Processes of interpretation are not singular, but multiple, and they proceed from a range of starting points.
Eilean Hooper Greenhill
What happens when you enter a museum? Silence, four white walls around you and more silence. The classic space of a “white cube” doesn’t sound much stimulating. However, that is not what you will find when you enter the 1917 – Romanovs & Revolution. The end of Monarchy.
The first room of Amsterdam’s Hermitage exhibition is a recreation of The Passage, a shopping arcade in St. Petersburg’s main street full of high-end and luxurious shops and coffeehouses, the place-to-be for the Russian aristocracy on the early 20th century. With delicate art nouveau ceramics and glamorous beaded dresses on display, you can window shop like a Russian count – minus the cane and the coconut hat. And that’s exactly the intention: transport the 21st century audience walking through the streets of Amsterdam to the avenues of aristocratic Russia.
After strolling on The Passage’s wide hall, it’s time to get inside the narrow rooms where the family life of the Romanovs is now on display. This move from a large space to a more intimate one is also used in service of the narrative, as now the visitor will enter the private universe of a family. Still, what is on the other side of the window are objects, like the one’s behind the glasses of The Passage, nonetheless a crucial change has been made. The fact that you know who those brushes and ink bottles belonged to, and the personal anecdotes behind those lifes, it become more than objects – brushes and ink bottles become a story.
Eilean Hooper Greenhill describes the role of objects in an exhibition on the first chapter of Museums and the Interpretation of Visual Culture: “One critical element in the construction of meaning within museums is the presence or absence of particular objects; a second vital consideration is that of the frameworks of intelligibility into which collected objects are placed.” Due to the choice of objects – most quite personal and part of the emotional ensemble of everyone’s everyday life (such as toys and kid’s drawings)- and the way those articles are presented – among the blow up’s of black and white photos of the family and texts with intimate stories -, the narrative’s objective is fulfilled: humanize history.
Or, at least, humanize a side of history. The exhibition’s tone is constructed in order to build a positive image of the family, and so as the decision to make them more relatable. After all, we are talking about the Hermitage, an organization created to present the collection of State Hermitage in St. Petersburg, as the name says, an institution managed by Russian government. As Hooper Greenhill states in her text, collections and exhibitions embody ideas and values that can’t be ignored by a critical viewer – even if it’s a historical expo.
Also according to Eilean, every museum has a pedagogical character that refers to what is said and how it’s said. The construction of meaning is, therefore, represented in every decision made in an exhibition. What happens when you enter a museum? French philosopher Jacques Rancière would say that any type of knowledge must be fictionalized to be though. Hence, when you enter a museum, expect to be told at least a (side of a) good story.
By Bruna Cataldi