In this blog post, I invite you on an introductory guided tour into the conceptual imaginary of the Living Room at Medical Museion.
Let me begin with a story. In 1940, a wig was donated to Medical Museion. It was the colour of strawberries and had belonged to a patient diagnosed with paranoia. Today, everything that is left of the wig is the register entry (see image below). In the margins of the register page, it is noted that the wig was deaccessioned because it was ridden with maggots. Besides the brief description of its colour and condition, we can only imagine what the wig looked like, how it felt to touch and its smell. Its historical erasure, however, is not merely marked by the deaccessioning note, but also a later note exclaiming a Danish expression for something unfortunate: “Æv!!”.
But why should we care about the wig today? Because it evokes an immediate feeling of loss. The historical erasure of the wig provokes a response like the ‘Æv!!’ perhaps followed by the question: but couldn’t it have been saved if we had taken better care of it? At museums around the globe, practices of preservation aim towards stabilizing objects in authentic states associated with the original material fabric of objects or what is sometimes called the “true nature”. A cultural-metaphorical sense of life is privileged, while a metabolic-literal sense of life is lurking in the shadows as an unwelcome presence. The wig had drawn out this unwelcome presence and established a new relation to the living strictly forbidden for museum objects.
For me, however, the story of the strawberry-coloured wig provokes a different questioning that does not concern whether the wig could or should have been saved. Rather, I’m wondering if we could have done something more with it if we had been less hostile towards the cycle of life? The absence of the wig challenges us to rethink not merely what we can do with museum objects, but also whether the museum must always attempt to suppress life processes and strive for permanence. Could we perhaps also host life? This is what the Living Room is about.
But what could this look like at the museum? In Thomas Feuerstein’s artwork One and No Chair, we find a compelling example. A wooden chair gradually falls apart broken down by fungi, yet simultaneously a work grows out of it. In a personal correspondence, Thomas described to me, how he injected the chair with mycelium and sprayed it with water daily for almost two years. Then everything changed rapidly – fruiting bodies sprouted, and the chair had to be supported statically to avoid it breaking into pieces (he had also cultivated a table, which broke overnight!). Thomas had set in motion, an uncontrollable growth within what he describes as an aesthetics of entropy (see Thomas’ website for more on this: http://www.myzel.net/Myzel/index.en.html). An aesthetics that follows the dissolution of things and emphasizes matter in transition. At museums, fungi are usually perceived as agents of destruction affecting museum collections negatively. So in contrast to our striving for stability at museums, perhaps this aesthetic provocation can reframe our caring for objects and redeem the metabolic-literal sense of life?
In The Living Room, we take on Caitlin DeSilvey’s invitation in her recent book Curated Decay to develop a practice of care beyond conservation (for more on her book see: https://www.upress.umn.edu/book-division/books/curated-decay). As she expresses it, we need “to think about what could be gained if we were to care for the past without pickling it” (p. 188). Currently, we are developing a practice of caring beyond saving. A practice I find particularly suitable when working with objects residing at the fringes of the museum. Fringe objects that did not make it into the museum collections. For example, objects already collected at the museum that never entered the museum collections, because the stories and contexts of their uses were missing. Or defect and disposable equipment being thrown out in labs today because it is not significant enough to become part of the museum collections. From a museological perspective, fringe objects are the truly dead objects no longer in use or part of a collection and without any significance or interesting story attached to them. Objects gradually or suddenly turning into trash. Objects that provide us with the opportunity to care in ways less hostile towards life processes.
Just to be clear, what I am proposing here is not to work towards the end of our collections at the museum, but rather to reimagine the end of their lifecycle (and the lifecycle of objects in general) in a less destructive fashion. Or if we return to the deaccessioned wig, I believe the wig exemplifies something that we could have done differently. We could have cared for the wig with different attitudes than preserving and saving. This is what The Living Room is about: we work across conservation science, artistic practice and humanities research to develop other ways of working with objects at the museum. Ways that challenge the self-given inclination to prejudge life processes as destructive. While this may appear troubling because material transformations are often linked to loss, we believe that embracing or even cultivating change can turn into a generative path towards different kinds of knowledges, stories and experiences.
Now let us try to imaginatively step inside The Living Room. Imaginatively, because the room is still under development. So imagine you enter the room from a small staircase and immediately notice a couch and a television invoking an immediate sense of familiarity. This is how we usually organize our living rooms at home. And yet the couch does not look that comfortable and the television is outdated, perhaps even broken – strange time lapse sequences of decaying objects appear on the screen. As your gaze withdraws from the television, you see boxes hanging on spray painted grids on the walls. Peeking inside one of the boxes, you recognize the objects you already encountered on screen: old books, medical instruments, a tapestry turning the box into a tiny living room, and what appears to be fleshy pink mushrooms. Although you sense the processes of decay just by looking inside the boxes, they seem somehow stagnated and silent. Next to the box you find a set of headphones and as you begin to listen you hear the tiny sounds of pink oyster mushrooms growing in discarded books. You are listening in on the inaudible sounds of metabolic processes of growing and breaking down. As you put down the headphones and turn away from the boxes, you realize that the entire room is teeming with life: you sense the humidity, notice the salt crystals appearing on the walls, and realize that the rugs you passed unnoticed on your way in are stained with bacteria developing into microbial patterns. This room no longer appears as a familiar living room but as an uncanny LIVING room – a room hosting moist, messy, metabolic life processes.
In The Living Room, we work towards hosting life at the museum. It is an experimental-ontological site where we attempt to multiply our senses of the lives of objects at the museum beyond the ideal of permanence. By engaging with the metabolic aspects of objects across an organic/inorganic divide, we aim to make the invisible practices of preservation visible to the public – and to approach them with curiosity and playfulness. But more than that, hosting life in the room turns into an aesthetic incarnation of the passing of time itself. It is a trans-disciplinary and transitory space where we explore decay by exposing objects to macro-environmental factors such as humidity, temperature and light as well as fungi and larvae that act as heritage eaters, turning the room into a metabolic time machine. The metabolic processes are explored through multi-sensory methods such as sound recordings and time lapse photography letting the objects proliferate into multiple modes of existence as food, habitat, image, sound, and story, and show us that even at the museum decay does not necessarily entail loss but can also lead to becoming and re-growth. Or returning to the strawberry-coloured wig: in The Living Room, we could have done more with the wig transforming it into multiple of modes of existence as food, shelter, sound, image, text. A proliferation granting us a heightened sense of materiality, temporality and vulnerability.
The Living Room is still under development. Stay tuned for more content on our project pages such as images from the development of the room, time-lapse sequences of decay, new blog posts and sound recordings of fungi growing in old books from the museum. Also look out for upcoming performance lectures, guided visits to the room, online conversations, and other events.
If you are interested in the full version of the conceptual framework presented here, read my chapter “Culturing Impermanence at the Museum” to appear in the exciting forthcoming anthology edited by Geismar, Otto, and Warner Impermanence: Exploring Continuous Change Across Cultures to appear at UCL Press later this year.