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Caroline Marie and Anne Chassagnol. Museums in Literature: Fictionalising Museums, World Exhibitions and Private Collections

Brigitte Friant-Kessler
Bibliographical reference

Caroline Marie and Anne Chassagnol. Museums in Literature: Fictionalising Museums, World Exhibitions and Private Collections, Brepols, 2022, ISBN: 978-2-503-59357-9

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  • 1 Régnier, Marie-Clémence, ed. « Ce que le musée fait à la littérature »., Interférences littéraires, (...)
  • 2 MuséaLitté: https://musealitte.hypotheses.org. Accessed 1 March, 2024.

1In 2015, Marie-Clémence Régnier edited a collection of essays entitled What do museums do to literature.1 Museums in Literature. Fictionalising Museums, Exhibitions and Collections, co-edited by Caroline Marie and Anne Chassagnol, turns that proposition on its head and explores what literature does to and with museums, exhibitions and collections, whether public or private. Marie and Chassagnol are co-founders of the research project entitled Muséalitté, (COMUE UPL) for which they also created a website (exhibition reviews, international conferences, academic publication).2 When I first saw the word I misread it as « musicalité » (musicality), which, beyond paronomasia, actually helps to fully appraise the multidirectional angles and diversity in rhythms of the book under review.

2Museums in Literature comprises twenty essays, which are dense and stimulating, each in its own way. In spite of such density, the layout lets the texts breathe and makes for a very pleasant reading experience. Each chapter is lavishly illustrated when needed, and the reproduced images are high quality visuals. The collection is conducive to episodic strolling, as one actually would in a museum. The book could be described as a paper-museum in its own right, a space in which you can wander from room to room, go back and forth between chapters, without ever losing track of the main thread: literary works, discourses in/on museums (exhibitions, collections), which are directly or indirectly generated by them contribute to shaping a new vision of the museum-text relationship. Its coffee-table book format makes it a solid hardback to handle (22cm x28cm) as well as a beautiful object, which puts it in the category of art books.

  • 3 It is originally the result of an assignment when she was at Cardiff School of Art and Design in 20 (...)

3The image on the front cover is both puzzling and aesthetically pleasing. It represents miniature books set in holes, carved in the pages from a giant book. As explained online by illustration artist Rachel Walsh who created the work3, it is a metaphorical way of explaining the Kindle e-reader to Charles Dickens. Each miniature replica also literally kindles one’s curiosity and resonates with reading and looking, handling and gazing, making, thinking and pausing as interwoven and complementary activities. From that vantage point, the cover illustration proves a perceptive choice in that it is a material manifestation of resonances, which run throughout the essays like a pattern in a rug. Museums in Literature convincingly argues that there is as much literature in museums as there are ways to fictionalise them, or to put it Deleuzian terms, the essays engage with the becoming-museum of texts and the becoming-text of museums. With Deleuze and Guattari still in mind, one may also see in the book different and original paths toward deterritorialising museums and texts. The essay by Ben Screech, which discusses Oxford-set-museum-set fiction calls upon the French philosophers by using the concept of heterotopia (179), and museums are presented as heterotopic spaces too in Connan-Pintado’s contribution (125).

4There are five separate but cogently-organised sections: the first, “Museums Outside Museum” (Sophie Thomas, Susanne Bayerlipp, Hanna Hadjadj), is followed by “Museums, Worlds, and Objects” (Bénédicte Jarasse, Nolwenn Corriou, James Weldon). The third deals with “Museums Poetics and Aesthetics” (Christiane Connan-Pintado, Sylvaine Faure-Godbert, Lavinia Torti). Next, “Museum Material Culture and Writing” (Jessica Desclaux, Maxime Thiry, Ben Screech). The last section is about “Fictionalisation and Legitimisation” (Éric Triquet and Marie-Sylvie Poli, Kiera Vaclavik, Morgan Labar).

5There are also 5 interviews conducted by Caroline Marie who interviews Korzer-Robinson, and Edward Carey, Anne Chassagnol who interviews Emmanuel Guibert and Manuel Fior, and Hanna Hadjaj, who interviews Lance Olsen. These ‘conversations’ add an interesting degree of orality to the essays and give an impression of proximity with those artists whose graphic works and artistic installations resonate with Korzer-Robinson’s phrase: “Looking at books is like revisiting a museum (27).

