Some days ago I had the opportunity to visit the Werkbund Archive – Museum of Things [Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge] with a friend who had never been there before. I cherished this opportunity because I like this museum so much and visited it so often that it is not easy for me to view it from a critical distance. Discussing our impressions seemed to me the perfect way to explore further what makes the permanent exhibition so particularly fascinating.
Even though my friend was also interested very much in the history of the Deutsche Werkbund and in the showcases which feature the ideas of this organization, we got totally lost in conversation about the showcases which function like an open storage. Side by side they deploy things in huge numbers, clustered under topics like “Tools” or “Toys”.
At one point my – enchanted – friend remarked that the exhibition is especially evocative, a comment I took up at the end of our tour. But what, I asked provocatively, makes the difference between this kind of exhibition and a flea market? Wouldn’t things presented on a stall have the power to evoke similar feelings?
No, she answered, because:
1. The sheer amount of things, cramped in the showcases, creates a condensed and very special atmosphere.
2. The clever arrangement of the objects invites you to wonder about correlations.
3. You know that you are in a museum, therefore you know that you are looking back.
For me the last point was especially striking as it corresponds well to an insight gained from my PhD research: that the format, the genre, the context cannot be emphasised strongly enough. A flea market you would visit in a totally different state of mind. The situation would not expect you to reflect, but in a museum the frame has a certain appellative character: watch and try to understand the (historical) meaning! And so we did.
So a huge part of our pleasure to inspect and discuss all these ugly, beautiful, useful and crazy objects in the Museum of Things, derived from our knowledge about what a museum is – and what it is not, usually. As you could find all these things also on a flea market, a special tension was created between our willingness (supported by the “serious” museum situation) to reflect on their meaning and, at the same time, our amused amazement about the venture to deploy them in a “serious” museum.