A Place Not a Place: Reflection and Possibility in Museums and Libraries - Museums Association

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A Place Not a Place: Reflection and Possibility in Museums and Libraries

David Carr has an in-depth knowledge of the role of museums and libraries as places of learning, but his new book is not always an easy read, says Timothy Mason
Timothy Mason
Earlier in the autumn, I visited three exhibitions in Berlin, a united city now abundant with museums - 27 new or completely renovated museums have opened there in the past ten years.

The first, Rembrandt - Quest of a Genius, was a long-planned part of our weekend; the second, Picasso drawings from the Musée Picasso in Paris (the temporary exhibition at the Berggruen Museum), was less organised; the third was a complete surprise, Cai Guo-Qiang's dramatic Head On in which 99 wolves leap in a giant arc behind the rather unprepossessing entrance to the Deutsche Guggenheim. Three different exhibitions found in different circumstances - it was a chance to test some of the theories in David Carr's A Place Not a Place.

Carr is an American academic with a library background; he is a passionate believer in the power of inquiry and a fervent advocate of the role of museums and libraries at the heart of what he describes as reflective learning. Here 'stories can be exchanged and experiences confirmed - where flexible alternatives can be suggested and strategies can be compared'. Yes, it's that kind of book.

In a series of 13 essays, Carr sets out his stall with gusto. Words come tumbling out in gushing streams - 'We are learners,' runs the opening paragraph. 'We build. We observe. We reflect. We experiment. We explore. We fail...' - and so on and so on. Carr has a wonderfully rich vocabulary, but he so loves to string his words together that at times I felt I was wading in a liquid thesaurus, up to my knees in synonyms.

And then there are those sentences that baffle, even on second reading - 'cognitive mastery in the cultural institution is not based only on an expanding catalogue in the mind but on sensitised knowing, critically developed when an intelligence works within a knowledge structure, using its information to expand and deepen perceptions'.

At times this is a hard book to read and that's a pity because amid the torrents of perissology (it's obviously catching), Carr brings wisdom and experience to the question of how museums and libraries can act as places for learning and 'thinking differently'.

Bravely, he attempts to analyse the moment when a visitor enters a museum for the first time. Carr borrows the sociologists Peter Berger's and Thomas Luckmann's phrase from 1966 - 'a tension of consciousness'. (Carr manages to turn this into an 'evanescent tension') during which there is a flood of memories; images from childhood; past conversations - it begins to seem that your whole life flashes by before you step boldly into 'the unfolding array'.

One surprising absentee from Carr's arguments is information technology. In his introduction he claims, rather awkwardly, to be no Luddite but in the only paragraph in the book's 150 or so pages to deal with IT, his language flows less convincingly. Here, one suspects, is a man of the old school who sees 'strength in paper'.

This is fine, but his underlying thesis that the librarian, the curator, and the educator can help unlock the heuristic - the method in education by which the pupil is set to find out things for herself or himself - seems less convincing, particularly from the point of view of the library if it ignores the Google factor.

In this context, Carr's gentle enquiry: 'Are you finding what you need?' seems slightly outmoded. The problem today is not finding what you need, but in sifting through the avalanche of information that search engines can deliver in milliseconds.

For Carr, the answer lies in questions. He even ends one essay with the declaration that 'this essay contains 275 sentences; there are 218 questions among them'. Undoubtedly, he is right in his advocacy of finding out for yourself and the need for 'inexpert' learners to acquire the skills to do so. Whether his methods are suited to a contemporary European audience I am less sure.

I suspect the answer might also lie in answers. Heurism is all well and good, but it requires an increasingly rare commodity - time. Museum and library users need help, even short cuts, to knowledge. Carr recognises three 'enemies of intellectual engagement arrayed against the museum user: reduction or condescension; the distortion and lofty distance of excessive scholarship; and silence and discontinuity'. Sometimes these can be simply provided in answers and information, not more questions.

Hello from the Berggruen Museum… here is a good example of Carr's point. The exhibition of Picasso drawings contains many studies for larger works, none of which are referenced with illustrations in either the relevant galleries or the leaflet available. As a result, there is no chance to see how these studies fit into the jigsaw of the whole. Not perhaps arrogance as Carr suggests, but certainly the assumptions of lofty scholarship.

Carr writes interestingly about the potential of collaboration between libraries and museums and on what he describes as 'reading beyond the museum' - indeed one of the books most powerful sections describes a student project to develop reading lists (sorry - 'bibliographic citations') that would take the visitor beyond an exhibition of photographs by Sebastião Salgado. The result was almost a hundred different ways of expanding the experience of the exhibition.

Meanwhile, back in Berlin… are we standing at the entrances to all three exhibitions surrounded by 'an evanescent tension of consciousness'? A bewilderness that includes 'an awareness of the extension and scope of this encyclopedic place, its infinite combination of paths... cultures and themes, allusive... subtexts…'? Oh for heavens' sake, just go in, learn - and enjoy!

Timothy Mason is an arts and heritage consultant

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