Museum Exhibitions and The Book

November 23, 2009 · Print This Article

51Dsc65rx7L._SS500_I’m fascinated (alas, only from afar) by the Louvre’s Special Guest program and in particular with its use of acclaimed novelists as guest curators. (I’ve posted on this program before, here). The Louvre has featured Toni Morrison in this capacity in the past; right now, the novelist and semiotician Umberto Eco is unveiling a series of exhibitions and other programs relating to the topic of “The Infinity of Lists” which draws upon his book The Vertigo of the List. This, along with an email from one of our readers (hi Elizabeth!), has got me thinking about the relationship between books and museum exhibitions – and in particular about what happens when novels are the inspiration for museum exhibitions – or even for museums themselves.

Recently Eco was interviewed by The Art Newspaper about his year-long series of programs for the Louvre. In the article, Eco says that Homer’s Iliad served as a conceptual starting point for his “Lists” project:

“The starting point for my ‘list of lists’ was Homer’s Iliad: firstly the creation of Achilles’ shield by Hephaestus, which not only symbolises perfect form but is in itself a work of art on which is engraved what is considered an allegory of the creation of the universe, an overall vision of Homer’s world. And secondly, the part where he lists all the ships leaving for the Trojan war.” Eco plays with these two opposing dimensions—perfect form and the list—in an attempt to rationalise the world. “The shield of Achilles is the epiphany of form, and every picture in an artist’s search for that form is a shield of Achilles,” concludes Eco. “Behind each list is the sense of ineffability.”

Related is this New York Times article, sent to me by the aforementioned “Reader Elizabeth,” on the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Orhan Pamuk’s creation of a museum of the objects that appear in each of the 83 chapters of his novel The Museum of Innocence.  Located in “a narrow 19th century building” in Istanbul, Pamuk’s Museum will contain things like salt shakers, figurines, keys, and a quince grinder. The protagonist of Pamuk’s book, a man named Kemal, falls in love with an ex-beauty queen named Fasun. Kemal begins to collect objects that remind him of his love and which, eventually, he uses to create a museum/monument to her. Pamuk describes the role that objects played in the writing of this novel as follows (the author of this NYT article is Negar Azimi):

“As I wrote this novel over the past 10 years,” Pamuk told me, “I encountered everyday objects that would make their way into the story. At other times, the story would demand an object to keep it moving, so I would bring one in. When I am stuck, I cast about looking for ideas from objects around me. My perceptions, or you can say my tentacles, are wide open to everything in shop windows, in friends’ homes, in flea markets and antique shops and so on. This is how the Museum of Innocence came about.” (Click here for a slideshow of objects from Pamuk’s Museum).

Pamuk’s accumulation of mundane objects as sources of literary inspiration seems related to the process of list-making that so fascinates Eco. And Pamuk’s Museum– the physical one, that is–also appears to be built upon a foundation of Lists.  In the photo essay accompanying the NYT article, Pamuk says of a collection of old keys housed in his Museum:

“The key is an ordinary object. I want my museum to be modestly filled with the ordinary things that make up the city, that make up any city. I want my museum to be a museum of the city, to include everything from street maps to locks to door handles to public telephones and the sound of foghorn.”

In Pamuk’s case, the book and the Museum exist symbiotically. Where does the book end and the Museum begin? I like how both Eco and Pamuk are creating museum exhibitions that are very much dependent upon objects and yet, they remain wide-open to interpretation and fantastic conjecture–in other words, to the imagination. And I love how the viewer in both museums is inescapably, unapologetically, positioned as an imaginative “reader” of texts and of artworks – an idea that for me is summed up by Eco, who  says of his exhibition:

“I want to invite people to go beyond the form of the physical limits of the picture, to imagine the etcetera, a very important concept that suggests that it may continue. I want to invite people when they look, for example, at the Mona Lisa to go beyond what is most obvious and to observe the background landscape and wonder whether it extends into infinity—something that Da Vinci perhaps intended. To look at a picture as if we had a movie camera that would do a travelling shot to show us the rest.”

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