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A museum in alterity
Attempt at a laudatory speech for the team of curators at Kolumba
Laudatory speech on the occasion of the award of the 2009 Museum Prize by the Kulturstiftung hbs to the team of curators at Kolumba, 5 March 2009.
We are in a building that is not short of recognition. Since its opening almost one-and-a-half years ago, it has found attention, very wide attention indeed. In fact, it has almost become a metaphor for a new museum perspective, a perspective characterised by increasing museological reflection. This new perspective can be read as a reaction to a sustained boom that remains unabated to this day: over recent years, the museum has enjoyed an incredible career unparalleled in history. Recently, the sociologist Heiner Treinen, doyen of museum research in Germany, has spoken of the museum as the most rapidly expanding cultural institution in the North Atlantic cultural sphere other than electronic media. Without doubt, Kolumba, too, cannot be conceived of without that boom. But the way the venerable Diocesan Museum, through Kolumba, turned into a museum in alterity, a counterculture, a self-willed critique of the mechanisms of the boom, is courageous and astonishing, much praised and exemplary – it achieves this through its architecture and through its expository format, conceived of, and put to the test by, the team of curators, which has now skilfully and successfully presented it for the second time already.
It is the view of the judging panel for this award that curatorial performance is of equal merit and value to that of the architectural statement. The latter has already received its prize, currently on view for all to see at the German Architecture Museum in Frankfurt, in an exhibition dedicated to Peter Zumthor and Kolumba as recipient of the German Architecture Prize 2008/09. It is open until 15 March. The high praises sung on Zumthor’s work by architecture critics – focusing on the assertion that Kolumba represents a rejection of the increasing tendency to turn architecture into a spectacle, that Kolumba takes a stance against the Bilbao effect – also apply to its curatorial principle. The latter is based on a concept that derives its stimulating energies from the interplay between architecture and museal installation.
It is a symbiotic constellation where one points to the other, and one challenges the other productively. It is impressive how this concept takes a stance, through both inspiration and discipline, against the mainstream of current museum culture, in the same way as has occurred through the logic of Zumthor’s Kolumba architecture. It refuses the Fumagelli trend, a trend named after the Swiss architecture theorist Paolo Fumagelli, which states that the expansive museums built in recent years have created ever more event spaces and circulation areas at the cost of storage facilities, study halls, reading rooms, and object and image installations that expose themselves to the long and calm gaze – the very space offerings so highly valued at Kolumba. Concentration and diminution are ranked ahead of expansion and delimitation. The curatorial mission practised here pays homage to a principle formulated some time ago by the art historian Hans Belting in terms of the ‘museum as a place not of sensation, but of reflection’. This corresponds to the asceticism and purism for which Kolumba has been praised by architecture critics. And this very principle shows to its best advantage in the rooms’ disciplined interiors. Even though it is aware of the cognitive and aesthetic impacts of the space, the museum does not operate a spectacle-like cult of the space, but instead allows the exhibits to come into their own with their individual qualities and effects. Undisturbed by explanations and written commentary, they appeals to sensory perception – and that is, after all, what aisthesis means.
Kolumba is indeed a ‘place of perception’ as described in the curators’ own declaration in their review of the first year: a place where forms of perception are practised, sharpened and refined – calmly and unagitatedly, but guided by circumspection and inspiration, an inspiration characterised on the one hand by a sensitive, clear view of the present, and on the other by an informed, academic view into the history of images and the knowledge of their impacts. This is also demonstrated through the retrospections of museum history that are brought into play knowledgeably, relating to a variety of contexts. An example would be the art and relics chamber: when looking at it, we get a sense of what we no longer are, but of what still shapes our cognition, perception and perspectives. First and foremost, the art and relics chamber conveys the pivotal idea of the European museum presented by the British Middle Ages historian Peter Brown. In his book The Cult of the Saints: Its Rise and Function in Latin Christianity, he demonstrates how strongly the idea of authenticity, which still shapes European object culture, has been determined by a cult of relics. The intermediate, connecting link is the chamber of treasures and marvels and its subsequent impact on the development of the European idea of museums.
In order to avoid theological misunderstandings: the space at Kolumba is not called ‘chamber of marvels’, but armarium (= armoury). It is staged as a permanent installation, in contrast to the interplays taking place in the other spaces where image arrangements change on an annual basis. The armarium reminds us of the fundamental importance of the art and relic chamber in museum history – not in a didactic, explicit and strained way, but instead incidentally through visual and interrelation contacts. In the same way, using a second example from museum history, it reminds us of the interplay between depositing and exhibiting that is deeply engrained in the history of the European museum. Even though an almost explosive expansion of exhibitions in museums has taken place before our very eyes in the decades at the turn of the millennium that we have just lived through, the productive relationship between preserving and displaying, meaning lively display, has been a feature of European museum history right from its very beginnings, even in those centuries that did not yet know the term ‘museum’ as we understand it today. This side-by-side existence of substance dormant in the museum and matter awakened in varying exhibitions is drawn to our attention by Kolumba’s curators.
