Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge opens "Cabinet of the Unknown"

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Werkbundarchiv - Museum der Dinge opens "Cabinet of the Unknown"
Mousetrap in shape of a house "Capito“. Design: unknown. Manufacturer: Luchs, Gütersloh, 1920-1935. Material: metal, wood Collection Werkbundarchiv – Museum der Dinge. Image: Armin Herrmann.

BERLIN.- An object that never revealed itself to the curator before the project began evoked interest and many inquiries… Why would one have a key with two identical blades that mirror each other, rather than the usual single blade? Why one would use it, and what for? If this key is for a door, which parties does this door connect?

After a period of research that took place with locksmiths and long-term residents of Berlin, the answer was revealed: the Berliner Key. A prominent topic for contemporary philosopher Bruno Latour, the Berliner Key is a two-sided-key that was designed to “force people to close and lock their doors (usually a main entrance door or gate leading into a common yard or tenement block)”, produced to replace the concierge, whose job it was to open the door all through the night. Acting as a tool for power mechanism, the key granted permission for the door to be opened on both sides towards and away from two different vistas - standing for a series of binary divisions: inside and outside; tenants and owners; institutions and audiences; known and unknown.

Taking the Berliner Key as the as a ‘key’ object “Cabinet of the Unknown” exhibition project dwells with the unknown through the processes of knowing and creating acquaintance. It pursues the goal to connect the known to the unknown by linking the museum in the backyard to the street in front, making the unknown of the museum (as well as the museum itself) knowable to its environment. It takes the museum itself into its centre and works with a peripheral approach through three main elements: the museum, the collection and its community. With a ripple effect, the focus moves away from the museum and expands towards a new audience, shifting the gaze from the focus to periphery as well as shifting the attention from known objects that could be classified (in terms of musicological taxonomy), to unknown objects that are not. In other words, the project gets involved with what and who is around the museum in Oranienstraße and what is around the defined collection that remains as unknown objects of the museum. Working with (and within) the neighbourhood through unknown and undefined objects in the museum will offer an alternative approach to creating a connection with the local community as well as bringing a new understanding to the position of the museum itself in the audience context and reevaluate the notion of institutionalisation of knowledge in the museum context. In order to reach its goal, the project follows three trajectories:

1. ‘Knowing’ the unknown objects
2. ‘Knowing’ the unacquainted/ ‘unknown’ neighbours in Oranienstr.
3. ‘Knowing’ the museum as the ‘unknown’ object in the neighbourhood

The long tradition of museum practice calls for museums as institutions to provide knowledge. In traditional museology, knowledge is a commodity that a museum offers whereby the visitor entering the vicinity of the museum has already accepted that knowledge that will be given and believes in the correctness of that information. It is the duty of power mechanisms that the museums are part of to be perceived as the ultimate knowledge provider with an epistemological wisdom of everything.

Within this perspective, the project invites Museum der Dinge - being already an untraditional museum in terms of taxonomy, curation and knowledge production - to expose its more fragile aspect, and share this with its community. The project incorporates the entire Museum Team as the starting point of the project, asking them which museum object is unknown and alien to them. Acting somewhat unconventionally, the team then presents this fragility to the community. In ripple effect, the museum team is asked to name a place, person, organisation or a business - such as unknown neighbour - that is either unknown to them or it is known to them yet due to the level of interest they believe it should be known or introduced to their peers.

For the second loop of the ripple, the project then invites these 'unknown' neighbours selected by the museum team to work with the periphery of the collection; namely the unknown objects. Do they have any idea about the museum team’s selection of the unknown? What are their own unknown objects in the collection? Furthermore, metaphorically seeing Museum der Dinge as an object, how familiar is the museum to them in their own environment? And finally are there any interesting neighbours in their environment that you want to connect with so we can invite them for the third loop of the project?

Working with both objects of periphery and the periphery of the museum’s physical location, the project also uses a contextual connotation to “Cabinet d’Ignorance” that was at Zwinger Palace in Dresden in late 1720s. Forming part of the Mathematische-Physikalische Salon, the “Cabinet d’Ignorance” was created for those items that cannot be named or classified and which have an “unknown nature, petrifactions, animals, monsters whose names and natures are not known” [London antiquarian, John Milles,(S. 114/217)] , “for which the visitors were invited to suggest identifications” (Bedini 1965: 11).

The “Cabinet d’Ignorance” reflects views that are both for and against the desire for taxonomy in the traditional western museology. It is a cabinet that adequately announces the fragility of the fact that some objects in the museum cannot be classified or to put it simply: be known. And yet the very act of doing this creates it itself a taxonomy of unknown objects. Considering Museum der Dinge’s representation which is already more open than many other institutions in terms of traditional museology; and following a format of cabinets of associations in its curatorial preference; it becomes clear that the motivation behind “Cabinet d’Ignorance” can still be seen as both contemporary and relevant; and by being open to visitor identifications it creates another chance to revisit the museological contexts with participatory behaviour which support communal inclusiveness both of and for the museum and its community.

From this perspective, the project does not look at the objects that are usually the focus of the collection, but beyond them to those other objects that are at the periphery. It does not bring the museum into focus, but its periphery on Orianienstr. Following Finnish architect Juhani Pallasmaa’s statement on architecture that the “peripheral vision integrates us with space, while focused vision pushes us out of the space, making us mere spectators” (13), the project incorporates the locational and communal periphery of the museum as well as its collection. It is an act of creating closer acquaintance through participation, rather than allowing the museum to remain as another commodity for inactive spectatorship. In line with the project’s direction, Pallasmaa in his book “Eyes of the Skin” continues: “The defensive and unfocused gaze of our time, burdened by sensory overload, may eventually open up new realms of vision and thought, freed of the implicit desire of the eye for control and power. The loss of focus can liberate the eye from its historical patriarchal domain.”

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