To say “museum” and “empty room” in the same breath may seem like madness but I’ve recently been preoccupied with the question: “If museums didn’t already exist, how would we invent them, starting today?” Full tabula rasa. What would we want them to be? It made me think of Peter Brook’s famous description of the essence of theatre:
"I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged".
I’m wondering what’s the equivalent essence of museums? Is it enough to place an object in space and an observer to see it in order for “an act of museology to be engaged”?
On a recent visit to Germany, I learned with great delight that the Modern Literature Museum and the Neues Museum both opened to the public without any objects at all. But was this a museological experience? There is a great pleasure in denuded space, a sense of privilege, of a special moment that is snatched from the usual duty of that space to be full. I remember the extraordinary feeling I had wandering freely around the vast open spaces of Wells Cathedral, briefly emptied of its furniture for the annual deep clean. It was full of drama, narratives everywhere in the stones around me. Sounds of singing underpinned with the susurration of hushed speaking voices.
But, on the whole, museums were invented to be the very opposite of the empty room: they were designed to celebrate society’s attics, to preserve the best of things that were once important but no longer of use. The purpose of museums today is much more complex. They are still repositories of “stuff” but how they share that stuff with others has changed enormously. Places like the Pitt-Rivers and the Horniman retain the “stuffed attic” aesthetic as part of their much-loved and rather glorious identity but many museums are seeking a broader remit and see their role as crucial civic spaces, radical learning institutions and participatory organisations.
Given the unquantifiable number of objects in all the collections in all the world, would it be absurd to venture the idea that museums might learn something from Peter Brook’s idea of the Empty Room? Just to entertain the idea as a metaphor to see what might emerge as the essence of museology? And to see museums as full of potential for drama, for human interaction, for surprising narratives and for new interactions with the audience?
The potential connections between theatre and museums are exciting. The ongoing work around "scratch" theatre at Battersea Arts Centre, whose mission is no less than "reinventing the future of theatre", is inspiring me to think that if their theatre-making can impact upon every aspect of community life - from building to heritage to economics to the school curriculum - then so can museum-making.
I’m meeting with the artistic director David Jubb in a couple of weeks and I’ve been reading a lot of his very inspiring blogs. Jubb quotes artist Chris Goode who describes theatre “as a place to create real liveable experiences of models for political and personal change. Theatre can have a crucial role in reimagining our social relations. What we do all day has never felt more important.”
To replace the word "theatre" in this sentence with the word "museum" is to reflect what some of the more socially-driven museums are already doing - museums as far apart as Derby Museum and the Santa Cruz Museum of Art & History. According to David Jubb, such creativity and innovation can only emerge if organisations are willing to make themselves vulnerable.
This brought me back to the question of the empty room. Museums come with such baggage (literally in many cases) so what would it be like to think of them as empty spaces waiting for drama to unfold rather than a stuffed attic with no room to move?
Of course, to complicate things a little, we might ask "what does Peter's Brook's "Empty Room" look like?" Like the white cube image above or the last image below? Empty of objects and people does not necessarily mean empty of narrative, as evinced in Massimo Listri's work below which expresses the qualities of inhabited but momentarily empty space. To play with these different qualities of space: white cube and historic building, is part of museum-making.
So I'm not suggesting Brook's Empty Room as a literal spring-board for museum-making but as a playful metaphor to help us arrive at new ways of creating meaningful museums for the 21st century.