The beautiful, revealing example of substance dormant in the museum and matter kissed awake through display comes from an early museum essay by Vladimir Nabokov that was included in Kolumba’s 2003 Anniversary Booklet, this being evidence of the long search for a well-considered and innovative museum concept, in which innovation clearly draws impulses and energy from the traditions of the institution concerned as well. Depositing and exhibiting – both terms describe the programme of Kolumba. Here, museum work consists of two different, but interconnected modes – on the one hand, the potentiality mode (as the comprehensive deposit of image and object culture, stored deep in the cellars at Kolumba), and on the other the mode of actuality (being the collection of ‘semaphores’ in the depot that has been provided with a new, present perspective and is constantly added to). At Kolumba, this occurs by preference via contemporary art, art of high international rank: Bill Fontana, Richard Serra, Georges Rouault, Rebecca Horn and many others. In this way, unusual dialogues right across the centuries are created. Contacts are sought with science (for example, in Manos Tsangari’s Low-Tech-Machine), with everyday life (as in Jannis Kounelli’s Tragedia Civile), with literature (in Serra’s sculpture) or with politics (as in Marcel Odenbach’s DVD projection). Even with these installations from 2008/09, we sense that the curatorial work is permeated by a passion for analytical effort, for dialectic play, for permanent reflection.
The new is reflected in the old, while the old is refracted in the new and perceived in a new way. Impulses from the present are absorbed or counteracted. Kolumba draws on legacy to gain in balance, but also to confidently argue against the calculated terror of images in a visually charged environment. All this takes place with a light-handed curatorial approach – everything is sensuous, accessible and appealing, without the pressure of proposing a thesis or compulsion of evidence, but arranged in a clever and skilled manner. The design concept is clearly based on knowledge, interpretative competence and secure judgement. Thus, Kolumba stands for a museum concept that serves not solely the preservation and safeguarding of traditions (something it has been doing for 150 years), but also seeks contemplation and challenge. What is presented in constantly modified, even dislocated arrangements seems like a GPS observation station in the general flood of images we are surrounded by. It is no coincidence that the current installation, opened in September 2008, was called a Place of Deceleration. It seems as if Kolumba wants to turn itself into a leading institution in dealing with images, where ‘image’ is perceived as an open category.
Kolumba is a most persuasive museum and, apparently, also one that is successful in attracting visitors. It is a model that deserves an award and acknowledgement, thanks to its resourceful and knowledgeable dynamism, its solidity and its self-reflexive confidence. And the fact that this acknowledgement is provided in the form of the hbs Museum Prize is no coincidence, since it is an award driven by similar motivations and principles, and by the same desire as the Kolumba concept. One might almost gain the impression that the Museum Prize by the hbs-Kulturstiftung has been invented especially for Kolumba. But the prize is now more than ten years old, and has been awarded several times – to institutions that have attracted attention because of new and creative, but also well-founded presentations. These were a natural history museum that works with both poetic and provocative models, a science museum testing out new PUSH (Public Understanding of Science and Humanities) strategies using mathematics as an example, and a literature museum that dissolves rigid space contours with its scenographical design, and thus turns much-maligned flatware into something like interactive object arrangements.
The Museum Prize of the hbs-Kulturstiftung is therefore not only a prize for museums, but one that is first of all consistently focused on museographic innovation, and secondly expressly for curatorial work. The foundation organising the Museum Prize explains its purpose as follows: ‘The main award recipients are exhibitions where unusual ideas have been realised; ideas that have achieved an individual complexion through aesthetics and didactics.’ And more specifically: ‘Our cultural foundation focuses its resources on the award of a prize for curators and exhibition organisers.’ It is an award that had its origins in the museum boom, too, but one that – in the light of the irritating effects of the boom – was, and is, focused on promoting new formats and new concepts; that is, smart, well-considered, reflected formats in accordance with Belting’s plea from 2002, whereby museums need to see themselves as a place not of sensation, but of reflection.
The Museum Prize of the hbs-Kulturstiftung is a prize that embodies a love of the museum, but mainly a determined interest in reminding the museum again and again of its potentials, namely its didactic and aesthetic ones. The prize was endowed at the peak of the boom in 1989 as an intervention to provide an impulse to the deliberation on the museum and the activities carried out within. We have to thank the Schirnigs for this initiative – Brigitte and Dr. Heinz Schirnig who, with their expertise and their passion for museums, wanted to intensify and strengthen the reflection on museums, not just in a discursive way, but also through the support and promotion of new ways of display and new expository test arrangements.
The selection process for the 2008/09 award provided, for the first time, for an individual proposal to be made, and for this proposal to be confirmed by the panel of judges that had been active for several years. Confirmation was unanimous – confirmation of a proposal that I had been permitted to make (for whatever reason). This is an unconventional process, but one that has the benefit of bringing a personal, subjective bias into the judging process. About one year ago, I was pleased to agree to the request, after a short hesitation – and it was not difficult for me to say ‘yes’ because, just before the request arrived, I had met the Foundation Board of the Kolumba Museum, and my walk through the spaces had impressed me. It was a momentous impression, and one not only due to Zumthor.
