Space is an intrinsic part of how we experience our everyday. We understand things in terms of how they are interrelated in space, and we use it to form mental connections and attach meanings. Space is also an essential part of how we experience institutional spaces, such as museums. Museums, as sites whose purpose is to educate and inform, can use space to frame a visitors understanding of their collection. This can be influenced both by the strength of individual displays and the spatial organisation of exhibition rooms. Because of the importance of space inside the museum, it is often beneficial to explore the role that it plays in the shaping the meaning of particular historical periods. This essay shall focus on the role of that space plays in museums of National Socialist, Jewish and GDR eras. Throughout the first half of the essay, the role of space will be assessed through the analysis of the display of objects in three case studies. Then, the second half of the essay will focus on the role of space in two museum environments, looking at how curators negotiate space to create narratives. The purpose of this two part analysis is to expand outwards from specific instances of spatial configuration to more general cases of space within the museum, exploring how these translate into messages for the viewer. Attention has been taken not to highlight certain display practices as conducive to the creation of concrete meanings as this is reductive, not taking into account how wide ranging, complex and personal audience responses can be. It is still possible however, to consider the intent of museum curators when using certain spatial techniques and devices to create certain implications. By working outwards the aim is to avoiding reducing the museum to a sum of its contents or a container without objects to provide a richer understanding of the role played by space in museums of National Socialism, Jewish history and the GDR.
The Jewish Museum Franken in Fürth, is housed in a building that was a home to Jewish families from the 17th to the 19th century, and is an impressive Jewish object in itself replete with its own Sukkah. The aim of the museum is to display everyday objects and judaica from the middle ages until today. This museum forms part of a collection of institutions contributing to the creation of a version of the past that constitutes a part of ‘collective memory’ of Jewish life in small towns like Fürth. In the gallery, rooms are styled so that they resemble the ‘white cube’ aesthetic, which distances the building from its original purpose as a house and transforms it into a museum. Each object appears on its own or in a calculated group of two or three in individual perspex cases, which stick out horizontally from the wall. If more than one object is shown in a case, it is provided with an individual white shelf, no larger than the object itself, so that the cases are not overcrowded. Due to the signification of the glass case as delineating things that are important from things that are not in the museum, the objects on display are given value. In the group relating to ‘Jewish entrepreneurship and social activity in Fürth’ the use of separation and elevation highlights the singular significance of a set of playing cards, a bottle of beer and a tin of tin of Lebkuchen biscuits. This arrangement takes them from objects that would have had been used in ‘normal’ settings in their past context to objects that are metaphors for the existence of jewish entrepreneurship. Paul Williams states that this revaluation provides personal objects with a false significance as they are being asked to represent a narrative that could never have been grasped for all its historic import in the moment. This effect is particularly pronounced when one views not particularly remarkable, unusual, valuable, or historically fraught examples of everyday objects, encased in plexiglass. This type of spatial configuration, with its consideration for the aesthetic of each object and their composition, is similar to the way that art is displayed in an art gallery. A particular an exhibition at the tate which uses a very similar display aesthetic was ‘Curiosity: Art and the Pleasures of Knowing’, a modern take on the wunderkammer, in which individual objects were fetishised for their aesthetic qualities.
When museums do not individually single out objects, but in fact do the opposite, a separate configuration of space occurs. This is the case at the DDR museum in Malchow, where the entirety of the space (a former cinema) is crammed full of objects left over from the GDR, donated to the museum by the community. This museum represents what Andreas Ludwig calls a ‘collectors museum’, where the material culture of the collapsing state became of interest shortly after the end of the GDR. The normal musealisation process did not occur to the objects of the GDR, there was no ‘garbage phase’ between the fall of the Berlin wall and the initiatives of private collectors to grab whatever they could. The result of that is that museums have more everyday objects from this time than in other historical periods, as all objects were selected as being culturally relevant. Due to this, not only does Malchow have every imaginable object from hair dryers to school books, it has many of the same type of object. The curators have chosen to emphasise this, as duplicate types of objects are accumulated together on display. Objects are classified based on what section of GDR life they belong to, these sections are configured as reproductions of ‘GDR spaces’. There is also no one overriding display aesthetic, the objects are shown on display cabinets and tables of all sizes. For instance in the ladies lavatory, dozens of soaps, flannels and other bathroom paraphernalia are displayed with little concern shown for their placement. The objects overlap and distract attention for the others in the display cabinets so the space looks crammed and unrealistic. Objects, through their accumulation in space, resemble a treasure trove of mass produced objects from the GDR. This might in turn cause the visitor to understand the GDR as the conglomeration of kitsch objects in rooms that emphasise ‘ostalgie’ more than the brutal reality of the stasi occupancy of East Germany. A visitor might view this collection of amassed brightly coloured soaps as a confirmation of the material culture of the GDR as ‘other’ or perhaps even backwards.
