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Museum of Reflection or the
Squaring of the Circle
For some, it is the most arrogant museum they know; for others – and that is not restricted to us, the employees – it is the most exciting one. The museum in question is Cologne's Diözesanmuseum, the second oldest museum in the city and the one some consider the most experimental. Since 1989 it has been under the auspices of the archbishopric and is accommodated in temporary quarters offering an exhibition space of aprx. 4,000 square feet. The museum – located in a combined residential and commercial building in the immediate vicinity of Cologne Cathedral and four other museums – is awaiting a better future. Better future means a prominent location with spacious architecture to accommodate the needs of a museum. Some critics would like to see the better future postponed until doomsday, claiming that Cologne is already offering a rich diversity of museums. Already, the spectrum encompasses a wide variety of collections ranging from the archeological to city history and the ethnological, to theater history and the applied arts collections, as well as the art museums which feature holdings from medieval to contemporary works, plus a museum for East Asian artifacts which resides in its own building. The necessity of another art museum complying with conventional museum patterns must therefore be questioned. If there were typical visitors to the Diözesanmuseum they would – according to the museum type – expect Christian Art, liturgical vestments and objects from the churches of the diocese. They would most definitely not expect any artwork which is not classified as »Christian«. In addition, in times of reduced budgets, the more socially conscious critics demand that the church be oriented toward charitable rather than indulgent cultural endeavors: they request kindergartens instead of museums. The spectators' perspectives are as diverse as their concepts and their requests. - The vision of the museum team, on the other hand, is a short and thereby abbreviated formula: museum of reflection. In an era of velocity and simultaneity, high-speed trains and computer animated information highways, world-wide video conferences, leisure industries and active vacation instead of ease, with museums turned into temples for the consumption of education and excitement, it may appear anachronistic to introduce the catchword contemplation as the keyword for a concept of a collection and exhibitions. The truth is that this is another attempt to reinvent the museum. Much of what the museum has written on its banners is absolutely in keeping with its traditional tasks, as proclaimed by the Christliche Kunstverein für das Erzbisthum Köln (the Christian Art Association for the Archbishopric of Cologne) upon its foundation of the Diözesanmuseum in 1853: »The Association must most specifically ensure that the Christian artifacts present, especially the ecclesiastical ones, will be researched, preserved, and wherever necessary will be restored. This is to make certain that in new edifices and acquisitions they correspond in their plans and execution to the spirit of the church. In addition, the Association will encourage the study of art history. It will aim at exploring any questions pertaining to ecclestiastic art wherever possible; finally it will, by virtue of collecting, by lectures, and by publications, take all precautions for the spread of the correct taste and the accomplished knowledge. Not least important for the Association will it be to extend particular care to church poetry and music« (Neuss 1954, p.14). What appears inappropriate from today's perspective, in particular with regard to the intense striving for professional competence, is the limitation to »Christian artifacts, especially the ecclesiastical ones.« In our society, which at this point has become a mostly secular one, Christian art is no longer art and art is no longer Christian. A recent illustration of this constantly progressing secularization is the so-called »crucifix judgement« in Bavaria (i.e. in special cases a crucifix may be removed, by order of the law, from the wall of a public school classroom). Indeed the question must be asked if the so-called Christian art of the present day, with its pseudo-Romanesque or neo-Expressionistic near-replicas of important objects is rightfully termed Christian and if it does not devalue the former. Let us therefore attempt to talk about art with religious relevance. This would at the same time reproach the claim for a decidedly Christian iconography as well as the Christian aspiration and way-of-life of the artist. Instead the emphasis would be on the topical aspects as requested by Pope John Paul II in a speech in Munich addressed to artists and journalists. There, he used the word »aggiornamento« implying a turning to the present day. Let us look at the growing collection of the