As a result, Kolumba was a strong hbs contender for me. Despite that, I did not have my eye exclusively on the new Cologne establishment. I visited museums around Germany, and I admit to a certain preference for the south, since the hbs Museum Prize had not been awarded there before. But despite evaluating quite a few museums and exhibitions, Kolumba remained the favourite. I admit that personal considerations in particular had fascinated me during my first tour, and these proved to be valid after long contemplation. It is those considerations which eventually determined my vote for Kolumba. Here, in these rooms, I found three constellations that I have always regarded as constitutive for a model museum. Firstly, it is the presentation of the museum as a laboratory, secondly it is wit as purpose and form of communicative transfer in the museum, and thirdly, and finally, the view of the museum as a place of challenge. These were and still are the considerations that I have made over more than 30 years of museum work in theory and practice again and again, and they confront me at Kolumba as being implemented in perfect form. I learned about the idea of the museum as a laboratory in the 1960s from Claude Lévi-Strauss, defined and formulated in his Structural Anthropology and implemented, to some degree, at the ‘Musée de l’homme’, in the ‘Musée des Arts et Traditions Populaires’ and at the Gare d’Orsay. ‘Musée laboratoire’ means changing installations, experimental arrangements, integrated material and mental tests, contact with science (or, more precisely, with the sciences) and, most importantly, the treatment of museum objects as epistemic, cognition-promoting objects. All of this I see at Kolumba: the change of exhibits, the variation of arrangements and the presentation of objects in ever-changing situations of enquiry and relationship. It is an epistemology of the specific that is being presented.
Visitors should leave the museum with their wits sharpened – such had been the claim by Walter Benjamin from the 1920s, a time where he had intensively contemplated issues of communication and popularisation in museums. A visit to a museum should make one not more learned, but more astute, i.e. reflective and being aware of full contemporariness, sensitive and secure in one’s judgement. And it is this ‘wittiness’ I feel I encounter in this establishment: the visitor becomes curious and sensitised, competent in the decoding of unknown interrelationships and combinatorics. Forms of the comprehension of symbols and the play with these are practised and turned into adept competence. For Benjamin, ‘wit’ is sharpness of the mind, acquired through sensory perception. It comes about situationally, just as ‘learning en passant’ is the specific of Benjamin’s perception in the museum. It is interesting that, a few weeks ago, Wolfgang Pehnt, in his praise of Kolumba’s architecture, also reminded us of Benjamin’s didactic principles: the ‘incidental noticing’ is more important to him than ‘strained attention’. Once more: what applies to architecture is constitutive for curatorial practice here.
Then there is a third construct that has struck me as relevant for the impact of a museum: the role of challenge. The first time I had been confronted with its significance was through the intelligent essay that was the preface to Hans Magnus Enzensberger’s Museum of Modern Poetry in 1960. In it, Enzensberger says: ‘The essence of the museum as a place of tradition is not consecration, but challenge’. Kolumba is such a place of challenge, but also one of tradition. It is both in one – and this is what constitutes its power and impact. According to Enzensberger again, the museum should ‘not mummify, but make usable’. These are three subjectively gained impressions that arose when visiting Kolumba.
During several visits, and when musing on Kolumba, a task that had been expected of me in this process, those impressions turned into arguments; good arguments, I think, for the award of the Museum Prize of the Kulturstiftung hbs to Kolumba’s curators.
N.B.: Comments motivated by the collapse of the Cologne City Archive were spontaneously prefaced to the laudation on 5 March 2009. This had occurred two days beforehand, and cast a shadow over the award ceremony. The shock of Tuesday’s catastrophe was still very much present on Thursday 5 March. These comments evoked not only the many professional contacts that had united the Diocesan Museum and the Archive, especially during the renewal phase, but also the sociocultural memory obligations that are common to both institutions – preservation, safeguarding and interpretation of the mobile (and therefore particularly endangered) part of the cultural heritage in its material form. In accordance with the tradition theory of the historian Arnold Esch, history not only generates traditions, but also destroys them – forcibly, deliberately, wilfully, negligently, etc. And because this is so, Esch pleads for us to constantly redefine our concepts of the ways cultural heritage is passed on, its preservation and utilisation strategies, and to constantly and critically assess the way we understand it – especially in light of such disastrous experiences of loss like in the Cologne catastrophe. At the time the Museum Prize was awarded to Kolumba, it was not yet possible to assess the magnitude and consequences of the disaster even roughly. But what was clear even two days after the catastrophe was the fact that Cologne had lost not only a physical ‘place of memory’, but also, mentally, one of the force fields of its political and cultural identity. In this sense, the considerations presented at Kolumba on 5 March were also a contribution to the reflection that is constantly required of the understanding of archival and museal places of memory. At Kolumba, on the evening of 5 March, a gain in the way we treat our cultural heritage was celebrated. The loss suffered by the Archive on 3 March that still cannot be evaluated today (21 March) in terms of its full extent, and its causes had not been pushed aside by the celebration but, on the contrary, took centre stage in terms of the discussions and the mood that evening.
Gottfried Korff is emeritus professor for Empirical Cultural Studies at the Ludwig-Uhland Institute of Tübingen University.
© Kolumba and author 2009
Publication, including extracts, permitted only with reference to the source.
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