Peter McIsaac. Museums of the Mind: German Modernity and the Dynamics of Collecting. University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007. xiii + 322 pp. $60.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-271-02991-7.
Reviewed by J. Laurence Hare (Emory & Henry College)
Published on H-German (September, 2009)
Commissioned by Susan R. Boettcher
German Literature and the Notional Museum
More than two decades of research into the cultural history of museums has yielded two major perspectives that underlie Peter M. McIsaac's Museums of the Mind. The first is the recognition of the place of museums as institutional cornerstones for modernity. Through the medium of display, the museum tells a story about the past that inherently underscores its distance from the modern present, while the manner in which it reconstitutes that past--by creating selective narratives while alienating objects from their original context--is itself uniquely modern. The second perspective, emerging from studies of these narratives, is an awareness of the connections between the museal and literary spheres, and it is here that McIsaac enters the conversation. He attempts to provide for German-language literature what Eric Gidal and Barbara Black offered for English literature, but McIsaac also wishes to sharpen our understanding of the links between the museal and the literary. Specifically, he seeks to identify the presence of what he calls the "museum function," which refers to processes that control "the way objects are valorized, acquired, and discarded, organized, displayed, and hidden in a particular society" (p. 12). "Because it refers to processes," he explains, "the museum function extends beyond institutional walls in important and subtle ways" (p. 13). Consequently, McIsaac seems to be searching for a set of common social and cultural practices that imprint themselves on both the museum and the literary work. Ultimately, his focus on analyzing individual works means that this larger dimension of the project never quite gets its due, but McIsaac succeeds nonetheless in providing insight into the ways in which so-called notional museums have informed modern German literature. At the same time, he reminds us that, if museums are gatekeepers of modernity, then their power to order our perceptions extends far beyond the gate.
McIsaac opens his study by touring a theoretical terrain mapped by Durs Grünbein and W. G. Sebald, who provide a uniquely German point of departure. Where Grünbein focuses on museums to stress their importance in stimulating the mental processes that shape our modern sense of reality, Sebald emphasizes collecting to understand the new meanings derived from the dialectic between collection and collector. Together, Grünbein and Sebald help us understand a concept of "inventoried consciousness" that describes a mental state achieved through a broad range of processes for organizing both existing information and past memories. Behind all of these ideas rests Walter Benjamin, who appears in each chapter as a cohesive thread binding the individual works under study. It is Benjamin who best reminds us of the salience of the collector in modern life and who describes so well the difficulties inherent in removing objects and memories from their original contexts and reconstituting them in a new setting. Given Benjamin's own propensity for collecting, it is somewhat surprising that McIsaac elected not to treat him in a more systematic way. Rather, he seems content to let Benjamin stand as a theoretical guidepost and transmitter of nineteenth-century museal discourses across the chasm of the National Socialist era.
Having armed his reader with an appreciation of "inventoried consciousness" and the "notional museum," McIsaac sets out to trace the relationship among museums, collectors, and writers by examining six literary works, beginning with J. W. von Goethe's Die Wahlverwandtschaften (1809) and Adalbert Stifter's Bildungsroman, Der Nachsommer (1857). Both works reveal the degree to which collecting, both in the creation of public museums and as a motif in literary narratives, became an indispensable link between notions of Bildung and national consciousness. Writing at the birth moment of the public museum, Goethe gives us a more critical view of the "disciplinary influence" of collecting on German society (p. 87). In his novel, Goethe shows how such dynamics were at once useful in crystallizing notions of aesthetics, politics, and history in German society and potentially dangerous in the level of control they exerted over their participants. "This influence," McIsaac explains, "scripts the characters' behavior, blinding them to the destructive impulses inherent in these dynamics" (p. 87). By contrast, Stifter, who was writing several decades after Goethe, takes the collecting dynamic for granted and offers a more positive assessment of the potential for collecting and exhibiting. Here, McIsaac seems to suggest the development of a more didactic role for museums in the years between Goethe and Stifter. Where Goethe influenced such early proprietors of public exhibitions as Sulpiz and Melchior Boiserée, Stifter appears to have received his inspiration from Karl Friedrich Schinkel, whose museum designs anticipated Stifter's emphasis on collecting as a necessary feature of personal Bildung.
McIsaac's treatment of Wilhelm Raabe's "Keltische Knochen" (1864) and Rainer Maria Rilke's Neue Gedichte (1907-08) offers glimpses of the expanding museum experience in the late nineteenth century. Raabe's tale of archaeologists competing over the famous Halstatt burial site illuminates not only the emerging trends of professionalization and mass tourism, but also the problems of authenticity and commercial reproduction prominent in Benjaminian theory. Rilke's working relationship with the sculptor August Rodin, meanwhile, highlights the degree to which the culture of exhibiting had transcended the museum by the end of the century. The ubiquity of museum discourse, McIsaac shows, had moved beyond the public museum to the museum quarter, the outdoor exhibition, and finally to Rodin's studio, where it embedded itself in Rilke's poetry as an "imaginary museum" (p. 153). McIsaac argues that Rilke embraces the "notional museum" in order to control space within his poetry, comprehend the objects about which he writes, and find new ways to overcome the fragmentation he sees inherent in modernity.