A museum might also recognise that an individual object has an important story to tell on its own, but it is perhaps one that is controversial or sensitive to the museums message. Curators then can use spatial configurations to reframe the object in question. Although constrained in how creative their response to this can be (viewers must be able to see an object) museums can chose to make use of the hierarchies attached to vertical spaces to manipulate objects within them and create or distort meanings. An example of this can be seen at the DB museum in Nuremberg. Opened in 1899 as the Bavarian railway museum, it can be used to consider the spatial treatment of objects sympathetic to national socialism as Germany has no national museum of the National Socialist era whose sole function it is to collect, preserve, study and exhibit documents and artefacts from the years 1933–45 or 1938–45 respectively. Of interest is the treatment of a particular bust, that of Julius Dorpmüller (24 July 1869 – 5 July 1945). He was the general manager of the Deutsche Reichsbahn and then the German Reich transport minister. In the grand entrance hall to the museum a series of busts line the upper half of the wall above the stairs. These are all busts of important men in the history of the railway, including railway pioneer Frederik Harcourt, yet the bust of Dorpmüller is missing from his plinth on the wall. While there is nothing atypical about the spatial placement or display of these busts, they are placed slightly higher than the average height of a person, forcing the viewer to look up at them. The experience of looking up towards the bust of an important historical figure has come to signify looking up in admiration, as Vitruvius stated ‘let the busts of ancestors with their ornaments be set up at a height corresponding to the width of the alae’. The bust of Dorpmüller is instead displayed in the section on Nazi Socialism that deals with the ‘gleichgeschaltet’ of the reichbann. In its current location, one has to look down on the bust, which is placed at floor level in a cabinet containing a number of other objects. The viewer might be aware that the curators have physically demoted the bust to a space usually reserved for objects of lesser value because of the intrinsic significations present in the hierarchies of vertical space. This placement of the bust to create the absence of Dorpmüller in one space and his presence in another could be read as the reversing of his role as a man to be admired into a man that directly implicated the railway with national socialism. Through the reconfiguration of space, the museums acknowledge a consciousness and take responsibility for their involvement in crimes of the past. The bust, erected to commemorate Dorpmüller is denied right to sit amongst the other busts in the entrance hall, and take its place in history.
The next two case studies are concerned with exploring the role of space in the arrangement of spaces within the museum building, which is articulated in the examples as a consciousness of the museum to their spaces and what they mean and how these can be manipulated to enhance the experience. The Jewish Museum Berlin is of interest here as it is a museum that is not housed on a site of ‘authentic’ Jewish material history. Instead, the building was custom built by starchitect Daniel Libeskind in 2000 to house the collection of the museum. The aim of the space was to create a visual and spatial language rich with history and symbolism, which not only houses the museum with its exhibits, but also provides visitors with their own unique experience as they walk through the spaces’. Whilst the custom built building may not have an indexical relationship to Jewish History, it claims to offer a metaphorical one. The path through the museum circuit, which represents the fractured Star of David, features dark and unoccupied voids where no objects are displayed. These voids have been described by Chametzky as ‘Physically confronting, intellectually challenging, and viscerally disconcerting’, their intention was to create spaces in which the physical absence of objects, would bring to mind the metaphorical absence of people. This hoped to provide a way of exhibiting the unexhibitable when it comes to Jewish History, the complete and total destruction of humanity. The architecture, with its winding zigzag and strange angles, was found to create a destabilizing effect on the visitor, somatically inducing feelings of loss, displacement and emptiness prior to its installation of exhibits in 2000. As a working museum space however, these complicated architectural features presented the museum curators with difficult and awkward spaces to deal with. Visitors might encounter the darker spaces of the museum, without any objects, and consider them as areas to avoid or move through without paying them too much attention. These voids, which aimed to invite viewers to contemplate the destruction of Jewish life in Germany and visualise their loss, end up being very abstract concepts for a viewer. The voids can be said to distract from the essential role of the museum, which is described by David Fleming as ‘creating experiences and stimulating impressions that lead to learning, and a new understanding of identity’. However, some, like Chametzky would argue that the building offers a unique