The Worlds' Museum

If my son is learning to enjoy museum visits, it is mostly thanks to my mother. When I was a child, my mother, a teacher of art history, would take me on countless visits to museums of ancient art throughout Italy. She would explain to me the paintings and the objects, often using technical terms that I did not understand but that remained in my memory for years to come, like enigmas that I would eventually decode. She helped me create a familiarity with the peculiar pace of looking at an art piece, and with the psycho-biological rhythm of moving across spaces dedicated to images.

Aside from my mother, my son owes part of his enjoyment of museums also to the fact that both my parents had to work long hours at school, which I would often spend alone in a desert classroom nearby. That was when, to break the boredom, I begun to expand the memories of our museum visits and my mother’s impromptu tutoring, towards the imagination of fully fledged worlds. I would reshuffle those disconnected images and words, I would think of some music that would be roughly reminiscent of what she told me about the artworks, of some bits of films or pictures from the boxes of toy soldiers with which I loved to play. And slowly, over those long hours of waiting, I would begin to imagine the world from which those artworks emerged. Of course, my imagination was neither precise nor philologically correct. I would combine the little I knew or remembered, filling the gaps with pure invention. I would have my friends and myself become part of the scenes I was imagining, and I would sketch a bad drawing on my notebook of what clothes we would be wearing and what would be our names in that world. I would invent the beginning of a story, until eventually it started to flow on its own. Like every child, I was playing – and like any player, I was making-world.

I am trying to replicate a similar effect with my son, hopefully without the long hours of boredom. When the two of us start looking at a historical time, be it the age of Marco Polo or that of Napoleon, I begin by playing some music from that time to set the mood. We keep it in the background while doing something else, and then I would drop a few hints about what it was, and when it dated back to. Then I would tell a story from that time – anything with a strong narrative and a few relatable characters, often embellished with the twists, turns and customisations that make a plot enjoyable to children. Once that narrative is established, I would begin to show a few images from that time, taken from a book or from the internet. This process would take days, perhaps weeks, and it would be important to find something (like an extended and playable narrative), that would keep the spell intact across time. I would look for a table game or, even better, an open-world videogame related to that historical time, and I would explore that world with him. I would look for a cartoon or a suitable film set in that time, or for snippets of documentaries, and we would watch them in bits, to avoid it becoming too boring. Often, we would make up names that would relate to that time, and we would enter the narrative that I would be telling him, playing the characters and modifying the story together. Along the way, I would tell him how the people of that time would have actually reacted to the situations of our story, and sometimes we would criticise or make fun of them, but most often we would go with the flow and start acting like them. I would shift the narrative to include more events and elements from actual history. And finally, but only then, I would take him to a museum to see a few works from that historical age. Weeks or months might have passed since the beginning of our exploration of that world, but by that time, indeed, we would both be steeped in a world – and the objects of the museum would make sense at last.

I am aware of it: I am describing the long process of educating a young child, while at the beginning of this text I was planning to write something about an expanded idea of museology. But my experience of going to museums has taught me that there is little difference between what a child requires to enjoy a museum visit, and what any museum goer needs in order to make their visits to the temples of art and archaeology something more than half-hearted pilgrimages.

This is, at least, what I need. Going to a museum can work, for me, only when I am able to look at a painting and hear in my mind the music that activated the painted architectures, feel the smell of the scenes depicted, the rhythm of the movements of its characters, the particular worries and beliefs of the painter and of their assistants, the turmoil in the street outside their workshop. Having a very detailed historical or sociological understanding of the context from which a particular artwork emerge is not enough. Information alone is never enough, not even when it is well catalogued and widely connected. To have a true understanding of a painting by Giovanni Battista Tiepolo, for example, one must be able to hear the music of Vivaldi and to imagine the combination of sweet, sour, mineral and putrid scents of an 18th century Venetian street. To move beyond a painting towards the ideas and emotions that the artists and their patrons intended to evoke, one must be able first to dream into existence their whole world, replete with their fears and illusions.

Unless I am on a research visit to see a particular piece, going to a museum often leaves me with a sense of frustration. Especially when its collection is superabundant and wide ranging, my ability to make-world begins to wane under the fatigue of moving between too many objects and different ages. The artificial silence, the sanitised smell, the white walls, the light, the bored crowds shuffling among the objects as if through a foreign a graveyard evoke in me only a profound sense of melancholy. How many visitors, I wonder, are able to make-world in front of anything they are seeing? And what kind of museological setting would help us to imagine enough of the world of an artwork, to start hearing its hidden song?

As I used to do in an empty classroom during my parent’s school meetings, when I am in a museum I often find myself imagining what its rooms would look like, if they were to bring their treasure alive. Like back then, my imagination is just the fantasy of a profane. But I have a clear sense that any museum that fails to evoke the entire world-atmosphere from which its works originated, will inevitably fail most of its visitors, and it will thus contribute to the devaluation of museums themselves.

A museum would have to display a small collection of objects and artworks, accompanying them with captions at multiple narrative and academic levels. The texts would have to contain both an accurate description of the object, an expanded section on the social context of the time, a philosophical opening on the beliefs that subtended the object, and a final part – dispersed throughout the museum – that would connect the works within a strong underlying narrative.

Curators would have also to think carefully about the scenography of the rooms, while avoiding to transform the museum into a theme park. The scenographic criterion, unlike a theme park, would be the activation of the different elements on display, rather than the thrill of entertainment. Music and sound would have to be a central item of the installation – how can one visits a gallery of Venetian baroque paintings or of Medieval devotional icons, without appropriate music? Equally, the smellscape would have to be an important feature, at least within the limits allowed by health and safety.

Poor video re-enactments with famous actors dressed in costumes and floating in the void (as they feature in many ‘public-friendly’ museum) should be avoided. A museum should have in its staff a choreographer, a dramaturgist and a scenographer specialised in the particular era of its focus, to help design that atmosphere, which ancient Hindu theories of theatre defined under the name rasa as the very essence of theatre.

The bookshop should not be entirely divorced from the library but it should be connected to the free educational facilities, while the chill-out area of the café or garden should include high quality ludic and video-ludic elements related to the museum’s focus.

Scholars and staff consulting the library should not be kept apart from the public, but their passage in and out of the labs and offices – like monks and nuns walking in and out of their cloisters – should offer a glimpse into a mysterious and wonderful career that any child could dream of.

A museum should avoid carrying any signs relating to their immediately external surrounding – especially not anything about national pride, as it’s often sadly the case – but they should be metaphysical vessels capable of transporting their visitors across the boundaries between worlds, towards the development of a deep understanding that the whole World is, indeed, just a collection of different worlds.

Museums should embrace their multiple missions as places of archive, research and public education, where the latter function is conducive to nourishing the future of research. And the best way to set the conditions for the birth of a new researcher, as many of us still remember, is to help them create an entire world inside their imagination, where a certain object or image – otherwise seemingly banal – can come alive as the centre of an indefinable desire. Indeed, as the centre of a world.