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Wednesday, March 11, 2009


A few months ago there was an online gallery about the Great American Catalog at tmn, the kind of saturated colour nostalgia that the web does so well. It reminded us to revisit these classic collections of 27 Christmas catalogs at Wishbook's photostream. This is nostalgia so fierce it makes your eyes water; even a world one wasn't necessarily a part of can somehow tug at the memories (the 1975 Sears Christmas Catalog), for example.

In Eccentric Spaces, Robert Harbison writes of John Ruskin's descriptions of Venice, noting how the Victorian critic effectively used the page and the written word to turn the entire city into a museum, weaving an apparently casual path between objects - things - of interest to generate an informed narrative that transcends the static, closed and contrived cabinet-bound world of the museum collection.

So is the internet a city or a museum? The relentless wandering we seem to do all day long along its virtual corridors would imply the latter, but from the early days of an 'information superhighway,' the metaphorical thrust has been for a parallel, virtual urbanism, a 'city of bits'. That analogy certainly implies less coherence than the codified, quantified and curated world of the museum. As Harbison notes in the chapter entitled 'Contracted World: Museums and Catalogues', 'Like the dictionary a museum cannot be enjoyed passively. The spectator must decide what is background and what foreground. Nothing tells him he is not supposed to look at everything; he must learn it is not feasible.'

The museum is an organisational structure that soaks up and reflects its surroundings. More Harbison: 'There was a kind of Victorian museum that imitated luxurious domestic furnishing, filling itself with velvet sofas and heavily carved wooden cases, dark fabrics on the walls setting off statues on pedestals that faced each other as if about to start into life, even sketched each other.' These museums - the domestic wunderkammers (a genre crowned perhaps by Sir John Soane's private masterpiece) - ultimately belong in a minority, overshadowed by the splendour, gravitas and authority of the new grand institutions. Private collections were combined, as at the V and A, and placed within temples to collectomania. The American institution excelled in particular, for, according to Harbison, 'they exist out of the world, cloistered and shut off to a degree not found elsewhere... [with a] need to embody all the possibilities of refinement, to bring in one massive Ark of all the history we haven't had.'

The Victorian museum template is essentially paradisal, rendering the known and unknown world into dioramas that rationalised, explained and chronicled objects through narratives and organisation, often especially constructed for the occasion. For our modern minds, this is not enough - the object can't simply be placed within an imaginary context and expect to be contained. Harbison again: 'Yet many preserved specimens seem to sharpen the division between the past and the present, the saved thing pointing up and clarifying the newness of all the rest.'

Dioramas and other contrivances couldn't contain everything, and were inevitably juxtaposed with cluttered galleries of accumulation. The Victoria and Albert Museum's Cast Courts are a case in point, as are the print rooms which proliferated in the C19. 'Another of the styles which people have by their acquisition imposed on art, the print room, also dilutes the meaning of objects by massing them. With their hundreds of ungainly close albums these places are not correspondent complications of experience to libraries of books.'

So is the internet - the internet of objects, designs, creativity, cataloguing and chronicling - merely a modern day cast court or print room? All 'work' is reduced and resized, hung on the same gallery walls and given the same passing glance, the glancing perusal of the perpetually scrolling museum. Just as the dense clusters of imagery that marked early museums contrasted strongly with the more open, expansive, curated galleries that subsequently evolved, the internet of objects appears increasingly at odds with the internet of connectivity and expanded human horizons. How will we deal with the growing distinction between cabinets within rooms within corridors within buildings within streets within cities?

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