The past becomes present at museums

Never has the past been so present. What once was comes alive in films or computer games that recreate what has disappeared with the utmost precision. History is preserved in the form of inner cities, restored to look forever as they might once have done. Or the same old songs are played repeatedly, from morning to night, so that even popular music seems to have ended up in an endless loop of almost the exact nature that classical music has been in for over a hundred years.

Nowhere, however, is the dominance of the past over the present as clear as in the development of museums. Around 150 museums are said to have existed in neighboring Sweden during the late sixties. Today, more than 1,500 museums are counted, and many are private, but publicly accessible collections are not included.

The history of museums is a story of permanent expansion. The first was created when a few princely collections were opened to the public or when a republic like France wanted to display all the art treasures in castles, churches, and monasteries. It would now be considered the people’s property.

The new collections were stored in buildings that resembled the houses from which the exhibited objects were taken: in Paris, an old royal seat was used, namely the Louvre, or new castles were built, solely for art, as in St. Petersburg or Stockholm, or an almost religious reverence for art was expressed by making unique museums that resembled ancient temples, as happened in Berlin, London, and Madrid.

Eventually, similar magnificent buildings were also established for collections outside of art, in natural history, ethnology, the arts and crafts, and later in the history of technology.

The emergence of these collections was tied to the progress of the nation-state in the late 19th and early 20th centuries: They documented the possibilities and successes of civilization, and when they spoke of man, they meant, above all, their people.

National museums eventually fell out of fashion, but the number of museums only increased. In the village of Önneköp outside Hörby in Skåne, there is a cannibal museum. In Säter outside Skönvik in Dalarna, there is a museum about mental health care history; in Glommersträsk in Lapland, there is a museum of unsold ladies’ hats. In Vienna, there is a museum of condoms; in Croatian Zagreb, there is a museum of broken relationships; and in the village of Castelbosco outside Piacenza in northern Italy, there is a “Museo della merda,” a museum of feces.

No one has yet made a list of all these private museums. But they are found in every country in the Western world, with at least several hundred copies in every state. Since they usually go back to a hobby, which at some point burst the limited possibilities of the living room, it is difficult to determine when the collection began to be conducted with museological seriousness. However, there is reason to believe that the vast majority are no older than thirty or forty years. It may sound strange, but it is so: Their progress is tied to the triumphal march of modern art through the world’s great museums.

The painter Wassily Kandinsky, one of the pioneers of abstract art, praised his older colleague Paul Cézanne in 1912 for his ability to “create a soulful being out of a teacup, or rather, to discover a being in this cup.” It was not long before such a teacup, dressed in a piece of fur, was exhibited as a work of art next to a bottle dryer or a bicycle saddle with racing handlebars, which would represent a bull’s skull. Such objects, which become art because an artist named their craft, are called “readymades.” With them, the number of things that could be presented in a museum was infinitely expanded. It may not take more than a white wall, perhaps a showcase or a plinth, and then an excellent light to transform anything into an object of greater importance. The knowledge of the spotlight’s ability to transform a utility object into a significant object unites the modern artist with the man behind an odd private museum.

The early avant-garde was a revolutionary sect. Wherever it performed, it was met with the critics’ scorn and the spectators’ anger, with misunderstandings, insults, and not infrequently with fights. It took some time before the general public made peace with modern art, sometime during the sixties or seventies when Pontus Hultén ruled over the Moderna Museet, when Andy Warhol started making commissioned art for everyone who could afford it, and when Joseph Beuys had 7,000 oaks planted for an art exhibition in the German provincial city of Kassel.

After this time, art not only possessed infinite potential objects. It also spread throughout society, in the form of more and more museums, but also in the form of a cultural appropriation of the whole community. The city became a museum when neglected neighborhoods would come alive again, when the urban space was increasingly transformed into stages for concerts or theater performances gar, with new buildings that were initially perceived as works of art. And when there were now more odd private museums, they became part of a general development towards more culture for everyone.

Finally, this development also reached humanity itself. It didn’t just happen because it became so easy to build up a gallery of one’s existence with the help of social media and for more or less general viewing. It happened above all because people made themselves into works of art, each one of them: First perhaps in the form of expressive individualism, which expressed itself through clothes, gestures, or unusual preferences, then also with the body itself as an artistic object and an utterly private art gallery.

This development involves systematically processing the muscles with the perspective directed towards an ideal of beauty. But it primarily covers tattoos. Because what is a tattooed body, if not an image archive, where each post is of such importance that it is received under pain and then accompanies the bearer of the image throughout life? And what is such a body, if not an exhibition of a person’s dreams about himself and the rest of the world, preferably associated with strong memories? The tattoo must be the most intimate form of a modern private museum. But it is also the most extreme and personal expression of the fact that the past never goes away. It is preserved with passion in our museums.

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