I just watched this interesting TED talk about museum curating:
It reminded me of my amazing visit to the Rautenstrauch-Joest Museum in Cologne earlier this year. I think it is best museum I have ever been to. I didn’t know anything about the museum before I went, except that it was included in a list of interesting places to see in Cologne.
I was immediately drawn in when, in the entrance to the exhibit hall, I got to watch a video of people greeting each other in different languages and with different customs. The linguistic anthropologist in me got a little thrill—I so rarely see museums giving language such a prominent position. (Even the Museum of Man in San Diego, a museum dedicated to anthropology, rarely has exhibits that explicitly discuss language.)
One of the next rooms we visited held an exhibit seemingly designed for anthropologists. After reading the description, I realized that’s exactly what it was: An exhibit highlighting the kind of information that anthropologists would want to know about a place, its people, and their artifacts. I was ready to completely geek out as an anthropologist for the rest of my visit, but then I walked into the next room—and into what looked like an entirely different museum.
The room was the epitome of artifacts as art. Glass cases filled the room, each with an artifact and a label explaining its origin. I get kind of bored with these sorts of displays, so I went fairly quickly through the room. As I got to the next exhibit, I turned back to find my parents, who were visiting the museum with me. That’s when I noticed a sticker on the side of one of the glass cases. I looked closer and saw that the sticker was actually a note instructing the visitor to touch a button. I touched it, and immediately the case lit up with a photo showing the artifact in its cultural context. Suddenly the artifact became something culturally meaningful, something useful in a person’s life.
As we moved through the museum, we were invited to see each exhibit in a different way. One area was set up with different rooms, each one a living room from a different country; another had interactive stations with audio and video showing how families live in various parts of the world; and yet another invited us to literally try on masks used in rituals. I realized that the purpose of the museum was how we experienced the exhibits just as much as what we experienced. I became aware of how much museum curators influence our perception of the objects in the museum.
As we exited, we came across another screen showing the same people who greeted us at the entrance. However, this time they were saying goodbye—in German. It turns out that all of them live in Cologne. What a clever and fun way to bookend this experience. (And I can’t wait to visit it again!)