In this new collection, editors Johan Schimanski, Ulrike Spring and Thea Aarbakke take us through the rooms of author museums around the world. From Norway to South Africa to China, these essays rightly “acknowledge author museums as a global phenomenon”.
While noting the foundations of author museums – sites dedicated to writers that are often located at their former homes – in the 19th century, this book firmly underlines the importance of these venues today. Schimanski, Spring and Aarbakke convincingly emphasise the need for a global, interdisciplinary focus to help us better understand this distinct category of personality museum.
The essays explore author museums from “two entangled perspectives”: expansion, going from the inside of museums and then out; and politics, moving from the outside in. This focus allows for a broad discussion.
The first section, expansion, skips between historical and current curatorial perspectives. Eva-Maria Orosz, for example, explores the changing display of Franz Grillparzer’s reconstructed apartment (a form of period room inside the Wien Museum), followed by Anna Bendek’s analysis of the ways digital interactives can be embedded into author museums – something that has become more relevant because of the lockdowns during the pandemic.
The book’s first half also theorises about the display potential for author houses. Spring and Schimanski tap into the ghostly presence of the author, noting how these museums contain an “uncanny overlaying of curatorial, authorly and fictional voices” – something that I, having worked in author museums, can attest to. Later in chapter seven, Vanessa Zeissig theorises how to display literature, noting that it is not just conceptual but also a spatial and creative process.
The second half of the book places author museums in a greater context, looking at them particularly as a symbol of nations. Anastasia Felcher analyses literary museums in the Soviet Union from 1940-1979. In contrast, Emily Graf notes the use of author museums in connection to the Chinese literary establishment, paying close attention to the agency of objects on display.
Chapters 11 and 12 look at problems around the commemoration of authors. Narve Fulsås explores how the celebrated Norwegian playwright Henrik Ibsen was not museumised after his death, and how his international reputation was impacted by the lack of a strongly cultivated writer’s house in his honour.
It is noteworthy that the contributors are a mix of academics and museum professionals, allowing a more practical perspective on literary heritage.
The introduction notes many of the big questions facing author museums and those who work in them, but they are not necessarily answered. Instead, these issues are addressed through musings rather than examples. As a museum professional working at an author museum, I would have liked to see more practical examples of how these questions could be answered. Zeissig’s chapter This is Not A Set of Guidelines – Or How (Not) To Exhibit Literature, came tantalisingly close but, as the title says, did not result in a go-to set of guidelines.
Transforming Author Museums gives a sophisticated introduction to the wider conversations facing literary heritage today, firmly bringing the field out of the 19th century and into the modern era. The breadth of focus creates a springboard for more detailed works that give further examples from around the world and practical suggestions for, and from, museum professionals.
The book’s authors have expanded the depth of scholarship around authors’ houses; let’s hope others follow in their footsteps.
Emily Dunbar is the curator of the Charles Dickens Museum, London