Recent Reflections from the Museum of Everyday Life’s Intrepid Philosophy Department: In Praise of The Diorama

It’s been a great pleasure to be able to get to know this city, and to have time enough to visit a number of the small and unusual museums here. After a marathon day of museum-going last week, I was moved to re-read Beth Lord’s great article, “Foucault’s Museum: Difference, Representation, and Geneology,” in which she describes the museum as a “heterotopia,” not only in terms of a space containing multiplicity of things belonging to different times and contexts, but also as a place for presenting, reflecting upon, and feeling the tensions in the relationship between ideas/interpretations and objects. Lord looks at Foucault’s discussion of museums as heterotopias and concludes:

Foucault’s definition of the museum as heterotopia is useful, firstly because it overcomes the problems of defining the museum exclusively in terms of objects, collecting practices, or methods of display that are historically contingent; it enables us instead to define it in terms of a philosophical problem that is part of the museum’s essence.

Thinking of the museum as a philosophical endeavor feels so appealing to me here in St Petersburg, this cold, stormy city (in October anyway), an improbable collage of different historical, cultural, and architectural layers upon layers. No doubt this sense of multiplicity is magnified because even the simplest street signs require of me a three-year old’s slow-motion phonetic deciphering of the cyrillic letters, giving me a more-often-than-anticipated thrill when the phonetic transliteration yields a word I recognize. (How surprised I was to discover words like “steakhouse,” “rive gauche” and “stress clinic” hidden underneath the unfamiliar shapes!)

My recent visits to Freud’s Dream Museum, The Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, The Hygiene Museum, and the Anna Akhmatova Museum have provided lots of material for my jet-lagged brain to mash around in its groping, philosophical problem-exploration. I am drawn to Lord’s description of the gap that always opens up between the object and the idea: although museums are constantly in the business of assigning structures of meaning, logic, and hierarchy to objects, the museum by its very nature also draws attention to the space between the object and the assigned structure. Although Lord’s concerns are elsewhere, this interests me because it speaks to the peculiar properties of objects themselves, particularly their attributes as performers, characters with their own autonomous conjuring powers. I felt that I was encountering this over and over during my recent museum visits, particularly in relation to the use of the diorama.

The much-maligned natural history diorama has gotten some play recently in the news as certain aficionados and artists argue for their preservation and restoration, even as many American museums ditch their dioramas when updating their facilities or moving to new improved spaces. Dioramas, enjoying their heyday in the natural history museums of the 1920s and 30s, began falling out of favor many years ago, replaced by the interactive public-engagement displays of 1940’s-60’s as science museums tussled with natural history museums for position in the shaping of public discourse. But there are more kinds of dioramas than the natural history stuffed-animal variety, and there’s more to be said about them than simply their merits as works of art or nostalgic set pieces that “inspire wonder” in small children.

One of the young artists I met at a Chto Delat , when I tried to explain my interests, expressed skepticism that the “musty” display strategies of the “classical” museums have anything to offer someone thinking about contemporary, participatory, museum tactics. “What will you hope to see in these classical museums here?” he asked. Well, plenty, actually, starting with the diorama!

At the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, dioramas pepper the exhibition halls on the first floor. But that’s not what caught my attention right away. Initially, I was struck by the contrast between the didactic aims of this museum vs the affective aims of what I had just seen previously. I visited the Arctic and Antarctic museum the morning after I had visited Freud’s Dream Museum, which got me thinking about the differences between a museum utterly devoted to Affect (the Dream Museum) versus one focused on the Didactic (the Arctic and Antarctic.) The Freud’s Dream Museum consists of two very small, elegant, rooms, one bright and one dark. The first room suggests the realm of the Conscious, delivering a minimum of information in orderly wall texts accompanied by photographs and one audio snippet of Freud giving a lecture played forwards and backwards in a loop. The second room draws the visitor down a long darkened passageway between two deep vitrines into the Unconscious realm of dreams, where dimly lit or eerily glowing objects only half-reveal themselves as you move inexorably towards a blank rectangle of light at the end of the passageway, a tabula rasa on which you can project whatever the dark room has inspired your mind to conjure. This is not a space whose aim is to teach you anything about Freud, or Psychoanalysis or even the interpretation of dreams. This is a space with all of its energy trained on creating an affective experience, encouraging the viewer to feel, experience, and become immersed in a state where language becomes merely a symbol linked to feelings (clearly you aren’t meant to be able to actually read the snippets of text on the scraps of notebook pages and old letters displayed in the vitrines of the dark room, and the phrases printed dimly on the glass front of those vitrines operate more as suggestive echos from the past than as carriers of information.) It’s all about textures and feelings at the Freud’s Dream Museum.

freuds-dream-museum[Freud’s Dream Museum: the edge of the bright room (Consciousness) leading into the dark room (the Unconscious)]

The Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic, however, is all about education, and its big, brightly lit rooms, neutral colored walls and orderly, sequential layout clearly reflected that. The bulk of the displays consist of clearly labeled artifacts in cases accompanied by large informational placards and graphics covering the walls. The placards were text heavy, with some exceptions, but even those included tables and charts conveying additional data about the explorers, the expeditions, the weather or environment.

info-photos-and-data-chart[Expedition photos with the ubiquitous data chart in the lower right hand corner.]

