The Sound of Missing Objects- Reflections on the Museum
Every Image of the past that is not recognized by the present as one of its own threatens to disappear irretrievably. (Benjamin, Walter. 1969, orig. pub. 1940: p: 255)
It is by now a truism that museums, many of which were developed during the Victorian period of high empire, have lost their identity, at least in terms of their ethnological functions. Anyone who has wandered the huge storerooms of the large museums of the world cannot but think of a graveyard, orderly and well tended, but graveyard indeed.
The feelings of loss, mourning and melancholia associated with these graveyards of artefacts should not let us close the book and leave the museum, rather they should make us stop and think about why these storerooms summon up such feelings. If these mausoleums contain lost objects, and they must be lost to someone if they are here in this impersonal, state-run storehouse, then a series of questions follow. Who has lost the objects? Where are they lost from? Are they lost to us? Not apparently, they were never ours in the first place. And who is this us anyway? Are they objects belonging to lost cultures, lost people? Perhaps, but if we consign cultures to the cemetery, we would probably be wrong, for the salvage paradigm turns out to be incorrect. The death knell tolled so often turned out not to be true and many a cultural Lazarus has risen from the dead. Truganini turns out not to be a ghost at all, and her descendants are alive and living in Bondi, Redfern or Papunya, New York, or Paris.
Do we mourn for a lost knowledge? The paradigm on which museum collections were based was fundamentally flawed although it may have seemed eminently sensible at the time. The idea that a culture can be known, in any significant or profound way, through a denatured and alienated assemblage of the objects it produces, seems madness and folly, one obviously nurtured under a more general obsession with accumulation. The logic seems to be, if there is any, that if we collect and measure as many bones, images, feathers, toes, heads giraffes, deformed infants, birds, frogs, elephants, drums, necklaces, languages, and on and on and on, we will somehow come out of a universal state of ignorance and comprehend the world, with a finality and totality never seen before. This is a tragic hubris indeed, one associated with empire, for the act of rapacious collecting cuts off the possibility of gaining any significant knowledge of the other.
There was another component to this imperial folly, the idea that a culture could be defined and contained within a space or a text, that a culture could be bounded and complete, once and for all. This approach was not confined to culture, it was also applied to the body, the mind and most forms of nature. From this initial premise it seemed evident that you could contain knowledge, culture, the body or natural specimens, in a vast, universal container, a museum, a place in which a final, total knowledge could be attained. This belief also seems the antiquated hubris of a former time. We moderns look on our ancestors with pity, or contempt, and think how advanced we are. We no longer believe that a culture or organism, or person is fixed and containable, rather the discovery, a significant one, of the twentieth century is that the world is a much more open-ended and continually creative creature than our poor deluded ancestors thought.
But we can’t leave it at that, can we? We need to examine our own feelings of mourning in the face of the museum. If we are such enlightened modern creatures, why do we have these feelings of loss and grief and nostalgia- why do we mourn these misguided projects, these so obviously deluded paradigms, these lost and homeless objects? For if we are indeed so modern we would not mourn, since this assemblage is not a key to any form of knowledge, we would not hang on to these expensive mausoleums. We might return the objects to the communities from which they came, disperse, the objects across the land, shower people with gifts. Although repatriation does occur it is a slow and bureaucratically encumbered process. Thus the mausoleums stay, monuments to a failed project of knowledge, testament to a rapacious empire. One might think that the modern state would be embarrassed by these visible monuments to failure, but apparently not. Perhaps we are not so modern, after all. Perhaps because they remind us of our own homelessness, our own lost state, how wrong we might be in our notions of how the world works, and of our own fate, when past our use - by date, we too are destined to be stored somewhere, finally the graveyard.
But most of us don’t ever get into the storerooms. What is interesting is that the museum and art gallery businesses are booming, so somehow the modern museum erases the melancholy of the storeroom, with the presence of Culture with a capital C. Haunting absence can be banished as people consume beauty, culture, history, wealth, the overwhelming abundance of creativity and life in exhibitions, the theatre part of the museum space. The theatrical front, the exhibition space, is also a place where notions of culture can be comfortably aestheticized , where uncomfortable truths are forgotten, banished and absent. Here culture becomes an object for comfortable Sunday afternoon contemplation via the eradication of the uncomfortable, the complex, the despicable, the cruel, the unseemly. In museums of ethnology history was banished, particularly any history which might disrupt the aesthetic, bland and inevitable quality of the exhibit. When we look at a Pitjanjatjara spear we seldom think of the Maralinga atomic bomb set off on Pitjanjatjara lands. But isn’t this an obvious connection to make? Both the spear and the bomb are weapons- both are part of Pitjanjatjara history. Why is one included, another excluded? Other aspects of history, less monstrous, but equally telling in the particularity of their absence, are excluded. The evidence of real people, living human beings who speak, touch , smell and taste, are also eradicated from the exhibition and the storeroom. Who made the objects, who carried them, who touched them, who smelled them, who talked about them ? Who cared for them? Who wept when they were gone? Whose blood, bones and tears mark them? Who wrapped them in the tissue paper that so carefully contains the objects in the storeroom now? All of these are banished histories, forgotten subjects in this not-so-objective world. In the pursuit of the visible, the orderly and the hygienic the senses have been eradicated and forgotten. Yet this erasure creates a tremendous sense of loss and nostalgia for touch, smell, and sound, a sense of life itself – but this lament is left to poets to linger over.
