Dimitra Ntzani | University of Edinburgh, Edinburgh, UK

Laying Siege On The Content: Questioning the effectiveness of the “container” metaphor in contemporary museum design

The Architectural Review journal welcomed 2013 with an issue dedicated to museums. In one of its articles, Prof. Antonello Marotta speaks of the museum as a space created “to look backwards” while he briefly comments on the main metaphors that generated the various kinds of museum architecture (Marotta et al., 2013). Two key points penetrate the previous overview.  The first one is the interpretation of the museum as a space that mediates our relation with the past. The second one is its interpretation as a “container”, even in architectural examples where the museum as a context is ready to dissolve. This paper suggests that because of our cognitive tendency to objectify culture and memory, we conceptualise, design and inhabit museums as “containers”. Additionally,  it  questions  the  ability  of  the  “container”  metaphor  to  inspire  a  new relation with the exhibit and to organise effectively the contemporary museum practices enriched by the digital and information technologies.

The contemporary museum is still defined as a “repository”, assigned to the duties of the “acquisition, preservation and communication of cultural heritage” (ICOM, 2007). Ever since the roman treasure houses, the “public palaces” of the French revolution, Adorno’s “mausoleums” and the contemporary “urban sculptures”, the museum has been perceived as the protective “container” of an objectified culture. Accordingly, it has been judged as the faithful or arrogant servant, the effective or inappropriate context of the significant cultural elements. The Encyclopaedic Dictionnaire de Museology (ICOM, 2011) verifies the previous presuppositions by suggesting that architecture served more successfully the museum dialogue with its urban settings than the visitors relation with the exhibit. In that perspective, the museum’s relation with its contents is hardly negotiated and appears mostly unresolved. The metaphor’s implications become more obvious in a museum fully enriched by the pervasive media, where the “container” is challenged to vanish.

In this paper, it is suggested that the “container” metaphor emerges from the conceptualisations of the museum as a memory space and of culture as a collection of elements. Drawing from Michael Reddy’s theory on the Conduit Metaphor (Reddy,1979) and from contemporary interpretation of culture as a cognitive process (Hutchins, 2008), this paper suggests that the “container” metaphor is incapable to inspire a new relation with the exhibit or to orchestrate new cultural practices, especially in a museum already invaded the digital media.