Diözesanmuseum and its presentation from this aspect. Whereas the character of the old collection was rather haphazard, the enlargement and the building of a collection of contemporary art is rather carefully planned. It is done with the vision of networking with the other museums' holdings and in light of the envisioned new building on the historically significant site of the former church St. Kolumba. The location encompasses an incredible historical spectrum: Initially, there were residential Roman buildings on this site, then a house church evolved in one of them. This eventually led to a variety of church buildings which predate the late-Gothic church with its more than fifty sepulchres, some of which were accessible. Ultimately ruined as a consequence of the destructions of the Second World War, St. Kolumba was used as a »quarry« during the subsequent years of reconstruction. In 1950, the architect Gottfried Böhm added a chapel Madonna in den Trümmern (i.e. Madonna in the Ruins) in the steeple area. This place, which has matured throughout the ages, can indeed function as the basis for a museum in which past and present, historic record and (in the literal sense of the word) social relevance are combined. In its present state of develpoment, the question of how to realize such ideas can only be answered rudimentally. We are in the state of experimentation. In the rooms which were furnished in the interim in 1972, lectures, concerts, and, in the near future, literary readings will also take place. This offers the possibility of detecting structural parallels between the arts and scholarship, as well as exploring diverse approaches to the same issue. - Selective juxtapositions of old and new works of art can help question conventional patterns of seeing and thinking, thus helping to detect the alien element in the familiar one and vice versa. One such contrast is the comparison of the 15th/16th century Cologne tapestry Mystische Jagd im verschlossenen Garten (i.e. Mystical Hunt in the Enclosed Garden) with Richard Tuttle's drawn-and-painted diary cycle Forty Days (1989), which he executed while travelling with his then-pregnant wife. Both examples may be understood as approximations concerning the enigma of incarnation. On the one hand this is done by virtue of symbols and typological depictions, on the other hand tissue-like structures – apparently expanding into an organism – are used. If the same textile is confronted with Rune Mield's Zeichnungen zur Steinzeitgeometrie (i.e. Drawings concerning stone age geometry), then different perceptions and considerations surface. For instance, the means by which a universe can be comprehended which escapes the grasp of humankind, and how this universe can then become available again may be called into question. – Small exhibitions, which are changed quarterly, hence feature juxtapositions of few works, thereby continously offering new questions in reference to perceiving the world. They are not to be misunderstood as a pastime for the visitors or the curatorial staff. For example, the central scene of a labyrinth depicting the victory of Theseus over the Minotaur (an intarsia from the labyrinth of Saint Severin, Cologne, 12th/ 13th century) recalls the tiresome, winding path, which is so difficult to find, and which – according to this myth – leads to the very center. Possibly this also implies a Christian re-interpretation with the overcoming of death through Christ. Antoni Tàpies' Spuren auf weißem Grund (i.e. Traces on a white ground) from 1965 not only helps us appreciate time and space, but, thanks to the repeated, circular movement, may be seen as a picture pinnacling human existence, opening the undefined »sense-center« which each individual must define subjectively and responsibly for him- or herself.
With regards to this open concept of presentation, some visitors intially feel abandoned, even left in chaos. However, the visitor is only taken seriously as a being with sensations, dreams, and thoughts. Neither a chronological hanging nor labels force him or her into the pattern of a well-conceived order created using objective criteria. Instead, openness into any direction of looking and thinking is offered. In order to prevent misunderstandings, let us say this: Openness does not mean arbitrariness. However, it is true that instead of seemingly the binding orders of art historical and iconographic categories, a plethora of changing, sometimes cognitive, sometimes intuitive points of departure are offered. For some visitors, the interrelationship between the yellow painting by Joseph Marioni and the 16th century Ecce Homo becomes clear in the actual vis-a-vis with the artwork. For others, the reason for juxtaposing a painting of Agnes Martin with a meditation by Alexej Jawlensky or even with a medieval devotional image may only make sense on the occasion of our »tours;« they are talks or group reflections, verbalized thoughts.