The problem becomes how we can come to re-know these objects, these places, for although they may trouble us and make us melancholy , the solution to this troubling inheritance is not to forget it. As Benjamin suggested ‘to lose these images from the past irretrievably’ would be to repeat the mistake of another era of modernity. To banish the past is to make the present empty. The problem is a difficult one, for we must learn how to summon up both presence and absence simultaneously. How do we retrieve multiple discourses, forgotten feelings , swirling sounds? Elizabeth Edwards called these concealed or disseminated practices, resistant to the order of the mausoleum(1)( Edwards,E. 2001:132). Ilaria Vanni, Jonathan Jones and Panos Couros perform this double take, the enacting of a present absence, in the Installation The Sound of Missing Objects at Performance Space. Using forgotten objects, like tissue paper, banished histories, like Maralinga, and unused senses, the installation invokes and suggests connections which the Museum institution severs. The sound of an atomic bomb blasts dispersal bears an uncanny resemblance to boomerangs used as clapsticks. How strange and empty the language developed to describe these absent objects, how beautiful the cabinets made to display these inevitably missing objects. Why are there no objects in this installation? The objects must be absent not only because they have been taken from someone and are missing from somewhere if they are in museums. This absence reminds us of that loss, to someone, somewhere. The entire Museum Project is based on absence, the disappearing and the disappeared. If these objects are in museums they have been made to disappear, from culture, activity, touch, sound, use, life itself. They come to represent something else, something absent. Perhaps this is why Jim Boon states:
Museums perhaps make me sad because of what they revel about representation- a sadness savouring resignation to the museumlikeness (perhaps even museuminess) of what on first sight appear to be a museum of. If there is no of to museums – only more museum: representations without immediate reference making for-the-removal-then that must be what makes me sad.( Boon, J. in Karp and Lavine 1991:256)
This installation suggests that Boon’s depressing conclusion, that all representation is based on an ultimately absent reality, may not be the final word. This sense of absence may rather be the result of a particular technology and philosophy of universal display and specular vision. Through the syncopation of absence and presence, many whispering sounds where we are used to silence, empty cabinets where we are used to presence, this installation points to those histories and that life which we cannot absolutely know but which we can almost glimpse, barely hear, almost touch, as it summons the multiple discourses, many sounds, sights and feelings which swirl about the missing objects.
1.In ‘Professor Huxley’s ‘Well-considered Plan’, a study of the ethnological photometric project inspired by the Darwinian biologist Thomas Henry Huxley Edwards uses the term ‘disseminated or concealed practices’. Thousands of photometric photos are housed in the archives of the Royal Anthropological Institute, London. Rather than inscribe the photos in a Foucauldian institutional analysis, as has been done, Edwards attempts, through historical investigations of circumstances surrounding some of the photos, to unravel the ambiguities and paradoxes that surrounded the project at the local level. Her attempt here, by looking at the history of very particular photos in this vast archive, is to reveal what she calls, following De Certeau, a variety of concealed or disseminated practices, not totally obliterated in even this most oppressively dominating of practices, the mapping of racial characteristics (Ibid: p.132). Through investigations of the individuals involved in the project, at both ends of the camera, Edwards is able to suggest that there were multiple resistances to and subversions of the project. This is a most important essay that demonstrates how important detailed historical investigation is as a counter to overarching theoretical readings that attempt to circumscribe large bodies of practices under a general proposition.
Benjamin, Walter 1969. “Theses on the Philosophy of History (1940) in Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt, trans Harry Zohn. New York Schocken Books
Boon, J. 1991. Why Museums Make Me Sad in Karp, I and Lavine, S. Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington: pp.255-277.
Edwards, Elisabeth.2001. Raw Histories: Photographs, Anthropology and Museums. Berg, Oxford and New York, 2001.