6Each essay explores how texts and museums interact, from different social, geographic, cultural, historic, and aesthetic viewpoints. Literature is “loosely understood as poetical text, literary discourse, imaginaries” (17). In their introduction, Marie and Chassagnol argue that museums are dependent on literature, by which term they mean all the texts which encompass fiction writing but also those that would appear to be more remotely connected to museum-going. The core issue of the books is the “porous nature of the divide between museums and literature” (16). Museums and collections as observed and discussed through a literary perspective are part of a “multimodal aesthetics faced with a vast spectrum of literary genres” (19). Several essays stress the multisensorial experience of museum. Lavinia Torti focuses on visibility by analysing the paradoxical benefits of blindness in her essay on museums as studios when fictionalised.

7Starting with what happens on museum walls, Jonah Siegel’s preface insists on “Literature as the necessary complement of any institution devoted to preservation and display” (14). Literature is everywhere in museums, and every day. The variety in styles of wall texts reminds us that whatever piece or object one sees in a show, it cannot do without texts. Although critical literature on the topic is far from scarce in museological studies (Hana Gottesdiener, Jérôme Glicenstein to name but these two), this opening piece is a welcoming reminder that wall texts in museums are micro-narratives. They contribute to what experts call the museographic project of an exhibition, that is, the staging of the selected fragments of collections on view, and the brokering between works and publics. As texts, they generate narratives, which make the visit enjoyable, pedagogical and most of all memorable. At the other end of the spectrum, there are texts, which at first sight might seem only remotely connected to fiction. Yet, Morgan Labar’s final essay about contemporary art giga-collectors Dakis Joannou, François Pinault and Eli Broad suggests that a close reading of exhibition reviews and catalogues may redefine the boundaries of what is literary. It reasserts the necessity to explore museum-produced texts and catalogues, especially those made to look like artist’s book (217). This so-called “grey literature” partakes of the “ethical-aesthetic norms of the time” (224).

8Ethics is also at stake in essays, which stress negativity in museum-related texts. Whether one has a museophilic or a museophobic mindset like Paul Valéry or Thomas Bernhard’s museum-hating protagonist in Ancient Masters, discussed by Sylvaine Faure-Godbert, these places are volens nolens endowed with a formidable power of attraction. Chances are that Valéry would not couch his negative perception of museums in the same words today and he would no doubt be invited to give lectures in such institutions. Interestingly, negativity resurfaces in Éric Triquet et Marie-Sylvie Poli’s co-authored essay on two writers: Kamel Daoud and Lydie Salvayre who contributed to the collection “Ma nuit au musée”. At the crossroads of reportage and autobiographical narrative, such first-person accounts allow for dissonant voices to be heard. Poli and Triquet, whose expertise lies in museology highlight a political Bourdieusian take on museums, which are analysed as places of exclusion, particularly for those who lack the required ‘cultural capital’. Salvayre reminisces a childhood deprived of museum-going as a life-long stigma to overcome. Daoud compares museums to churches prone to disseminating a dogmatic discourse (200), which is an interesting counterpoint to, say, H.P. Lovecraft’s view of museums as sacred temples. In a similar positive vein, Kiera Vaclavic shows in her essay that there are “stories about museums which break glass barriers (211).

9To follow Jean Philippe Toussaint, whose interaction with museums is studied by Maxime Thiry, we “progressively move from fiction to fantasy” whereby a key aspect of what is questioned in Museums in Literature is underscored, namely how we tackle the linearity of texts as opposed to constellation in museum rooms (172). That museums are fiction and fantasy-generating spaces (Conan Doyle, Rider Haggard, or Margaret Trelawny) is due, at least in part, to exoticised visions of museums peopled with fantasmagoric and magical creatures, as observed by Nolwenn Corriou. In the essay by Bénédicte Jarasse, the magic of the 1851 World Exhibition is seen through the lens of a French press critic and author. Gazing, observing, looking at the mysteries lurking in and behind the scenes of museums or collections is predominant in horror stories. David Labreure’s essay on H.P Lovecraft argues that “mummies challenge the imperial power” (81). While several essays look at museums, collections in relation to contemporary artforms, welcome contributions concentrate on 18th and 19th century antiquarians and eccentric figures. Jessica Desclaux shows how Peladan in France, whose personal signature in cuneiform characters bore witness to his passion, used the Louvre like a stage backdrop. Horace Walpole, William Beckford and John Soane were in their days not only famous collectors and architects; they were also preoccupied with writing. Another extremely porous divide is thus laid bare by Sophie Thomas, who shows in her essay that “Buildings like writing are paper” (32) and “houses are spaces that may be read” (41). Architecture forms part of museums as buildings. Manuel Fior, author of Variations d’Orsay (190) concurs with such an approach, and in the course of Lance Olsen’s interview by Hana Hadjaj, the artist points out that we need to “defamiliarise the reading process and change narrative into architectonics” (55).