A museum which denies the satisfaction of traditional expectations in the above-cited manner – and which does this in order to offer visitors new levels of appreciation – must develop its own profile with reference to its focus of collecting. The Diözesanmuseum differs from other art museums in the choice of objects and in how it accentuates them. It does not differ so much in its choice of artists, or by virtue of awkward criteria for quality, or by exclusively selecting historically sanctioned works of art. A case in point is the acquisition of a group of central works in the oeuvre of the long-forgotten American artist Paul Thek (1933-1989). It was not until a retrospective in Rotterdam in 1995 that he was rediscovered. His work makes special sense in a museum with ecclesiastical sponsorship, because few contemporary artists have thought as intensely as he did about the transitory dimensions of death – without doubt the central Christian theme. It is in this context that he created powerful pictures of life. Purchases such as Tragedia civile by Iannis Kounellis, a picture of the grand world theater in which a person must determine his or her standpoint in relationship to God, and Berlin Earthbound, the »Jewish suitcase« of Rebecca Horn, a piece which examines discrimination, expulsion, prosecution, and extermination of countless people of Jewish persuasion in a rather matter-of-fact manner, without excluding those persecuted presently or in the future – are pieces bound to become key objects in the collection in the future. They are all supposed to be intertwined with the historical and mental system of references of Kolumba, as Richard Serra's sculpture The Drowned and the Saved, consisting of two steel wedges which support one another will be. This sculpture is supposed to find its permanent place in the former sacristy, above the vaulted basement, in which the remains of those buried in the former parish church are now kept. Apart from these works, which will be integrated retroactively, artists suchas Dorothee von Windheim and Bill Fontana are creating works with a direct relationship to the space, whereby they define spaces within the space.
The above-mentioned concept offers three distinct opportunities. Beside the positivist categories of historical scholarship, the museum also acquires works of philosophical and anthropological nature. The church as the sponsor sees this opportunity of presenting diverse ways and means of appreciating the world as represented in art as an opportunity to get closer to the people. The visitors experience the museum as a conglomerate of constantly changing works of art, i.e. an art museum not so much as a place for safe aesthetical and art historical systems, but rather as a place relevant within society.
In a 1967 paper, the philosopher Michel Foucault contrasted the museum type of the 19th century with the »Wunderkammer« of times past, describing the former as »heterotopia of an endlessly accumulating time,« a kind of archive, encompassing all times, all shapes, all tastes. The background and common denominator for this was an understanding of history in the sense of life evolving through the ages; attached to this was the claim that the collection had to be as comprehensive as possible. This is a thought, which, at the end of the 20th century – with ever increasing quantities of actually or technically available objects – is no loger feasible.
If, however, a time-related chronology no longer determines experience and no longer forms the foundation of categorization, and if, instead, simultaneity, simultaneousness of dissimilarities, and the side-by-side of the disparate rule, then the concept of the museum, too, must change. One might even pose the question of whether the museum-idea in general has become outdated. - Not at all, because heterotopias, »those places«, which »are totally different from all the places they reflect and about which they speak« and this is also true for museums in the sense Foucault defines them, museums are »true places, effective places, into which the arrangement of society has been inscribed. Museums are the antithesis, they are indeed utopias which have been realized, utopias in which the real places within the culture are at the same time represented, denied, and altered. They are places outside all places that can in fact be located anywhere.«1 This quotes strikes one of the central nerves concerning our understanding of a contemporary museum as realizing a utopia2 with society-related relevance, which also takes into account the chaniging view of the world: this is the museum as cosmos, similar to the »Wunderkammern« of times past which offered the important and the peculiar, gave insights into what was worth knowing or believing, and which thereby proposed possibilities of understanding the world.
1 Michel Foucault, Andere Räume, typescript of a paper given at the Cercle d'études architecturales, Paris, March 14, 1967, published in: German in Karlheinz Barck / Peter Gente / Heidi Paris / Stefan Richter (eds.) Aithesis. Wahrnehmung heute oder Perspektiven einer anderen Ästhetik, Leipzig, 1990, pp. 34-46, esp. p. 38f. 2 »The utopias are the placements without a real place: the placements which have with the real places of society a relationship of immediate or reversed analogy. Perfection of society or the flipside of society, at any rate utopias are largely unreal places.« Ibid.
First published in: »kunst und kirche«, Kunst - Kirche - Öffentlichkeit, Heft 4, November 1995
© Diözesanmuseum Köln/ Kolumba 1995
Any quotation, even as excerpt, only with acknowledgement of the source
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