Monday, January 02, 2006

Copies and the Imagined Community

Natalie Bennett, visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum, reflects on the use of copies as a means of accumulating art treasures in one place and preserving them:
Today of course, we are hung up about originality, and some would dismiss mere copies as having very little value indeed. But this is a modern luxury - an effect of extensive cheap printing of colour plates, and air travel and our consequent ability to visit originals in situ. These were luxuries not available in the 1860s when Henry Cole, the museum’s first director, dragooned the crowned heads of Europe into signing an international convention for the exchange of casts. And who knows if these luxuries will continue to be available.

As much as originality is prized, cultural awareness cannot be spread without reproduction, and museums' mandates often extend far beyond being houses of great works of art.

Coincidentally, the problem of copies cropped up in my dissertation as I wrote about the creation of the Rhenish Museum in the 1920s and 30s. Konrad Adenauer, trying to put his stamp on regional politics and culture, proposed founding a museum in Cologne that would represent the entire Rhineland.

Numerous problems delayed the project: location, the competencies, the type of museum it would be. By the time it opened in 1936, the House of the Rhenish Heimat, as it was renamed, was substantially less than what Adenauer originally envisioned.

The most difficult practicality that the planning commission faced was how the materials would be assembled. Adenauer wanted the Rhenish museum to present 'the gesamt Bild'--the complete image--of the region. It was his catchword for promoting the museum:
The gesamt Bild should appear before the eyes of the visitor ... as a representation of the complete culture of the Rhineland, built on scientific foundations, composed for the layman.
Installations would run the gamut of historical eras, milieus, occupations and diversions. Nothing would be left out, and a casual visitor would be able to locate his hometown within the museum.

The problem: how to assemble such diversity of sources, from fine art, patrimony, everyday items, maps, graphs ... . Architecture was the most important element for representing the Middle Ages, which was seen as the most formative era in Rhenish history. Clearly whole buildings could not be moved. Furthermore, many essential pieces belonged either to private citizens or the Catholic Church. No one wanted to fight to obtain them.

[Click here to read more]

To magnify the problem, Adenauer wanted the Rhenish Museum to be the premiere research institution for western Germany. It would be a repository of images and data for scholars and, most importantly, those involved in preservation. It was felt that preservation could not occur unless patrimony was studied in its regional context.

To overcome this deficiency, plans were made to hire artists to travel the entire Rhine Province to paint copies, take photographs, make castings. Rather than being a modest institution, the museum would display a wealth of images. Rhenish history was complex, and its museum should be just as complex. (Some felt this was unrealistic and didactic.)

Ultimately photographs became more important for the museum. After Adenauer was forced out of politics, the remaining members of the museum commission changed how they appealed to the Nazi regime for funds. It would help to preserve popular (voelkisch) culture by acting as a repository of photographs of daily life, settlement structures, rituals, etc. Casting of Gothic architecture were no longer important.

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