Museums: Bridging the Gap between the Visible and the Invisible


Jacques de Lajoue, “The Cabinet of Joseph Bonnier de La Mosson”

“The trucks and locomotives lined up in the railway museum carry neither freight not passengers. Nobody is slain by the swords, cannons and guns on display in the military museum, and not one single worker or peasant uses the utensils, tools, and costumes assembled in folklore collections or museums. The same is true of everything which ends up in this strange world where the word ‘usefulness’ seems never to have been heard of, for to say that the objects which now await only the gaze of the curious were still of some use would be a gross distortion of the English language: the locks and keys no longer secure any door, the machines produce nothing and the clocks and watches are certainly not expected to give the precise time of day. Although they may well have served a definite purpose in their former existence, museum and collection pieces no longer serve any at all, and as such acquire the same quality as works of art, which are never produced with any definite use in mind, but simply to adorn people, palaces, temples, apartments, gardens, streets, squares and cemeteries. Even so, it cannot really be said that museum and collection pieces serve a decorative purpose: decoration is the art of using pictures and sculptures to break the monotony of blank walls which are already there and in need of enhancement, whereas walls are built or specially adapted in museums and in some of the larger collections, for the specific purpose of displaying works. Collectors with more modest means have showcases built, boxes and albums made or else clear a space somewhere for objects to be placed, the aim every time seemingly being the same, namely that of bringing objects together in order to show them to others. Museum and collection pieces may be neither useful not decorative, yet enormous care is nonetheless lavished on them.


The Library of Alexandria, Cosmos: Spacetime Odyssey

Our museums owe their name to the ancient temples of the Muses, though the most famous of these, the Museum of Alexandria, did not owe its fame to any collection of objects, but rather to its library and the team of scholars who formed a community within its walls. There is, nevertheless, more than one similarity between the Greek and Roman temples and our own museums, for it was in these temples that offerings were amassed and displayed. The object, which had been given to the god and received by him in accordance with the rites, becomes ίεpóν or sacrum, and shares in the majesty and inviolability of the gods. Stealing or moving it, preventing it from fulfilling its function or even simply touching it constitute acts of sacrilege.’ To talk of use in this context is in fact impossible. Once the object crossed the threshold of the sacred enclosure, it entered into a domain which was strictly opposed to utilitarian activities. Within this enclosure, ‘one can neither extract stone, take earth, chop wood, build, cultivate nor live’. Accordingly, objects could play only one single role, and were placed on display either in the sacred buildings which they then adorned, or else in buildings erected specially to house offerings, when these became so numerous that they threatened to clutter up the places of worship. As well as coming to pray, the pilgrims, who were also tourists, visited the temples in order to admire the objects they contained. …

In theory, once an object had been offered to the gods it had to remain forever in the temple in which it had been deposited. Every object was listed in an inventory and protected from theft. Even when they deteriorated they were not disposed of in any old way. …

‘If they were made of silver or gold, the following course of action was taken: a decree of the people resulting from a proposal from the priest or holy treasurer, in accordance with advice from the council, ordered that the offerings which were in a poor state be melted down into ingots or amalgamated to form one single offering; the same procedure was followed when dealing with all scraps of precious metal. If they proved to be an encumbrance or were broken, less valuable objects were taken from the temple and buried. Their dedication had consecrated them for eternity, and they were in no circumstances to be put back into circulation, so in order to shield them better from all secular use, they were often broken on purpose, if they were not already broken. This accounts for the piles of terracotta or bronze objects to be found in the vicinity of certain sanctuaries….’

(Pliny the Elder …)

We should now look more closely at what happens when the objects intended for the gods, namely the offerings, are placed on public show. As well as serving as intermediaries between mortals and immortals, they also came to represent to visitors the fame of the gods, since they were proof that this fame reached all four corners of the world: after all, even the Hyperboreans sent offerings to Delphi…. In the same way, they represented peoples who lived in far and remote if not fabulous lands. For present-day visitors they were a reminder of past benefactors, along with the circumstances surrounding the sending of offerings, and even of groups and individuals who had been involved in bygone events. Some of the offerings were testaments to the ability of certain craftsmen, sculptors or painters to produce extraordinary works the likes of which are no longer seen today. The weirdest, strangest, most spectacular offerings stood out from the ranks of more commonplace articles, exciting the curiosity and imagination of the visitors by challenging them to go beyond the simply visual and to listen to or read more on the subject. Thus it was that stories or anecdotes, some of which have come down to us through the works of Herodotus, Pausanias, Pliny the Elder and several other authors, revolved around offerings of this kind. These offerings could continue to function as intermediaries for this world and the next, the sacred and the secular, while at the same time constituting, at the very heart acted as go-betweens between those who gazed upon them and the invisible from whence they came.