opportunity to create a museum in which architectural philosophy and exhibition concept arise out of the same approach to the same subject. To this end, the curators have worked creatively with the spaces of the museum allowing the abrupt turns, ruptures, and voids to be presented as challenges but not barriers to continuity. Some of the more awkward spaces have been appropriated by turning them little nooks for children; working with the small, segregated areas to create mutually beneficial spaces where children can experience the museum in their own way. This is managed through the insertion of small doorways, creating passageways where children can walk through and often contain little displays. The disorienting nature of the museum, which was an issue for visitors in 2000, is controlled through the use of red stickers on the floor that guide people from one exhibition to the next, physically mapping out the space. This helps to construct and guide people through the spaces, providing viewers with an incentive and helping them to find their way. Interactive displays were used to provide visitors with a mediated experience of the unusually long staircase at the end of the Axis of continuity. These displays require active engagement from the viewer, which allows them to stay interested in the themes and content of the museum exhibit. These techniques of manipulating viewer’s experience of space lessens the chance of a unpleasant experience of the museum, but also the chance of an encounter with the sensation of absence and loss that the architecture intended, reducing viewer experience to ‘diasporic wandering’ around the museum as they might any other museum.
In some cases, filling up exhibition spaces with creative nooks and interactive exhibits is not how curators chose to engage their visitor with the content in their displays. This is the case for the Dachau museum, a memorial museum that was established in 1965 on the site of the former concentration camp. Its aim is to commemorate the suffering, terror and survival of prisoners in the camp. The curators of the exhibition have worked alongside the stark architectural features of the camp building to create spaces that do not lose sight of the suffering that happened there. In 2003, the museum opened its permanent exhibit on the history of the concentration camp, following the leitmotif of the ‘path of the prisoners’ hoping that visitors will in freedom, be able to relate to the path the prisoners took. It is clear from this that finding a way to explain the historic significance of the rooms is important to the museums message, and therefore the rooms have been left as bare as possible. In one of of the rooms, the “Schubraum” or prisoner baths, the room has been kept deliberately empty of all object based displays. In an attempt to heighten the impact of the empty space and provide context, a photograph of the inmates getting ready to forcibly shaved and disinfected has been transposed onto the pane of glass on the door so that is is aligned with the interior architecture. This aims help viewers visualise the photograph in the space in which is occurred, returning to the empty room a sense of the horror that once occurred within it, without the actual use of objects. The effect of this is quite ghostlike, highlighting the presence that once occupied this now bare room, which is in contrast to the object heavy displays usually associated with representations of Holocaust. The complete absence of objects in this space might counteract what Omer Bartov calls a ‘false sense of reality’ in using artefacts to bring us closer to the experience of the Holocaust. By focusing on the embodied sensation of being within a place, the curators bring attention to the ‘sited-ness’ of the room, attempting to bridge the gap between the ‘now’ and ‘then’. This is done by allowing visitors to walk in the room uninterrupted by displays and information whilst still being aware of the gravity of its original function, contemplating the absence. once again however, whether people notice this use of space and use it according to the museum’s desire is unclear, yet it remains an interesting technique to try and get people to grapple with the complicated issues surrounding the representation of the Holocaust.
Through this essay, the question of how arrangement of space and objects within space has created meaning has hoped to elucidate on the role of space in the display of objects from Jewish, National Socialist and GDR museums. The two case studies of the Jewish museum Berlin and the Dachau museum have underlined some of the ways curators have represented the spaces within the building they work with. Through the internal ordering and conjugation of these spaces within a museum, they create a narrative for their visitor. Similarly, through the analysis of the three different display techniques, the aim was to highlight that museum spaces are representations of embodied attitudes to the material culture of whatever historical period they are focused on. To conclude, the role of space within museums of Jewish, National Socialist and GDR history could be considered a vital and essential tool in the framing of objects, whose role in the structuring of specific kinds of articulation between object and knowledge can not be undermined.
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