- Museums of the Mind: German Modernity and the Dynamics of Collecting
The cover of Peter M. McIsaac's book, Museums of the Mind: German Modernity and the Dynamics of Collecting confronts the reader with a photograph of the central Rotunda of Karl Friedrich Schinkel's "Altes Museum" in Berlin. The photograph's perspective sweeps over a display of classical statues in favor of a view of the upper walls and ornamented dome of the museum. This image works as an introduction into the book, which aligns itself with a point of view that is not as concerned with museal objects as it is with their organization into historical, cultural and imaginative structures. The material objects in question work as a starting point from which to examine the origins of these organizational structures and how they came to exist within and across disciplines. The argument of the book is divided into four parts: "Historical and Theoretical Coordinates of Museal and Literary Discourse"; "The Rise of the Public Museum and Bildung"; "Acculturation, Commodification, and the Nation"; and lastly, "Narrative Interventions in the Museal Abuse of Culture." Each of these sections carefully examines the effects the rise of the public museum had on not only public and private notions of collection, but also literary modes of representation.
As his two main arguments for considering literary discourse and museum culture concurrently, McIsaac proposes "first, that the forces that lead curators, artists, and politicians in a given culture to produce museums lead authors to produce certain kinds of literary writing. And second, the values and priorities that make a museum possible and desirable are also articulated in literary form" (5). This thought-provoking thesis carefully frames nineteenth and early twentieth-century Germanic literary history within works of the late twentieth century touching on the writings of Grünbein, Sebald, Goethe, Stifter, Raabe, Rilke, Bachmann and Lenz. At the same time, McIsaac provides the reader with a walk through the historical museums of Berlin, which he extends back in time to a point before the public museum existed, when private collections prevailed in the form of Wunderkammern. With this exercise he shows that modern museums are "managers of consciousness" (9) and that literary culture and museum culture relate to each other on the level of an "inventoried consciousness."
This "inventoried consciousness" relies heavily on notions of memory and imaginative production and it is from this concept that the "museum of the mind" arises. This form of museum is not exclusively a late modern concept and McIsaac is quick to point out that "in Renaissance collections, the 'museum' was in fact thought to reside most enduringly in the mind of the collector." The term "notional museum" is used to recover this Renaissance concept "without losing sight of the epistemic shifts that have accompanied the rise of modern museum culture" (10–11). McIsaac addresses the notion of the collector with an analysis of Walter Benjamin's writings on the idea of [End Page 767] collection. In doing so, he defines the museum function "as a specific, consciously deployed hermeneutic, used to foreground the act of interpretation performed in the present while gaining access to prevailing cultural dynamics of the past" (13). The "museum function" does not simply work to organize objects in a straightforward, historical narrative, but rather it attempts to allow objects (and texts) to have a dialectical relationship with the present by way of the past.
In an attempt to uncover the genealogy of the "museum function" during the age of the public museum, the notion of an "inventoried consciousness" within the work of Durs Grünbein and W. G. Sebald is used as a model. These works necessitate a decisive distinction between the notion of the archive and the idea of the museum. The experience of reading Grünbein's poetry is similar to walking through a gallery and as such is an example of the notional museum or "museum of the mind." This practice of creating objects and spaces within language is a key component to...