How do you create a museum
Why is a museum visit worthwhile? Because of the art, of course. But not only
An art museum can also be a haven of retreat: from noise, cold, dust and rain. And an art museum, that can be a lot more. A praise for the idleness in the temple of leisure.
Museums are always good for a break. I discovered this for myself at an early age and thus developed a private survival tactic in a hectic world. In large metropolises in particular, I sometimes call museums like safe ports in a storm.
When big cities are sometimes demanding and the sightseeing program leads to exhaustion at some point, then the museum is a welcome refuge for me, where I can find protection from noise, dust, heat or cold and rain. Museums are centrally located, you can find them straight away, everyone knows their location, the app anyway. Last but not least, there are always clean toilets in a museum, often before the cash register has to be passed, and above all without the annoying delay, which can be caused by a need to explain or to consume in a restaurant.
In a museum, you are completely free from the constraints of consumption. And you don't have to negotiate with anyone, let alone communicate at all. In a museum it is pleasantly quiet, people only speak in a low tone. Any encounters can be avoided with averted gaze fixed on the walls. And you can move freely in all directions, usually under pleasantly subdued light. You can always find a bench to sit down and rest. You can stare through the picture on the wall or with a blank look at the floor. You are simply not obliged to do anything here, and yet you are comfortable for a few hours.
Even the pretext for such a break could hardly be better: You have finally said goodbye to the respectable realms of high culture. And this without being harassed by them - which cannot necessarily be said of going to a concert or theater.
Space for doing nothing
At one time, museums, too, had compelled me to be educated. Visits to museums in the tender childhood days do not all survive harmlessly. There are supposed to be people who, as a matter of principle, no longer visit museums, because they are convinced that what they once experienced has set an example in them, and that they do not lack the necessary respect for art. Fear of the threshold is called the symptom of this.
For my part, I do not avoid the awe-inspiring walls of museums, but I do evade the compulsion that they may embody. Since I've been using museums for a break, I've been undermining their educational mandate. For me, temples of the muse are temples of leisure. Where else can you drift along so wonderfully as in a museum? You don't have to do anything here, you can be completely passive.
Churches can hardly offer anything like that. There are no toilets in churches, the freedom of movement cannot be compared, and the somewhat hypocritical appearance that one has to give oneself, or the feigned interest in art and architecture in order to legitimize one's existence, severely diminish the experience of the stay. But nobody is interested in their own disinterest in the museum. Even hurrying through the galleries at a brisk pace gives at most the impression of having a very specific work in focus. If the art is too boring, people can also be observed here wonderfully unnoticed, because in museums they are completely absorbed by the exhibits.
Most of the time I end up in the collections that I prefer to the special exhibitions. Here you have your peace. These rooms are never overcrowded. And so you can communicate more undisturbed than at any other place in a lively city with yourself about the basics: about God and the world, about all the questions that have always haunted people. Because everything is given here for it: gathered in the form of works of art that ask these questions of their own accord - in an unobtrusive way and without the imposition of ready-made answers.
A picture is a silent counterpart. To a certain extent, it invites you to take a break from participation, as the German philosopher Lambert Wiesing puts it. A work of art leaves it up to me whether, how and for how long I want to deal with it. The museum promises a very special freedom in this. A freedom, too, in which one or the other stimulation, inspiration or even insight can unexpectedly jump out.
Oasis of freedom
The museum is a special kind of public space, a quiet experience space, an open space perhaps like a park, but also a protected space for questions and thoughts of all kinds, which are shielded from the duties and constraints of everyday life. A museum is an island in the demanding public of the urban area. And the certain flair of the dusty in certain museums contributes positively to one's own unproductivity, which one can indulge in in their halls: nothing more luxurious than being in such a place.
For me, a visit to a museum is often an occasion and purpose for relaxation - especially if I'm not primarily visiting a museum for the arts. The encounter with art as a side effect usually triggers something unexpected. And be this unexpected alone - the appearance of art. Since art is no longer celebrated reverently in our museums as it was a generation ago, these institutions are extremely suitable places that make it possible for precious moments to go beyond oneself, to be placed outside of oneself.
In front of a puzzling work, you suddenly find yourself standing a little bit next to your own shoes. And being “off the mark” quickly turns into being with the thing: One is amazed or “blown away”, as certain people express their enthusiasm. Works of art in particular are particularly suitable for initiating such an experience, because art is often the expression of something incompatible with the world.
In this way, museums also become zones of reflection for me. Art creates encounter, and in this encounter, above all, distance. Ideally, Aby Warburg museums should have imagined themselves to be «spaces of prudence». In a museum something is conserved, stored, and thus also brought to a standstill and lifted out of the rapid flow of time. The ideal place to pause for a moment.
And museums are not outside the world, but right in front of our feet, in the middle of the city and in the middle of everyday life, which can be continued here so wonderfully under completely different conditions. Why is this anarchic act of changing from ordinary to completely different everyday life so successful? Because, in principle, art is the most superfluous thing in the world. Or would someone want to claim that art has a concrete use value? It is true that museums today are very keen to mediate with events of all kinds. They want to demonstrate the benefits of art for the population. And thereby above all legitimize their own existence.
Which brings us back to the much-vaunted educational mandate. But this imperative to sell something useless as useful stands in a rather irreconcilable relationship to art. Because art evades and refuses to a certain extent such social constraints. This is the art museum's dilemma. And it is precisely in this area of tension that there is the enriching freedom to sometimes think around all possible and impossible corners in the face of art.
Museums free the mind. And they even liberate art itself to a certain extent. Propagandist or ideological art, religious art or protest art is freed from all of its historically determined agenda in the museum. Exhibited as an exhibit and thus to a certain extent placed in quotation marks, every form of art in the museum is de-ideologized, as the German art historian Wolfgang Ullrich puts it in a nutshell.
The museum deals with art in a democratic way by making it available. What we think and think of her and what we want to find out about her is nowhere prescribed. Let alone the art itself. It's different in a church, in a presidential palace or at an art happening, where art tries to impose its program on us.
With such freedom, an art museum fulfills its educational mandate sufficiently. All the mediation actionism in the form of programs, performances, workshops, museum education, symposia, artist talks and lectures is not needed. In my opinion, creating a spiritual space that is at a distance from the outside world is the most important and highest task of a museum. The museums should think about that again.
Book recommendation: What does the museum have to do? What can the museum do? A dispute between Ulrike Lorenz and Wolfgang Ullrich. Verlag der Buchhandlung König, Cologne 2018. 80 p., Fr. 11.90.
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