Healy, Chris; Histories and Collecting: Museums, Objects and Memories in “Memory and History in Twentieth Century Australia” (ed. Darian-Smith, K and Hamilton, P) Oxford University Press, Mebourne 1994 (pp 33 – 52)
“I am really concerned with…giving you some insight into the relationship of a book collector to his possessions, into collecting rather than a collection….the chance, the fate, that suffuse the past before my eyes are conspicuously present in the accustomed confusion of these books. For what else is this collection but a disorder to which habit has accommodated itself to such an extent that it can appear as order?” (Walter Benjamin in Healy, p33)
Imagine trading the term book for documentary, film or cinema. The disorder, habit and appearance of order could have a relationship with our need or quest for narrative. Like in Hitchcock’s ‘cuts’ or pure cinema. To give precise meaning to an otherwise chaotic situation with any number of outcomes.
What really interests me about Healy’s analysis of the museum in Silverton is its close similarity to the predicament of the documentary filmmaker as he approaches his subject: “The Museum held a huge collection – pastoral, industrial and domestic artifacts; photographs, private papers, sporting and recreational memorabilia; portraits, medals and much, much more.” (p33)
In this case of the Silverton Museum, artifacts “were not ordered by chronological sequence or theme. Many were not labeled and, more often than not, the objects did not follow a theme or ‘teach’ the visitor anything in particular. The museum employed none of the characteristic means by which visitors have been trained to understand and interpret objects on display: the devices of category, of narrative sequence, of juxtaposing the typical and the singular, or of generating an aura of aesthetic wonder. It seemed as if the objects were meant to invoke associations, to trigger memories, to generate questions, confusion or fragmentary recognition.” (p34)
“The Silverton Museum was an anachronism. Those who could have remembered or interpreted the memory palace were dead; it was a place of silence and sadness.” (p34) In a sense a documentary does not document the ‘memory palace’, the documentary is the memory palace. Like the Silverton museum is set up for the understanding of someone from the 19th or 18th century, a documentary is for the understanding of the 21st C. The objects in the museum gather their context and meaning from the situation of the museum, how the museum has ordered them. Likewise, a person’s lament or story gains its context for memory and storage, from the construction of the film. Even, at the most basic level, from the frame of the screen.
Fetishising the subject, making it relatable: “…the stuffed carcass of the racehorse Phar Lap only works as a memory site because it is more than a dead horse in a glass cabinet. It works because it elicits social imagination and desires, and because it has been remade, both literally and figuratively, as an object on display. The museum is the key public institution in which these processes of memory work have taken place in Australia.” (p36)
“The ‘museum’ of the nineteenth century functioned as a general archive in which time never stopped building, in which things of all epochs, all styles, all forms could be accumulated and preserved against the ravages of time, in perpetuity. The Museum acted and in many ways still acts (and not least, conceptually) as a microcosm of the world, as a universal sacred space where Man can rediscover and reconstitute his fragmented self.” (Eilean Hooper-Greenhill in Healy, p3) Once again make as metaphor for documentary. As if documentary, or even the home video, is a way of preserving and a way of reconstituting the fragmented self.
Striving for difference and originality/breaking norms: “these odd collections and their strange ways of communicating relationships between object and history provide very different models of historical understanding, ways of thinking about the past and ways people remember their lives in relation to material objects. We all live as historians by inscribing and depositing the artifacts of our own historical cultures. That remembering, that making of histories, need not be that which we aim to capture, to preserve, to make present or to supersede; it can be part of the performances of remembering, of enacting histories. Digital systems of information storage and production might shift the focus of collecting and remembering in contemporary culture away from preservation and towards renewal, towards what Nietzsche called the possibility of history for life.” (p49)
Themes for memory: Desire, disappointments, fulfillment and compromise