Whispered Messages in Museums
It’s refreshing to see art in churches and cathedrals instead of museums. From the way I look at objects, to the messages I receive; being a visitor in a museum or cathedral is profoundly different. So the Frederic Marès Museum struck me as unique, bringing the museum and the religious space together. It threads the awe and veneration found in ancient Christian artefacts and lays it underneath a wealth of everyday objects.
Christianity is excellent at using art to demonstrate basic life lessons. Tiffany Jenkins recently voiced her support for the Vatican commissioning contemporary art for the Venice Biennale. She feels it addresses an issue in her experience of contemporary art, relating to “meaning, belief in something – not necessarily a god – but perhaps a political persuasion, nature, children, or even fairies, is essential to good work. And this is missing.” Alain de Botton has approached this from a different angle, challenging curators to present clear and helpful messages for visitors, to frame art “in a way that links them powerfully to our inner needs.” Ed Rodley extended de Botton’s ideas, linking them to the importance of museums having something to say. It seems we want a message from museums, communicated with conviction and relevant to or resonating with our daily lives.
The Marès Museum has a helpful message, but so quietly spoken it may not be evident to visitors. It displays personal, domestic and ephemeral objects, some disappeared in the nineteenth century and others we still use. But visitors are directed to start on the ground floor, filled with ancient religious artefacts. By grouping like with like, en masse, I saw the everyday aspect of religious veneration in the third and fourth centuries. I saw the sacred present in the everyday, made portable and personal in walls of small hand-held crucifixes. It became stifling when surrounded by crucified Christs, hung above head-height, each representing a long-gone space of worship.
In total contrast, the floors above contain comparatively modern domestic or personal objects displayed in curiosity cabinets. Marès called this his Sentimental Museum, after his nostalgia for disappearing ways of life passing by undocumented, overtaken by new technologies and customs. He saw the ephemeral nature of our everyday lives.
Each room is dedicated to a different type of object. The photography room, with hundreds of small black and white carte de visits, posed studio portraits and street scenes, is at the heart of the museum. Plastered on tables, boards hung on walls, or assembled in panels, mounted like books to the wall; the faces, characters and identities are unidentified, apparently as ephemeral as the medium itself. The neighboring rooms of clocks and pocket watches, or dried flower arrangements, continue the theme.
The curiosity cabinet is fashionable at the moment. But the display style was chosen by Marès decades ago and staff continued to honor this after his death in 1991. The curiosity cabinets play a role in the message of the museum. Open access underlay the development of the collection as Marès dedicated it to the public in the 1940s. Choosing a display style released from a history of exclusivity and status, Marès turned the Sentimental Museum into a welcoming space designed to inspire awe and wonder of the quotidian, domestic and personal. The emotions inspired by the religious artefacts on the ground floor carries upward and is sustained by the display style of the upper floors.
I admit it’s taken weeks to see the delicate connection between the layers of the Marès Museum. My understanding has been influenced by visiting too many museums and cathedrals since. At the time of my visit, the collections felt disconnected by the architecture of the building, the interpretation provided, even the museum website which frames them as separate. Did Marès make the connections I have between his collections? The curators leave no clues.
This is a museum that whispers its message to visitors. If my interpretation is correct, the Marès Museum has “an ambition of helping us to get through life”, as de Botton would like, by helping us see value in our everyday lives. Has it found a balance between the ambiguity of museums and the clear lessons of traditional religious spaces? Is a quietly spoken message sufficient in a world where museums need to clearly state their relevancy to contemporary issues? I wonder if we should trust visitors to intuit subtle takeaways or make sure the big messages are not missed?