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tolbooth

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Last thing I did on my trip to Edinburgh this week was visit the Canongate Tolbooth, that is, the “People’s Story Museum,” which was a lucky find, as it is a rather crusty but generously socialist museum of the vie quotidian in the Scottish capital. Placards describing the role of “Marxist radicals” in opening education to the working class, Neurathian maps of social housing in the city (sadly, the timeline index of course ends in 1984 or thereabouts), leftover banners from long-ago marches and the like. Lovely. And makes me think that I should probably do some work on this sort of museum, as it fills a hole between a hole bunch of my interests so very well.

One thing that I’m thinking about, was thinking about when I was there. What’s with all the wax guys, the dioramas? You know what I mean, this sort of thing:

Basically, the two staples of the left museum – the “people’s museum” – have long been the quanty graph or map and the “slice of life” diorama. I’ve done a lot of thinking about the former, and will continue to think about it, but the later is pretty interesting too. I know the form has a history, one that’s been well-covered over the last decade or so (think visual entertainments of the late 19th and early 20th etc…)

Now, of course they make a low-tech and relatively cheap effort at “breaking the frame” that would come of, say, stocking your everyday life museum with a series of period photographs or even pictures of contemporary restagings of scenes. We’re not talking Madame Tussauds, here, but there is at least a momentary and slight sense that you’re looking at “real people” rather than shadowy after-images, easily dismissable in a world chocked full of photos. Not that interesting, I don’t think, nor is the fact that by contextualizing the real fake people in rooms full of period objects you emerge with some sort of materialist notion of the subject, straw people who effectively are the things that are in their kitchens or bedrooms or prison cells. There’s something else to these things that I’m straining to say…

Lucky for me, the only two images of scenes from the Tolbooth that are available on-line are the two that affected my daughter (who’s three) the most. The prison people she was fascinated with, even more so after I explained (I know, I coulda done better) that prison is sort of like the poopie chair that we make her sit in when she’s bad, except that people end up in prison unfairly sometimes. (The people above, according to the caption at the museum, include a thief, a deserter, and a debtor). The other one she was most interested in was the one immediately above this paragraph. If memory serves, it’s a mother and her three children, living under the rafters somewhere, immiserated because the husband / father was taken during a dysentery outbreak sometime in the 19th century.

Neurath wanted his graphical museums to be equally legible to the child and the adult, the lettered and the illiterate, and it must be said that kids get the dioramas too, maybe more than the adults – at least mine did. I’m quite sure that she was far more interested in them than she’d be in most pictures – at least those that don’t feature “a monster that eats people” or “the queen.” (I know. Look, it’s not my homeland’s fault, the queen business…)

So what is it I want to say about them? Simply that dummies inspire empathy in a way that 2-D images do not, because children understand them?

No, not quite. I think what I want to say is that there’s something about this low-tech form, left behind in a world of MegaArt and BisectedCows and DisneyAnamatronicalism, that itself is a signal of something in its low-tech-ness and cheapitude. The flea-bitten displays, the care of construction of the individual and its life space, the art effort of the thing, seems to me an allegory of at least two things at once. First, the meagre means that the constructors of the People’s Museum, wherever it is, work with today. There are no funds for the retrofit – yesterday’s technology will have to do. There is a deep pathos in this. Second, yes, the care for the individual, the shit statue of an irrelevant person – there’s something to that too. Pretense or whatever it is, taking the time to fit out an Edinburgh fishwoman, the abandoned poor mother, the guy who lives in the rooming house with his other suit hanging on the wall, even if they’re plastic or wax, paper mache or cardboard – the care of production, the art of making them visible, is in itself a performance of our politics, and as such, bring tears and feeling faster even than the contents of the scenes themselves.

Written by adswithoutproducts

July 3, 2008 at 11:58 pm

Posted in aesthetics, socialism

2 Responses

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  1. This made me think of two things: 1) in Susan Buck-Morss where she describes visiting the famous museum where Benjamin wrote about the woman wax figure adjusting her garter, and she sees that there is a layer of dust on it, and 2) I’m rereading Eco’s “travels in hyperreality” right now, thinking about how all those anamatronic fakey-fake displays he criticized are themselves now old, out of date, outmoded, encrusted with their own history and in danger of being demolished in favor of something more “realistic” and “cutting edge.”

    I’m trying to post something myself about sprawl and CA history but can’t figure out exactly what I’m disagreeing with in the Eco.

    Ah, well.

    Sisyphus

    July 4, 2008 at 1:05 am

  2. Yes! especially numero uno! I misread that at first, thinking the “she” in “she sees that there is a layer of dust on it” referred to the wax figure herself. Weird!

    CR

    July 4, 2008 at 9:15 am


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