Le musée comme expérience. Dialogue itinérant sur les musées d'artistes et de collectionneurs | Leonardo/ISASTwith Arizona State University

Le musée comme expérience. Dialogue itinérant sur les musées d'artistes et de collectionneurs

Le musée comme expérience. Dialogue itinérant sur les musées d'artistes et de collectionneurs
by Dario and Libero Gamboni

Hazan, Paris, 2020
672 pp., illus. col. 29.00 €
EAN: 9782754111027.

Reviewed by: 
Jan Baetens
March 2022

A refreshing book on museums and museum culture and a highly needed one as well, given the current monolithic discourse on the “new museum”, torn between the necessity of making money in a neoliberal environment and the no less constraining necessity of putting itself at the service of the community, more precisely of those groups and communities that had been excluded from the “old museum”, that showcase of history, wealth and power of a class and a nation.

The two authors of this book do not ignore these economic and political debates, but their take on the museum is totally different. The title is a reference to John Dewey, whose lecture series on “Art as Experience” (first delivered in 1932 and published in 1934, but still widely read and discussed) foregrounded the notion of “experience”, that is something that personally affects one's life. Dewey studied what this shift from “art as object” to “art as experience” may signify for, among many other questions, the presentation of art, and which kind of art, in a museum or outside any institutional context (a newspaper or the home, for instance). The specific type of museum-cum-objects addressed in this book is that of the “personal museum”, that it the museum created by a single individual, male or female, artist or collector, as a self-portrait to be handed over to future generations. They are called here auteur museums, as in auteur cinema. A typical example is the Barnes Foundation (Philadelphia), founded by the dedicatee of Dewey’s lectures and publication. Key in the personal museum is the link between the collection and the place that hosts these works, both feeding and determining each other: the personal collection cannot be separated from the place (and this place, be it a house, a palace, or a garden, is not just an empty box, but a well-designed space, with a specific place for each item), while the space does not make sense without the collection (which does not necessarily contain only masterpieces: our modern visions of “copy” and “authenticity” do not always hold in this context). The experience of the artworks thus depends on that of the dwelling and vice versa, but this experience, personal and individual as it may be, is always meant to be open to the public (most founders of personal museums had and still have strong opinions on democracy).

The real message of this book goes however far beyond the embodied analysis of the personal museum or the art-historical study of the life and works of some famous collectors. Dario and Libero Gamboni take this as a point of departure to stress the fact that even in the era of the technical reproducibility and thus disembodied globalization of art, works of art are radically rooted: they are made and displayed in a certain place, and even for a certain place, which is part of their experience.

This rootedness is then further discussed in two ways. First, the authors examine the negative impact of the widespread “dislocation” of art, in the double sense of the word: displacement of the work from one place to another, but also destruction of the organic link between work and place. Second, they also insist on the consequences of such a dislocation – a historical movement launched by the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars, and now continued by the countless “touring” exhibitions – on the shift from the curiosity cabinet to the museum as we know it today. In both cases, Dario and Libero express full sympathy to relocation, equally in the two meanings of the term: works should be seen and experienced in their “original” context and seeing and experiencing works of art should be accompanied by seeing and experiencing the premises that hold them. In other works: the right work on the right place.

Such claims are far from self-evident today, although debates on the restitution of stolen artworks certainly helps make them less anachronistic (yet only to a certain extent, for the notion of “place” does not always occupy the center of the restitution debates). Even if they are challenging the Modernist white cube model, museums have turned away from the narrow link between a certain space and a certain type of permanently and identically displayed objects. Modern museums always want to change, not only in order to remain attractive to those who have already visited them, but also to attract new visitors, particularly those who do not feel attracted by the “old” presentations. A personal museum is quite the contrary of all that: it respects the place as well as the collection as shaped by its founder, and it tries to offer an experience that is primarily intimate. The ideal of a personal museum is therefore the house, a place where real people live and work among works of art. The ideal of its visit is that of a real experience, that is something that lasts and changes the visitor in a meaningful way. In concrete terms, this also means that a personal museum should remain maintain ”small”, while trying to maintain the vision and spirit of the founder(s).

The Museum as Experience is itself a wonderful collection of such places. The book presents and discusses some fifteen museums from all over the world (in practice: Europe, UK, Japan, Turkey, North and South America), covering all types of art and architecture, old and new, unchanged and actualized (and in certain cases even displaced, like the Barnes Foundation). But this is only half of the story. What makes this book so appealing is its concept as well as style. Rather than offering a guided tour of a small set of well-chosen personal museums, the book presents itself as a dialogue, more exactly a correspondence between two cousins, Libero (architect) and Dario (professor of art history at the University of Geneva), who individually  travel the world to visit a certain number of special places, hoping to find an answer to the question that triggers this adventures: what to do with the private collection of Libero’s father after his death, what to do with this auteur/amateur collection that is a somewhat crazy accumulation of objects nostalgically linked to the no longer existing country life his father wanted to keep alive? The structure of each chapter goes more or less as follows: Dario invites Libero, whose life as an international architect allows him to travel worldwide, to visit this or that museum, and then both cousins start exchanging their knowledge, memories or impressions of the place, carefully linking them to other experiences in similar or less similar places. The result is a very serious but also very readable dialogue between two friends coming from two different disciplines and informing each other without any jargon of the most up to date scholarship, background information, and personal feelings about auteur museums, with always a sharp eye on how to take benefit from these travels, including a lot of armchair travels, for the eventual curation of Libero’s father “unmanageable” collection.

The major pleasure for the reader – and this pleasure is intense, for this encyclopedic and super-erudite book is a real page-turner– results from the charm and quality of the exchanges between the art-historian and the architect. The book is not a tourist guide but a deeply personal meditation, enriched by numerous historical and scholarly references and analyses, thought-provoking anecdotes and stimulating readings, always perfectly integrated in a friendly conversation, an almost two-sided Socratic dialogue in epistolary form, with no difference between master and pupil.

It would be a pity to end with a spoiler, and I will not do so. But, yes, the cousins eventually find the answer to their initial question, thanks to the lessons learnt during the various visits, and this answer is also discussed in the larger context of museum culture, the auteur museum being a possible alternative to the crisis of many moderns museums – a solution that is financially more sustainable, definitely more human in terms of scale and experience, certainly no less rewarding in terms of art, and why not also exemplary of an open and democratic culture.