When museum turns into theatre: the culture of display between conservatism and production_Abstract: September, 1st, 2010.

full name / name of organization: 
Altre modernità/ Otras modernidades/ Autres modernités/ Other Modernities Università degli Studi di Milano
contact email: 

It was as early as 1920, while collecting his famous essays in a book – Vision and Design – that was to exert a huge impact on the Western artistic culture to come, that Roger Fry postulated his famous theory of the importance of form over content in the modern work of art. While form addressed a system of perception that was basically sensorial, content was directed to a "restricted", logical and cognitive system. It was in this context that Fry mentioned with nonchalance a new kind of display aimed at altering the museum system as a whole. It was a new disposition of the things inside museums, one that had very little in common with the traditional, analytic approach in which works were displayed according to their artistic school or the cultural movement they belonged to. Fry's concept of display aimed at conveying a more intense experience, essentially visual in its nature and capable of reminding the visitor of the essence of the myth and the ritual.
Although over the last few years some of the largest museum institutions in the world have experimented with new approaches to display, the most interesting developments of Fry's formulation have been put into place by small-sized museums, less burdened by institutional responsibilities and "expectation horizons". In the Swiss Hallen für Neue Kunst museum in Schaffausen, halls have become sequences of open spaces, and artists are comprehensively represented by cluster of works. The result is a series of superimpositions, conjunctions and mutual influences that generate unusual readings and unexpected comparisons. All the artists belong to the same generation and show a similar artistic disposition, and yet the exhibition strategy can produce a new beauty, a new kind of art deriving from proximity or juxtaposition, from affinity or contrast, as well as from the museum's openness to receive oversized works or even authentic 'subsets', or villages. In this example of display, a museum can communicate the 'significant' form, that peculiar 'vision' that Roger Fry theorized a long time ago, in the Twenties, as well as a sensual – or even tactile – emotion for the viewer.
Given the historical, educational attitude aimed at preserving the national identity, the contemporary museums seem then to test, in given places and at given times, a departure from the old nineteenth-century standards that arranged paintings and sculptures in received patterns of display. In this new exhibition and planning context, it can be helpful to define one or more typologies of display and to postulate a hypothetical, ideal model of exhibition strategy – i. e. a basic aesthetic structure to be taken as the starting point for new art visions. The contemporary museum finds itself precisely at this point of intersection between different areas of artistic experience. It is changing its skin, leaving behind the ethics of reception as something pertaining to the connoisseur exclusively in order to meet visitors on their own grounds. No longer guardian of the muses, or metonymical repository of precious simulacra, the museum has now risen to the role of producer, more than receiver, of culture, becoming the place where art is born anew and again. And it diffusely employs narration – of verbal or visual nature – as the key to the message it wants to convey. Image and word fuse more and more in a compound that tends to assimilate, within the increasingly developing area of Museum Studies, more disciplines such as the new technologies of image digital processing and representation, the old didactic vocation for the grand public, interior design, luminotechnics – just like a modern theatre, whose discursive practices the museum increasingly shares. To study the status of contemporary art and aesthetic exhibition, and the modes in which the museum heritage is mediated, is now of the greatest importance in order to promote innovation and to leave a visual and critical mark, in touch with the origin of the debate started by Roger Fry more than a century ago.
Likewise, the great conceptual novelties that characterize contemporary museums have produced significant effects in terms of the symbolical relation between word and art object, stimulating new reflections on the museum locale as a place looking forward to where and when a series of events are to occur. Hence the dialogue between literature and the museum. If, in traditional museum organizations, art was frozen in the immobility of precise aesthetic and ideological categories aimed at defining the cultural perimeter of national, social and individual identities, in contemporary patterns of display the questioning of that very immobility implies a search for new ways to stage cultural identities and, at the same time, the wish to produce new clusters of meanings, different genealogies, and further identity proposals for cultures and subjects involved in the museographic space. As the museum is the keeper of the art of memory – in the variety of its possible constructions and in the novelty of its contemporary subjects (for example: migrations, holocausts, the very notion of civilization and of the centre-periphery binary) – it is clear that it has been taking on the features of a metaphoric place as well as those of a historical place in the literal sense. Among the goals of this issue of Altre Modernità, therefore, is the analysis of the museum image as one that recurs significantly within the literary discourse, both as a scene and as a symbol, through which the relation with encyclopaedia may be posed in new terms while new representations of modernity are being produced.

In this perspective, the following research directions are suggested:
• The history of the preservation of culture operated by the museum in different epochs, as connected with the rise and fall of nationalist affirmation and imperialistic expansion of the various European countries;
• The affirmation of new cultures of display and of Museum Studies, along with the modern theorizations of museum structures and functions;
• The notion of the contemporary museum as a producer, as well as a receiver, of culture and artistic happenings based on different representative modes;
• Literature and museum;
• Redefining national cultural identities through the redefinition of spaces;
• Museums of memory.

Of course, different proposals aimed at broading the suggested theme will be seriously considered by the Scientific Board in order to enrich the exploration of the leading issue with the most articulated and original trends. Abstracts in English, French, Spanish or Italian (10-20 lines) and a short cv must be sent to amonline@unimi.it no later than September, 1st, 2010.
Acceptance will be notified by September 30th, 2010.
Accepted papers must be sent by January 15th, 2011, for publication by late March 2011.

We look forward to receiving also reviews and interviews to authors and scholars concerning the set theme by the set deadlines. In order to make this issue a homogeneous whole also from a methodological point of view, and to share views set by the editors, the latter are available for a talk and/or a discussion of the themes through their email addresses or the Editorial Secretary.