed by Giulia Ciniselli. The film addresses the relation between the literary text and the site where it comes into being, inviting the viewers to wonder about the ways in which space may affect the literary creation.
The footage shows the architecture and landscapes that accompanied the writing process of some notable British writers, as the camera travels from London’s scenery of gardens and frenzied streets to where Virginia Woolf and Ford Madox Ford stepped towards the seaside of St. Ives in Cornwall. Back in London, we enter the austere room of Virginia Woolf with just a small desk and a drawer, and later on take a peek at Rudyard Kipling and Vita Sackville West’s sumptuous houses. Ciniselli and Patey’s film traces the geographical route which accompanied these authors in their writing, walking and day dreaming, as in an attempt to uncover, through the revealing of the places themselves, the muses that had dwelled here.
Later on, I approached Laura for a discussion about her passion for museums that constitutes the background of the book she just launched:
DM: How did your interest on the relation between literature and museology develop?
LS: Living in Berlin makes it is impossible not to get involved and interested in the history and meaning of museums. Since I moved here in 1996, the city has undergone a sort of musealization, a transformation into a huge museum of world history. The city lends itself to it, of course, not only because of its recent history, but also because large parts of it, notably the Museumsinsel, have been extensively rebuilt or created anew to house museums and to become themselves sites of memory.
I have been following the heated debates about the management of memory and the past which exploded every time a new project was announced, and have started questioning the very institutions, their claim to authority, their impact on people’s perception of history and learning, their role in the formation of taste and their political and social functions.
And the idea for a book on the subject followed naturally…
The idea for the book was the result of a stimulating discussion started a couple of years ago with my former professor of English literature at Milan University, Caroline Patey, who had been researching this topic for a while. I was working on the Italian literary and art critic Mario Praz, who was an avid collector and created a museum in his own apartment in Rome. My first visit to the museum was an eye-opener, and after reading Praz’s own autobiography, written as a guide to his own museum, I started exploring the connection between literature and the museum in depth, also with the help of other colleagues. It turned out that many people were thinking about similar questions, but that there was hardly any comprehensive study on the topic – so we decided to have a go with the book.
I saw that you have previously given an elective at ECLA entitled ‘Museums, Collections and Literature’, in 2008. To what extent do you feel that the idea of the book that you edited grew from the work and interaction that took place during the elective and also how did the class benefit from the idea of publishing a book on this specific topic?
Museums are strange phenomena: most people visit them and are interested either in the exhibits or in the buildings, but take the institutions themselves for granted. I decided to teach the course because I realized that the type of questioning our project was proposing would fit the framework of Value Studies offered by ECLA. I thought that students might be interested in thinking about museums in political and historical terms too. The manuscript of the book was entering its final stages while I was teaching the course, and it was a wonderful experience: students’ questions helped me to look at the book more critically and gave some really interesting ideas for my own chapter too.
by Diana Martin (AY ’10, Romania)