I wasn’t sure why, but it was an odd surprise to me to be confronted with the word “Wunderkammer” (Cabinet of Curiosity), half way through a visit to the Museo Correr in the corner of Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Perhaps it was just the brief respite of encountering a foreign word I understood in the middle of a week of bungled attempts at Italian pleasantries, or maybe just that I’d always viewed it to some extent as an insider term used mostly by museum people. Further to that, as a believer in strong supporting interpretation and deeper, more worthwhile engagement with individual exhibits, it’s not a method of exhibiting that I’m a fan of, nor thankfully, particularly used to.
Yet there it was, the Correr Wunderkammer. Once I’d begun to think about it however, the concept was not so surprising at all. The earliest pictorial documentations of these cabinets of curiosity all stem from the renaissance Italian city-states, and that of Venice’s own Teodoro Correr, albeit more recent, was one of them. Therefore, a museum of “Venetian Art and Life,” born out of a traditional Wunderkammer collection, such as Museo Correr is, has every right, an obligation even, to ensure the concept is at least addressed in its programming in some fashion.
The Wunderkammer concept is of practical application to the museum as well however. Venice, as I experienced, is a city fraught with challenges to any and all forms of exhibition. The first of these is space, or the significant lack thereof. It is a very small city with a high demand for heritage tourism, and, as a World Heritage Site, can make very few alterations to the venues selected to house such institutions. Museo Correr is located within the Procuratorie Nuove, built to contain the residencies and offices of senior figures within the Venetian republic. This is a large enough venue, however it is divided into mostly quite modest sized rooms, meaning there is limited space to exhibit within as visitors expect thematic progression as they pass through doorways. Venice is also a city with an abundance of art, and even more history for the museum to cover, so by exercising their right to exploit the Wunderkammer theme, Museo Correr has found a historically relevant solution to their physical space limitations.
Venice is also a city that is far from short of things to see, so to attract and hold the attention of the visitor is no mean feat. The Procuratorie Nuove is a fascinating treasure in and of itself, so at all times the objects in the museum are in competition with the very rooms that house them. You can’t even glance out of a window most of the time without having your breath taken away. By grouping and concentrating the museum’s impressive collection into cabinets of curiosity, the Museo Correr fights awe with awe, wonder with wunder, ensuring their displays remain object focussed within an environment ever-conspiring to steal their limelight.
Having said that, something about it did not quite work for me. It probably revealed itself too late into my visit. I had already explored the entirety of the temporary gallery Palladio and Russia, in which there was no translated interpretation, and again in reverse as there was no exit from the fully linear exhibition other than the way one came in. The permanent galleries then begin with a journey through fourteen grand rooms, all restored to their historical functions and furnishings. Initial navigation through the Museo Correr feels more akin to a stately home visit than a museum experience. Then, all of a sudden, the audience goes from seeing a limited and careful display of objects to having to look at all of them at once. Fatigued somewhat by the seemingly never-ending exhibition that is the city itself, and a long and heavily annotated journey through an admittedly beautiful series of bed and dining rooms, a Wunderkammer was not a welcome surprise. The biggest problem however was that the Wunderkammer did exactly what they were supposed to; it filled me completely and absolutely with awe. It fuelled me with a hunger for information that could not be satiated as no object could be afforded the space for any meaningful interpretation.
Or perhaps the reason was that my experience was sullied by a gripe with the Museo Correr’s rationale behind the entire concept of the gallery before I had even entered it. On the outside, a large information panel explains to the visitor what a Wunderkammer is and why they have seen fit to create one in their museum. The definitive positive however appeared to be that it allowed their staff an intense and ongoing experience of delving deep into their storerooms, reorganising the collection and improving its preservation, all punctuated by a series of “sensational discoveries.” Or, in layman’s terms, “we killed two birds with one stone and had a great time while we were at it.” As someone at the beginning of a professional museum career I appreciate the importance of this, however that day I was a visitor, and I felt a little left out.
Obviously the museum can’t allow the visitors to run around the storerooms making sensational discoveries for themselves (although the Museum aan de Stroom in Antwerp actually does). However, where not every museum can allow visitor access to its physical storage, access to its virtual storage should be limitless, and if an institution doesn’t have a public digital collection, it should.
I’d like to return now to a theory posited in my previous post, relating to the recreation of the British Museum on Minecraft, revealed by the institution at its second Museum of the Future debate. My preference for the initiative rather than a straight brick for brick, object for object replication, as planned, would be for the exhibited contents of the Minecraft British Museum to be co-curated and debated about by its online community, thus deepening their engagement with the building and its collection.
As I stood grumbling at the, “a great time was had by all” information panel at the Correr Wunderkammer I realised that the use of Minecraft for such an initiative would hold back what could be an great public engagement activity. Minecraft as a game requires a good deal of time and patience to acquire the skills that would be required to recreate objects within the British Museum’s collection, the activity I would like to see needs to be simple and instantly accessible. Further, although rebuilding the objects piece by piece would foster a studious engagement with the physical intricacies of each antiquity, it is again time consuming and not entirely necessary.
What I would like to see, in every museum, is a digital program that provides its online community with a virtual exhibition space to curate. To use the British Museum as an example again, why not give people a virtual rendering of the round reading room? The first Museum of the Future debate was strongly in favour of the appropriation of this currently vacant space as an exhibition area. The circular shape of the space would prevent users from arranging everything along the walls too, and help breed some creativity. Digital visitors could then use the museums online collection to delve into, explore, make “sensational discoveries” for themselves and discuss, as a community, how they would like to populate and arrange their very own virtual Wunderkammer.
Users should not need to “mine” for the necessary minerals and then laboriously reconstruct the object. That time should be spent exploring the digital records of a museum’s oft-hidden collections, reading and learning about what appeals to them, following which, they will have the option to add that object to the virtual exhibition. Whilst a digital collection makes museum collections more accessible, an activity of this sort, increases and further incentivises engagement with it. Given the chance to be an online “curator,” visitors will interact with the virtual stores in the same way a museum professional would, creating a far more rewarding and educational experience for them, the fruits of which will be similarly intriguing and insightful for the institution itself.
In the end, this is just one suggestion. Any engagement activity that encourages and facilitates greater exploration and interaction with digital collections would be welcome. It’s not enough to just have an online database, these virtual stores have to be easily and enjoyably navigable, as Museum aan de Stroom’s physical one is. Digital is opening doors for museums. Without any spatial constraints, the Internet is a Wunderkammer without the clutter. A museum can now give the visitor the opportunity to see everything in its collection, without ever overwhelming them, and all of these objects can be fully annotated and interpreted. Perhaps best of all, the possibilities of digital allow these objects to be interacted with, even the most fragile, in ways that the physical world cannot allow. An interactive digital collection can in effect, be a cabinet of curiosity without the glass.