From fin-de-siècle Paris, McIsaac jumps to postwar Austria and Germany, where Ingeborg Bachmann and Siegfried Lenz confront the consequences of the museum regime for the history of the twentieth century. In his analysis of Bachmann's Malina (1971), McIsaac stresses the ties between the reemergence of a specific museal discourse, embodied in the male director of the Austrian Heeresmuseum, and the persistence of Austria's brutal past. "Through the example of the Army Museum," he writes, "the text leads the reader to discover how, in spite of being officially disavowed, objects and anecdotes from Austria's violent past go underground, continuing to structure consciousness" (p. 188). Lenz's Heimatmuseum (1978), meanwhile, wrestles with issues related to physical control and cultural transfer, as its protagonist, Zygmunt Rogalla, recounts the details of the private collection he destroyed to prevent its exploitation by right-wing extremists. McIsaac sees in the dialogue between Rogalla and his son-in-law a clear moment in which the collector must face the limits of his influence over how his collection is interpreted. He explains, "Rogalla agrees that cultural transmission requires that the next generation take possession on that generation's terms" (p. 233). At the same time, McIsaac views Lenz's novel as an important example of the power of the "notional museum," even if the text is inherently limited in its capacity to reproduce the material past. "Lenz's text," he argues, "is an important precursor to [later] narratives of inventoried consciousness, a precursor whose museal environment helps us understand the centrality of the museum in recent forms of inventoried consciousness" (p. 241). Lenz, then, serves as a bridge to the thought of such writers as Grünbein and Sebald, which brings McIsaac's book back to its starting point.
McIsaac's study will no doubt appeal to Germanists and students of comparative literature, who will appreciate his engagement with a variety of genres as well as the insights that his approach yields for each of the texts under study. His readings of the two postwar novels are especially enlightening, and he seizes on more than one opportunity to cut across the scholarly grain. McIsaac also offers a sustained gender analysis in each chapter that ties the works together through their engagement with the "stubbornly male domain" of collecting regimes (p. 256). There is also much here that historians will like. McIsaac recognizes that, while the museum is a perennial player in the shaping of modernity, it is by no means an unchanging one. Consequently, the rich contexts he provides for the authors and their texts reveal not only the evolution of the museum's ties to literature, but also its expansion into modern consciousness. Indeed, it is tempting to see in McIsaac's study a narrative of the decline of the physical museum and its replacement by a "notional" variant. Unfortunately, McIsaac's close treatment of individual works precludes him from painting with a broader brush. His conclusion, moreover, which admirably summarizes the main points of his literary analyses, is far too brief to approach the topic's grander implications.
Potential problems are also raised by McIsaac's choices of literary works. On the one hand, it is wise for him to emphasize texts whose authors had intimate connections with the museum community or whose subjects dealt with museum issues. Such a tactic helps the reader see more clearly the kinds of connections McIsaac wishes to make. On the other hand, his selections undercut his ability to apply his theories more generally. McIsaac seems to want us to envision modern museums and literature as developing within the boundaries of a shared cognitive process, but his examples depict a more dialogic relationship. We see, for example, Stifter and Rilke looking over the shoulders of Schinkel and Rodin, while Bachmann and Lenz shout at the follies of the preceding generation. They are less like compatriots stepping together into modern consciousness and more like neighbors watching each other across the hedge. This difficulty raises the question of just representative these works are. To what extent might we see similar dynamics at work in literature without direct connections to the museal sphere? Moreover, what is specifically German about this relationship? McIsaac offers a thin justification, claiming, "Many German-speaking writers and thinkers were avid collectors and/or drawn to museum-related work in one manner or another" (p. 17). Many of the dynamics at work, however, seem equally valid for non-German settings. Rilke, for example, structured his poems in the museal atmosphere of Paris, whose transformation was not too far removed from developments in other European capitals.
These criticisms aside, it is worth emphasizing that what McIsaac does, he does well. He adds greatly to our understanding of several important German texts and makes an important contribution to his own field. He also manages to draw lessons of value to a broad range of disciplinary interests. If he ultimately struggles a bit to balance his individual analyses with the potential for deriving larger lessons, he nevertheless demonstrates the power of the "notional museum" to transcend the walls of the museum, structure our memories of the past, and shape our perceptions of the present.
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J. Laurence Hare. Review of McIsaac, Peter, Museums of the Mind: German Modernity and the Dynamics of Collecting.
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