Showing the secret

By Mirjam Deckers

There they lie, all opened, right in front of me. Their leaves look splendid in the light, which they are probably seeing for the first time in many years. It is as if they are greeting me and my fellow curators, inviting us to come closer, to listen to their story.

This is how I remember my first encounter with the three wooden books in the depot of the University Museum Groningen. I was told that they were made early in the 19th century as parts of a xylotheque, a ‘tree library’ in which every wooden book represents and is made of a specific type of tree. The cover consists of a piece of bark. Inside the book, you will not only find a written description of the tree in question, but also its leaves and seeds. In this way, these books are not only aesthetically beautiful objects, but also a means to educate their ‘readers’ in a sensory way. Furthermore, they were meant to create an ecological consciousness. My fellow curators and I were lucky to have been offered the opportunity to curate an exhibition around the three wooden books and their functions: aesthetics, education, and ecology. We did this in the newly created Student Exhibition Lab in the University Museum. Our task was not only to show the books, but also to reveal their secrets, for it was not clear where these books came from and how they had ended up on a shelf in the depot of the University Museum. I learnt many things during the process of creating the exhibition and this blog will be about one of the lessons learned, which I deem very valuable: showing the secret of objects.

We decided to call our exhibition ‘The Secret of the Wooden Books’. The central theme is not only the books themselves, but we also intended to research their origins, which until then had remained a mystery. It resulted in a wild quest through archives, museums, libraries, and even more archives. We partly succeeded, because we discovered that the books most likely belonged to the University of Groningen ever since they were made by the German xylotheque-artist Alexander Von Schlumbach. During the fire that ruined part of the Academy Building in 1906, the books were – luckily – stored in another university building and therefore survived. But several questions remained: were there more wooden books? Xylotheques usually contained roughly 150 volumes. And if there are more books, where are they now? Were they victims of the fire of 1906? And who bought the wooden books in the first place? Was it professor Theodorus van Swinderen, who was a professor in natural history in the period the books were acquired? At some point, our quest reached a dead-end. The other objects in our exhibition are not only related to the wooden books through the themes of aesthetics, education, and ecology. They also share with them the secretive quality, as many came from the dark depths of the depot and their origins are at least partially unknown.

In his book Ways of Curating, the famous curator Hans Ulrich Obrist argues: “An exhibition is not an illustration. That is, it does not, ideally, represent the thing it purports to be ‘about’. (…) Exhibitions, I believe, can and should go beyond simple illustration or representation. They can produce reality themselves.” (Ways of Curating (2015), 167-168) This is exactly what we tried to do in our exhibition. We did not simply want to show you the wooden books, providing you with pre-packaged information. Instead, we wanted to show them as objects with a secret history, of which some parts are yet to be unraveled. ‘The Secret of the Wooden Books’ represents more than just three wooden books. It introduces the visitor to the exciting secrets of objects hidden in depots, such as the one in our own university.

Like many museums, the University Museum has an enormous collection, but most of the amazing artifacts never see the light of day, let alone the eyes of a visitor. Their existence is unknown to us and so are the stories they can tell. For some of the objects, the story is full of gaps, as was the case with our wooden books. But can we only exhibit objects of which the story is complete? I would say no. Showing the objects with their secrets and mysteries might invite visitors to think along, encouraging to begin explorations of their own.

Depots are more than safes where we can store and conserve objects, so I learnt. During the process of curating ‘The Secret of the Wooden Books,’ I became a treasure hunter, and the depot became the site where I had my own Indiana Jones-like experience. It made me think: depots are usually regarded as the negative of museums, namely what is not on show versus what is. But depots deserve more credit. They are spaces of possible excavations, revelations, and exciting discoveries. It is often thought that whatever is not on display in museums goes to depots, which is true. But the reverse is true as well: depots can equally function as true treasure chambers, where secrets can be found that could form the starting point for new exhibitions. This is the approach we chose for our exhibition and it did not matter to us that we could not find out everything about the treasures on display. We dug up the books with all their secrets, letting the objects speak for themselves.

When you enter the exhibition, the first thing that will catch your eye is the first of the three wooden books. It is closed. It symbolizes what is emphasized in the title of our exhibition: the secret. It is okay to leave secrets unravelled. The new Student Exhibition Lab, which will hopefully be used by future students on a yearly basis, provides the perfect place to experiment by bringing the secrets of the depot to the surface. And these objects invite you, the visitor, to start digging, and to enter their secret worlds.

Mirjam Deckers(1996) rondde recentelijk de bachelor Kunsten, Cultuur en Media af en zal komend jaar beginnen aan de master Kunstgeschiedenis in Groningen.

Foto’s: Dirk Fennema

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