Book of the Month
The Delirious Museum
A précis from the publisher -
"The Delirious Museum gives a new interpretation of the relationship between the museum and the city in the twenty-first century. It presents an original view of the idea of the museum, proposing that it is, or should be, both a repository of the artefacts of the past and a continuation of the city street in the present. Storrie reviews our experience of the city and of the museum taking a journey that begins in the Louvre and continues through Paris, London, Los Angeles and Las Vegas, re-imagining the possibilities for museums and their displays and reexamining the blurred boundaries between museums and the cities around them. On his quest for "The Delirious Museum", he visits the museum architecture of Soane and Libeskind, the exhibitions of Lissitsky and Kiesler and the work of such artists as Duchamp and Warhol. Calum Storrie's premise is that the museum and the city street are continuous with one another: the city is a delirious museum, overlaid with levels of history and multiple objects open to many interpretations just as museums and their contents are.In support of his theme, he draws on multiple sources, from Walter Benjamin, Daniel Libeskind & Greil Marcus through Paul Auster and Peter Ackroyd, to Stephen Bayley, Norman Bryson & Sadie Plant and takes readers on a stimulating journey through cities and museums worldwide. Serious general readers interested in urban culture, design and architecture, as well as professional architects, cultural studies and museology academics will enjoy the book, which is illustrated in black and white."
Calum Storrie begins this wonderful book with an account of the famous arrest and imprisonment of Guillaume Apollinaire after he and Pablo Picasso came under suspicion for the theft of Leonardo da Vinci's painting 'Mona Lisa' in 1911. Calum Storrie retrospectively appoints Guillaume Apollinaire as the first curator of The Delirious Museum in compensation for his wrongful imprisonment.
Among the many topics, movements, architects relevant here, Storrie also writes about the Situationists - "Some of the strategies devised by the Situationists in order to dismantle the meaning of the city can also be used to take apart and re-invent the language of collection and display." He does in this context, also acknowledge capitalism's power to recuperate (or absorb) subversion and turn it to its own ends. He uses the Situationist notion of dérive, literally, 'drift' - that almost casual engagement with the city depending on chance and a degree of chaos - to show that the Delirious Museum can occupy an ambiguous position - both an existing and a potential space. He writes 'It is a space that exists hidden within the visible, where there is always the possibility of disorientation and the probability of getting lost.'
A couple of illustrations from The Delirious Museum
Peter Campbell referred to this book in his LRB column
(London Review of Books, Vol 28 No3 February 2006) :
The designer Calum Storrie has just published a book called The Delirious Museum. His starting point is the belief that the museum should be a continuation of the street – as easy to enter, as amusing to pass through. This concept is possible in Britain where we have no museum charges, but the notion that streets have a lot in common with museums – and that the pleasures and interest streets offer may be greater – has a history which parallels that of Modernism. The delirious museum Storrie assembles in his imagination runs together the domain of objects caught in the museum net and that of objects which still float free. Primary texts are those in which Baudelaire and Benjamin describe the flãneur's disengaged observation of the city's unfathomable complexity.
The richness of the street points up shortcomings in museums. In one strand of Modernism, artists were, and are, at war with them. Although this antipathy is on the face of it slightly puzzling – actors seem happy enough with theatres and writers with libraries – reasons for it aren't difficult to find. Duchamp proved that by exhibiting an object you can make it into a work of art. But it turns out that display can also take the acid out of protest. Artists have learned to live with the museum's tendency to impose and change meanings; even when angry they no longer call for the wrecking ball. Instead of destroying museums, dissenters, as Storrie describes them, set out to parasitise and subvert them. Duchamp sidestepped the museum when he distributed multiple sets of miniatures of his work, packed in suitcases. Chris Burden's Samson attacks (or at least pretends to attack) the bricks and mortar. His piece consists of a turnstile, a winch, worm gear, a 100-ton jack, timbers and steel plates, designed to be placed in the entrance to a museum. Visitors passing through the turnstile drive a glacially slow extension of the timbers which, in theory, threaten to knock down the walls. When it was shown in Newport Harbour Art Museum, the fire department was alarmed. In Vienna in 1996 a document was issued which explained that there would never be enough visitors for the machine to do its worst.
Inanimate things in museums – teacups from which no one drinks, pictures which will never again be bought and sold – can, as much as stuffed animals, make one think sadly of the time when they were alive. Modern curators know this and spend much time and money avoiding notions of dust, death and mummification. Even art museums do not cram everything in the reserve collection onto the walls. But in avoiding the confusion, heterogeneity and abundance of old–style museums like the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, some of what they shared with the street has gone: an ability to feed the imagination with unexplained, comical, sinister and melancholy juxtapositions, for example – the aspect of collecting the Surrealists exploited.
Storrie is good on the relation between spaces and things exhibited: on Carlo Scarpa's museum designs, in which windows may bite a top corner out of the walls and ceiling of a room and pieces of sculpture may be positioned to become part of the building, and the intricate interlacing of objects and architecture in the Soane Museum – all of these are striking alternatives to the tradition of the plain room that culminates in white, evenly lit operating-theatre-like spaces. They are still the norm when new rooms are built for notable collections. Storrie's commentary on the work of Daniel Liebeskind and Frank Gehry shows how their most acclaimed buildings – Liebeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin and Gehry's Bilbao Guggenheim – achieved presence not by complementing collections but by taking over from them the job of engaging attention.
The contrast between the vivacity of the street and the quiet of the museum is not always to the advantage of the street. The Musée Carnavalet is devoted to the history of Paris; it was founded at Haussmann's instigation at a time when he was supervising the demolition of much of the city. The building was once the home of Madame de Sévigné, and the ad hoc run of rooms with 17th and 18th-century panelling and furniture and a collection of mainly unremarkable portraits causes you to exercise your historical imagination. A collection of striking pieces would be more glamorous, but might not force you to think as hard. If a museum makes it too clear how you are expected to respond to things and if displays are cut down to what can be digested easily, there is less to wonder at and be curious about.