For more than 500 years people, governments, churches, and other institutions have used their collections of things to assert, display, and establish their own authority and standing. Arranged in cabinets of curiosity, cabinets of wonder, Kunstkammern, Wunderkammern, or museums, the artifacts in such collections often reflect a logic of display idiosyncratic to the collector’s own system of values, the collector’s ideologies and goals. This system of values is embodied in the answers to a host of questions that most visitors never stop to ponder, inter alia:
- What gets displayed? Of the possible objects in a collection, which ones are elevated to the status of displayable?
- How? In what sort of display case? How are the labeled? How are they illuminated?
- Where is the collection located—in a basement, a person’s house, a small apartment, an annex to a corporate or governmental complex, a storage lot, a purpose-built structure?
- Who gets to see the collection? When is it open? Does it cost money or require special permission?
- Who pays for the maintenance?
- How is the museum portrayed or marketed in brochures, pamphlets, ads?
- How is the visitor’s path through the museum directed—by the layout of cabinets and displays, by some sort of self-guided tour, by a human guide?
Three recent museums allow us to think again about how collections are still used to create identity and assert authority.
Carpigiani’s recently opened Gelato Museum tells the noble story of gelato from ancient Mesopotamia to 20th century. Like many museums, this represents a particular history in order to create or embellish or celebrate the founder’s own story. In this case the founder, Carpigiani, uses the museum to generate historical authority for its own products—gelato machines and it gelato university courses. The museum is at the Carpigiani headquarters in Bologna. See The Guardian’s article.
In Colorado Bill Koch’s personal wild west museum is nearing completion. He has been creating his own vision of an Old West town, a patchwork of relocated historic buildings stand amongst new structures, designed to look old and fill out Koch’s vision. When the buildings are finished Koch will fill them with his collection of Western memorabilia. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction insofar as it never existed and much of it isn’t authentic, if we assume authenticity extends beyond the surface and includes such characteristics as age. Koch’s Old West town is a fiction created to realize some boyhood dream, to undergird his own autobiographical fiction. Koch resembles a modern Emperor Maximilian I, who created histories out of whole cloth to legitimate his cultural authority. Koch, like Maximilian, has created the artifacts he needs to fill in his picture. For Koch as for Maximilian authenticity is measured not by the artifact’s historical origin but it’s role in completing the picture of the past, its ability to fill in an otherwise missing visual or conceptual detail.
An open-air museum of neon signs just opened in Las Vegas. The article in the NY Times makes it sound more like a graveyard for neon signs or, as the museum’s own website describes it, a neon boneyard. Like the gelato museum, this one seems to have been founded at least in part to celebrate a business, the Young Electric Sign Co. donated dozens of signs for the initial collection. From the YESCO website:
The history of ancient cities was written in stone. But for Las Vegas, stone just wouldn’t do.
No American city has a past as colorful or as flamboyant as Las Vegas. The city’s story was blazed against the desert sky. Handed down over the decades in brilliant color, incandescent lights and the glorious glow of neon. YESCO is proud of its contribution to the legacy of light in the most razzle-dazzle city in the world.
Along with reinforcing YESCO’s own history, the museum is a conscious effort by some people to claim for Las Vegas some measure of cultural influence. The chairman of the museum’s board hopes the museum will begin to appreciate Las Vegas’s history: “Las Vegas has made many significant contributions to pop culture, as well as culture in the United States. We need to stop thinking that Las Vegas is simply a kitschy town.”
If it worked for Renaissance princes and monarchs, why can’t it work for Las Vegas, Bill Koch, and gelato?
[Cross posted at PACHS.]