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By Massimo Negri, EMA Scientific Director
‘El Lenguaje Museogràfico’ is the title of a book by Guillermo Fernàndez which can be downloaded without charge from this site: www.ellenguajemuseografico.org.
It is also available in hard copy with this number ISBN9788409349425.
Its subtitle clarifies the content and justifies the main reason for this review, as follows:
‘A short handbook introducing to the knowledge and the use of the fascinating language of 21st century’
and here we come to the pillar of this discourse : to exhibit means to use a specific language with its words and its grammar. Exhibiting is a means of communication which plays a special role in the context of contemporary mass media; exhibiting is everywhere not only in museums and galleries. These are facts which are not always evident even to those museum professionals who are most frequently involved in exhibition development, a complex process which in many cases lacks a clear methodology.
The awareness of such a lack has been the main motivation for writing our “Developing Exhibitions. There is a method in this madness” by Dirk Houtgraaf and Massimo Negri and published by EMA and Waanders Publishers in 2020 (ISBN 978 94 6262 3064), a handbook which shares many aspects of the vision illustrated by Guillermo Fernàndez in his book.
Indeed, the two publications are very different in terms of development and structure, but the conceptual pillars are very similar and one could say that the two integrate themselves very well in spite of the different languages. Spanish and English are different and this might imply differences in terms of terminology, but the identification of processes involved is similar and denotes a common view of this specific area of heritage studies and practices. It is no surprise to learn that Guillermo has been working for five years with the late Jorge Wagensberg (1948-2018) on the creation of CosmoCaixa, the most innovative science museum on the European scene of the last few decades. Jorge was among the first to adhere to the European Museum Academy Foundation project, a further link between us and Guillermo’s experience.
Jorge’s vision was clearly expressed in his book, The Total Museum. A Tool for Social Change, ISBN 978-8461126248, published in 2005 and founded on the idea of a ‘total museology’. He once wrote:
“We have to invent a new museography: museography with objects that are real but express themselves in a triply interactive way: manually interactive (hands on), mentally interactive (mind on) and culturally interactive (heart on). They are objects with associated events, living objects, objects that change. It is one thing to exhibit a sedimentary rock on its own and another to associate an experiment that shows the process in real time of how the rock was formed”.
Exhibition language is no longer confined to museums or galleries, as one can find ‘exhibition environments’ in many public spaces: restaurants, hotels, airports, railway stations, corporate spaces, universities, department stores, shopping centres etc. It seems that this way of communicating, which embraces still and movable images, words, tangible objects, sounds, and involves all the senses, is becoming pervasive especially in the urban landscape. Technology has empowered very much the effectiveness of this special language with the use of digital devices and digital materials giving origin to the so-called immersive spaces, where museographical elements play a strategic role and where we can witness a strong shift from a mainly visual experience to something much more articulated and complex.
“The museographical language finds its own specific and endemic communicative resources in the world of what is perceived as tangible and real. Its specific ground is Reality strictu sensu.”
“…in the exhibitions we exploit the powerful communicative effect of the direct contact with reality, which can be perceived with special nearness and intensity through our different senses, sometimes even through all of them simultaneously”
These two sentences from Guillermo’s book are in line with the assumptions above mentioned as the main motivation towards the effort to define a methodology for exhibition development which could orientate any exhibition planning, in whatever context.
‘El Lenguaje Museografico’ is structured in 10 chapters covering all aspects of the theme with a clear and enjoyable approach, profound contents but presented in an easy-reading way. This has added value in an area where frequently pompous sentencing simply conceals the weakness of thoughts and a substantial lack of practical experience. Today experience remains a cornerstone of any discussion and development of reflections on exhibiting.
Two chapters deal with the resources of museographical language, introducing a distinction between objects and phenomena which is particularly appropriate when dealing with science which, in the end, has been the environment of the author’s experience. A glossary, a bibliography and an interesting proposal for designing the colophon of an exhibition (always a critical moment when the job comes to its end) complete the book.
Guillermo Fernàndez is also a co-founder of the Spanish group “El Museo Transformador” (www.elmuseotransformador.org) which defines itself in the following terms:
“We are an independent group of professionals from the world of museums who are committed to a contemporary museum dedicated to producing decisive and verifiable transformations in the culture and education of society. For this we want to contribute to developing and consolidating the museographic language in order to put it at the service of education in its broadest sense, from a broad, open and transversal vision of the museum as a contemporary social phenomenon”.