But in addition to the texts and information to be had everywhere, the exhibition halls are regularly punctuated with dioramas of varying scale. In some, tiny explorers stand on great snowy expanses next to little tents. In others, ships sit trapped by shelves of ice, or walruses sun themselves on rocks, or aquatic life swims and floats deep underneath thick layers of ice. The dioramas do not always seem to be directly related to the informational content surrounding them. Rather they serve as poetic visual breaks in the flow of text, immediately catching the eye and making clear the first undeniable property of a diorama: their story-telling power. Here each diorama is a theater containing a multiplicity of narratives. The plot-loving human brain can latch onto any of scores of details and start to construct a story – the way that figure is crouched there, perhaps he is about to go into to the tent? Why? Or is he peering into the crate of supplies next to the tent? What’s in the crate? Where are the tiny figures on skis in the distance going? What must it feel like to be cold all of the time?  Story after story suggests itself from the arrangement of figures in the enclosed three dimensional space. These stories don’t necessarily illustrate the information provided in the texts, but punctuate, interrupt, and enhance, by adding story to the parade of facts.

The miniature nature of all but one of the dioramas also quickly suggests another of the diorama’s charms: smallness invites us to lean in, to enter into the environment, the story, to be immersed in a sensory, tactile kind of way that informational text can’t always manage.





The Museum of Hygiene is another museum not of Affect but of Argument, but with a further lean deep into the territory of the Artifact. The bulk of the exhibits here are artifact-centered, and the clusters of objects in cases, vitrines, on walls, pedestals and tables are devoted to delivering their pedagogical message. The didactic aim is clear from the start, to promote improved understanding of health and healthy behaviors in the public. I was even issued a pair of plastic slippers that I was required to don, in order to keep the museum sanitary! (Ok, I think they really were to protect the beautiful floors, but I couldn’t help making the connection with the sterile shoe covers surgeons and nurses are required to wear in the operating room…)


This museum also contains dioramas, which function differently, but equally as powerfully as the ones in the Museum of the Arctic and Antarctic. Unlike in the former museum, the dioramas in the Hygiene museum are not deployed throughout the exhibition halls, but displayed together in one spot on a series of shelves arranged vertically, reminiscent of a many-storied dollhouse. Each individual diorama addresses a particular health behavior. In one, a small doll stands at a sink washing her hands while an oversized fly hints at the possible pestilence she may have come in contact with. In another, a nude doll takes a shower. In another, a doll sleeps in a bed near a window (letting in some fresh air?) In another, a table is set with a balanced meal ready to eat. Unlike the arctic dioramas which functioned as individual stories, these Hygiene dioramas operate as a set, telling the single coherent story of a healthy lifestyle. And so cute! So pretty! Each “room” offers a colorful, inspiring vision with all the attractive powers of a talisman or good luck charm. They encourage the gaze of the viewer to move from one to next, gaining strength as they accumulate, almost like beads on a rosary. Here I felt the power of the miniature not only drawing me in, but stringing me along, following the story through to its inevitable goal: good health – simple! easy! achievable! The miniature a space that is endearing, manageable, possible, and thus inspirational.

(Yet I also really enjoyed their individually oddness, too. Why is that fly so big? Why is the balanced meal so forlornly without eaters ? )





taking a shower.jpg

balanced-mealIn contrast, the Akhmatova Museum, which consists of the preserved rooms of her apartment, plus an additional single room of display cases filled with miscellany – ID cards, first editions of her poetry collections, handwritten notes, photos, etc. But surprisingly, here again I immediately returned to the idea of the diorama, because walking through each room of the Akhmatova apartment really felt like walking through the frozen theater of a diorama display. It was as if I had been shrunk down toy-sized and allowed to walk through the front door of a dollhouse, take in the furniture, the details, and encounter the events about-to happen or having-just-happened suggested by the arrangement of objects. But all this as a stranger, unable to touch or manipulate or make any kind of mark of the living on the place. The tableaux (“recreations” of the rooms per photographs and the memories of interviewees who had visited there) were also set up in a way that magnified their diorama-ness. Each mise -en-scene was clustered rather lopsidedly on one side or the other of the room, usually cordoned-off by a piece of string to prevent the spectator from entering any particular “setting” too intimately.

I usually find “house” or “apartment” museums which turn famous people’s homes into tourist destinations disappointing; often the set-up is stiff and lifeless, the homes looking so like unlike homes – empty of any resonance. But at the Anna Akhmatova museum this eerie lifeless effect worked totally in its favor, making this (like the Freud’s Dream Museum) a museum of Affect more than anything else. Here the diorama of each room spoke to the history of mounting absences in Akhmatova’s life – of companions, family members, freedom – which became palpable in the haunted, lifeless but life-sized dollhouse rooms. In contrast to the endearing, attractive power of minitaturization at play in the Hygiene dioramas, each room of the Akhmatova enjoyed the magnifying supernaturalizing power of the gigantic. Here the autonomy and affective power of the objects were in full force. Insignificant things – an ashtray, a coat, a pile of books, a stack of suitcases and trunks – became engines of feeling because of their inevitable conjuring of what was missing: the body absent from the coat, the hands no longer holding a burning match at the edge of the ashtray, the manuscript in flames vanished, not even ashes left behind. I found it uncanny how at this scale, the objects in the “diorama” were performers of absence, loss, grief (and resistances, too).

On the other hand, perhaps as a puppeteer I am just more susceptible to objects, and vulnerable to their performative ability than most people. But as I lingered, photographing the front door of the apartment, I watched three young women in their twenties leave the museum, whispering together. They stopped to write something in the visitor’s notebook that sat on a little table in the stairwell, and one of them bit her lip, and wiped a tear away. So I think I’m ready to argue that there’s still something to be said for the musty old diorama, in all of its various forms.






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