Visiting Zurich and Basel, and the Lessons Learnt

Last week my partner, David, and I visited Zurich and Basel to celebrate our thirtieth anniversary and also to indulge our shared passion for African Art. We visited a number of specialist museums but two, in particular, one in Zurich and one in Basel, set me thinking about issues of learning and teaching back here in Swansea.

The Museum Rietberg in Zurich is one of the leading institutions for the study and display of non-Western art (there is no better term for the collective). They were established as a private institution in the 1950s and have inhabited a couple of beautiful nineteenth century villas overlooking the lake. In the last ten years, since we last visited this collection, they have undertaken a complete refit and have installed two very extensive underground galleries that add considerably to the space they have to display objects without making any significant difference to the original villas and landscaping around them.

The Rietberg, however, remains a gallery for the connoisseur. They have a collection containing some of the best examples of African, Chinese, South East Asian and Pacific art in the world, and they have a publishing record that demonstrates a significant level of scholarship. In the display however, they present a relatively small number of really stunning pieces, now given space within the gallery for each one to be appreciated in isolation and admired for the skill and creativity of the artists. There is a small label for each item, giving provenance, date and the catalogue number, but there is no contextual information and if the visitor did not know what they were looking at then there is no possibility of knowing how the object was made, what it was used for, how its own creators understood it, or what role it played in the wider cultural context. This is a display of objects that are expected to speak for themselves, or perhaps more accurately, to speak primarily to those who are already in the know.

From our point of view it was great to meet up again with old friends, objects that we know well and have admired from previous visits, from extensive reading in the subject and from exhibitions in other galleries where these objects have been loaned for display. Ironically, however, it was the early Chinese porcelain that really captured our imaginations and the display clearly left us wanting more; more information, more context, more understanding.

The second museum, the Museum der Kulturen in Basel, was a very different institution. It had grown out of the anthropological collections of the University of Basel and is now housed in an incredible new building that both challenges and complements the medieval spaces around it. What was really fascinating here, however, were the choices made by the curators. On each floor there was a different exhibition, each geared to some kind of intellectual idea rather than driven by the desire to display the most important objects in their collection.

On the first floor, for example, was an exhibition entitled ‘Staying in Line’. Here the curators had broken with tradition and chosen a number of different kinds of object and displayed all the examples of that object that they had, either in a row or as a cluster. So much that any museum holds is generally relegated to the store and never sees the light of day, but here we saw all the middle European spinning wheels, all the New Guinea ritual hooks, all the Melanesian yam masks and so on, and it gave a very different perspective on the objects and their interrelations. Upstairs was an exhibition called simply ‘Big’ that contained objects that would not normally be displayed because they took up too much space, but in their scale offered an overwhelming experience. Many of these were from New Guinea and the islands around it and once again they presented a very different perspective on these cultures. Finally, on the third floor was an exhibition, Strawgold, which looked at recycling in many different traditions across the world. Once again a very different, and interesting perspective.

Of course, what David and I missed, in the Basel museum, was the chance to see those items in the museum’s collection that, as collectors, we most wanted to see because they related to our own particular collection. There were very few African items on display and while we loved the exhibitions, and were greatly stimulated intellectually by the ideas that were being explored within the displays, we left disappointed that we had not seen the objects that we particularly wanted to see.

So what does this say to University education? I think there is something here about expectations, there is something about knowing your audience, and there is something engaging intellectual curiosity. We often imagine that people outside of higher education still expect Universities to be built on the model of the Rietberg. They expect them to be repositories of scholarship, of excellence and of clear, unambiguous classifications in terms of the disciplines that we are expected to offer. They know that the ordinary person is not expected to understand the outputs by way of programmes or research, they are expected to just stand and admire, in awe at the skill and the intellectual prowess, most of which remains hidden away in the background.

The modern University, however, including Swansea, is much more like the Museum der Kulturen. We know that we have to reach out to our audience, have to engage with real world issues such as recycling/climate change, and have to sell our learning through carefully crafted marketing and presentation (impact). The Museum der Kulturen took this one step further, however, and has begun to rethink how the objects can be displayed, to ask anew what links to what, what constitutes an appropriate object for display. How can the presentation inspire and engage the audience, not just as passive visitors, but as intellectual beings who can be encouraged to think about things differently?

Like the Rietberg we can build new spaces, new campuses, and wow potential students with the pinnacles of our achievements. How far, however, do we go on to rethink how the various disciplines of the University are connected? How far do we begin to reimagine the connections, to bring to the fore elements that are not usually seen, generate creative and inspiring links, new avenues of thought, and new ways of thinking, especially among our students? I am sure that we do, it is part of who we are. The question, however, might be how we begin to present that to a wider audience, those who come expecting to see the beloved objects that they usually find in such institutions? How do we manage expectations? How do we inspire future participants (both staff and students)?

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