10As special places designed to house special things, museums are explored by adults and children in several essays. Words like “magpie”, “hoarding vs collecting” (Bayerlipp), suggest accumulation, and even surfeit channeled by discourses and imaginaries. In James Weldon’s essay on a museologically-oriented fiction, the project of a war museum near Trieste registers collecting as the “paradox of encyclopaedic temptation,” (103). Driven by the “thing power” (49), the fascination for objects, stuff and the materiality of both books and museums are fertile ground for texts, which explore order vs chaos. Museum artefacts, when fictionalised and documented, may become animated. Edward Carey explains “The little things are thrilling” (11). Little things and little people matter indeed as “We become children each time we enter a museum (120). Christiane Connan-Pintado looks at children’s books and shows how their playful formats are likely to serve as teasers for young people. Ben Screech explains how creative writing activities for school children and how teacher trainees are stimulated by “location writing”. Oxford is presented as an ideal locus for museum-related works. Literature that exemplifies this power of Oxfordness range from Carroll’s Alice books to Tolkien, CS Lewis, and Pullman. The notion of VIP writers in museums is also an interesting one. A case in point is Beatrix Potter’s visit at the V & A on the day she was granted access to a piece from the collection because she was famous. As argued by Kiera Vaclavik, she “had the intellectual and social legitimacy” (207). We don’t always have such a privilege, but some books enable us to afford the pleasure by proxy.

11In conclusion, it seemed not only irrelevant but impossible to review all the essays in a linear fashion as this book is neither chronological, nor linear, in spite of being made of texts (and beautiful images). In order to give potential readers a flair of what to expect when navigating it, I opted for constellation and meandering through the 5 rooms of this paper museum. At the end of the book, there is a helpful index of museums and institutions as we rarely know all those places. An index of names might have been useful too, as well as perhaps a general bibliography to complement the individual ones included at the end of each essay. Museums in Literature is a fascinating polyphonic book, in a Bakhtinian sense, bound to be appreciated by museum goers and museologists alike. It certainly is an incentive to tracking down more museum-set fiction and paying closer attention to the materiality of artefacts, collections in books. In the wake of Susan Stewart’s seminal 1993 study On Longing (xii) who argues “the collection marks the space of nexus for all narratives,” we are prompted to perceive the affective and emotional role played by the act of collecting. Texts, as shown in Museums in Literature can communicate such an experience. Much food for thought is offered to those who are not aware of the manifold discourses built by and around museums, exhibitions and collections, but this book will equally open avenues to the ones with a keen interest and expertise in the field. Researchers in the field of Humanities will get a stimulating insight into new topics to explore. Literature lovers, who often tend to like museums too, will have much to squirrel away as it highlights different styles and genres and underscores the variety of texts one can label “literature”. In that respect, Marie and Chassagnol are paving the way for new approaches, new ways of looking at exhibited or collected objects and reading texts that fictionalise them. No doubt curators will find the book inspiring for future shows on authors and literary works. The 2020-2021 lockdowns forced museums to reinvent ways of communicating about their collection, to imagine new outreach activities and modes of retelling. In the process, museum goers became simultaneously readers and writers, time capsule builders and memory box aficionados. The crisis also “showed how much literature is a topic for curators” (16). Finally, to all those who suffer severe pangs of unsatisfied museophilia when they cannot visit real life museums, as during the pandemic, Museums in Literature will hold a special place in their hearts and libraries. It is definitely a must-have on our shelves.

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Notes

1 Régnier, Marie-Clémence, ed. « Ce que le musée fait à la littérature »., Interférences littéraires, 2015.

2 MuséaLitté: https://musealitte.hypotheses.org. Accessed 1 March, 2024.

3 It is originally the result of an assignment when she was at Cardiff School of Art and Design in 2011.

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References

Electronic reference

Brigitte Friant-Kessler, “Caroline Marie and Anne Chassagnol. Museums in Literature: Fictionalising Museums, World Exhibitions and Private CollectionsMiranda [Online], 29 | 2024, Online since 19 April 2024, connection on 22 June 2024. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/miranda/59083; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/miranda.59083

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About the author

Brigitte Friant-Kessler

Maître de conférences Emérite
Université Polytechnique Hauts de France
Brigitte.Friant-Kessler@univ-valenciennes.fr

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Copyright

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The text only may be used under licence CC BY-NC 4.0. All other elements (illustrations, imported files) are “All rights reserved”, unless otherwise stated.

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