…it was the role forced upon them, the role of guaranteeing communication between the two worlds [the visible and the invisible] into which the universe is cleft, which kept these objects out of the economic circuit.

To avoid any misunderstanding, it must be emphasized straightaway that the opposition between the visible and the invisible can take many and diverse forms. The invisible is spatially distant, not only beyond the horizon but also very high or very low. It is also temporally distant, either in the past or in the future. In addition, it is beyond all physical space and every expanse or else in a space structured totally differently. It is situated in a time of its own, or outside any passing of time, in eternity itself. It can sometimes have a corporeity or materiality other than that of the elements of the visible world, and sometimes be a sort of pure antimateriality.

Collections, or at any rate those which have been examined here, represent only one of a number of measures adopted in order to guarantee communication between the two worlds and the unity of the universe. This enables us to understand more clearly why there is such diversity in the objects making them up, in the places in which they are located and in the behaviour of their visitors, as it reflects the diversity in the ways the visible can be contrasted with the invisible.”

Krzysztof Pomian, “The Collection: Between the Visible and the Invisible” in Interpreting Objects and Collections, edited by Susan M. Pierce, Routledge: London and New York


David Cox, “The Long Gallery of Hardwick Hall”

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11 Responses to Museums: Bridging the Gap between the Visible and the Invisible

  1. Such a fascinating read Monika.. I love visiting various museums especially when I go abroad, I find the treasures within them a delight..
    Your explanation of these often revered objects and how when an object once offered to the Gods had to remain in the temple was then listed and an inventory kept.. This being the beginnings of the modern day museum..
    Lovely to read,,

    Wishing you a Wonderful and Happy New Year Monika..
    Sue 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jorge Borges was fascinated by this imaginary museum, written by a certain 17th physician who, like many other antiquarian collectors, possessed his own ‘cabinet of curiosities’ . But nothing quite matches the extraordinary items listed in Browne’s imaginary museum.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jeff Japp says:

    “We should now look more closely at what happens when the objects intended for the gods, namely the offerings, are placed on public show.” I think the real thing is to look at which gods we offer these objects up to: mainly Science and Money (Mammon). That said, great post and I LOVE the images.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Jeff, thanks a lot for your comment. It is unfortunate that cultural institutions have to be profitable or die being subject to the laws of free market. I read the other day that the Louvre is facing difficulties because of a huge financial loss caused by the threat of terrorism. I must be a crazy idealist but I think that such institutions should be sacred as temples and not peddled away.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Jeff Japp says:

        Yeah, well, temples are not considered sacred anymore either. Sadly, ancient sacred sites are being systematically destroyed because they contradict another group’s religious doctrines. We live in strange times, and they are going to get stranger. What was it Jim said? “Strange days have found us/ Strange days have tracked us down…”

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I have already visited the Egyptian Museum in Cairo longtime ago, and I must admit that I today find it quite disgusting that dead people are presented in museums like there. Why can’t they just be left in peace at a respectful place and grave? Museums in Europe used to work (especially in the 19th century) also as a colonialist force collecting and robbing a lot of things from countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia. And this destruction of ancient culture is still ongoing (although today more driven by private collectors). I therefore have great doubts regarding the principal concept of museums and collections today.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you very much for this valuable comment. I often think about this injustice as well but still I must admit I love going to almost all kinds of museums. I think it is not an idea of a museum which is at fault but us humans caught in the exploitative paradigm of our civilization.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I am in a supporting group for the Ethnological Museum of Berlin, and nowadays the policies of museums have changed of course, and they are doing good social projects also. But can you imagine that ONLY in Berlin’s oldest hospital (Charité) there is a “collection” of bones/skulls of nearly 1,200 human beings from Cameroun? These were “collected” during the colonialist era for “anthropologic” research, a better wording would be racist studies. And in a lot of other museums in Germany you will find the same in forgotten cellars, but nobody wants to talk about such … I am quite sure in other countries it is the same.

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