Temporality in Literature & Museums

A review of Timescapes: The Production of Temporality in Literature and Museums, by Jennifer Walklate.

Part 1 of Walklate’s dissertation, ‘Literary Temporalities,’ begins with an introduction that explores the compelling question of “museum time” as something transcendent.  While this may be true, it is noted that this is due to the manipulation of the museum space to create this effect. The author’s research is based on how the tools of literature can be successfully applied to understand temporality in the museum setting. Various concepts about time are contextualized and effectively presented. Of particular interest are the author’s comments and quibbles on Michel Foucault’s idea that museums are forms of heterotopia “as places outside of and different from all other places” and are able to escape the passing of time (p. 7). Walklate points out that while the sense of time may be altered in a museum, a social, shared notion of time is always present. She does well in relating memory to the museum space in contextualizing her work within that of Susan A. Crane and Andreas Huyssen by pointing out that museums are not only storehouses of the past, but they also have an impact on the present and the future. The argument for the connection of temporality in literature and museums is intriguing, as both operate with complex notions of time and have been subject to being analyzed through various theoretical lenses including theories of language, semiotics, narrative, modernism and postmodernism. To this end, the author provides a brief and elegant theoretical genealogy of how her work is informed by that of Ferdinand de Saussure, W.J.T. Mitchell, Tzvetan Todorov, Jean Francois Lyotard, Claude Levi-Strauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, Walter Benjamin and Henri Lefebvre. She then turns to scholarship from museum studies such as that of Mieke Bal, Elizabeth Weiser, and Paul Basu, and culminates by situating her methodology within the work of Gaston Bachelard and phenomenology, and explaining the collection of museums and case studies that became the focus of her work: the Ashmolean Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, and the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. The tools from the first section of the dissertation are applied to the case studies in the second half.

Chapter 1 (‘Plotting Time’) looks at the specific and deliberate arrangement of time and events in narratives, the development of the plot and the presence of events. A veritable literary genealogical study neatly weaves literary theory into examples ranging from Biblical and Classical texts to Virginia Woolf and Kurt Vonnegut. The author draws upon Roland Barthes’ ideas of “cardinal” and “catalystic” events and Aristotle’s moments of “reversal” and “recognition” and how each of these affects the creation of the narrative. The idea of linear time in plots is clearly explained, but also challenged by Gerard Genette’s “anachronies” and the work of Sterne and with excellent examples from Proust and Borges to support the claims. The use of stream-of-consciousness and possibilities for non-linear plots (such as Cortázar’s Rayuela) are effectively analyzed. An explanation of Genette’s five forms of textual relationships supports the importance of context.

Chapter 2 (‘Looking at Time’) analyzes how perspectives influence timescapes and temporally located events, beginning with a discussion of the observer and the speaker, the author, the narrator, voice, the focalisor and the scriptor, drawing upon Barthes, Foucault and Mendilow. Here, the author of the dissertation begins to relate literary texts to the museum visit by mentioning how, as Barthes notes, just as readers have a “writerly function,” so do visitors to museums as they experience and interpret the museum space. An eloquent discussion of the use of first, second and third person in narrative, direct and indirect speech, and Genette’s perspective of the grammatical voice is combined with numerous helpful, precise examples.

Chapter 3 (‘Words and Times’) discusses how words influence the temporal aspects of literary works. Beginning with an apropos conversation between Humpty Dumpty and Alice about how to use words, the chapter introduces linguistic theories and the basic tenets of grammar and language and suggests that the intentional use of words can be employed in designing museum spaces. Examples from various canonical sources such as Keats, Shakespeare, Faulkner and Wordsworth illuminate each point made by the author. Of particular interest here is the discussion of temporality and the complexities of verb forms, and how certain forms of the past tense may be relevant to the present. The author returns to Auerbach and adds Bakhtin and other pertinent theoretical works, and does well in touching upon the evolution of language and the way in which making use of archaic words can evoke the past.

Chapter 4 (‘The Rhythm of Time’) examines how poetry resembles prose and delves into the concept of rhythm, metre, and the experience of language, mentioning the work of e.e. cummings, Silvia Plath, D.H. Lawrence, and others, as well as distinctive types of poetry (haiku and the visual poetry of Guillaume Apollinaire, for instance). It begins with an analysis of punctuation, and discusses how stanzas and paragraphs have an effect on the temporal sense of literary works. The idea of soundscapes is also introduced, noting the aural properties of poetry.

The author articulates the conclusion to Part 1 (‘Words Enough on Time?’) with very lucid prose, bringing together the ideas of the first section in discussing “symphonic chronotopic landscapes” (p. 132) that she argues can be created in literature and in museums, and ending with the compelling conclusion that “literature has much to teach the museum” (p. 121).

In the introduction to Part 2 (‘Temporalities in the Museum’), the author explains how literary tools are applied to case studies and various characteristics of museum temporality and space. The three museums being studied are reintroduced: The Ashmolean Museum, The Pitt Rivers Museum, and The Oxford University Museum of Natural History. Visual maps accompanied by analytical explanations of the rationale behind the arrangement of the museum spaces are compelling and useful to the reader of the dissertation. A concise explanation of how museums, like literary works, are open to the interpretation of those who visit their hallways and pages illuminates the author’s ideas.

Chapter 5 (‘Time’s Arrow – Linearity in the Museum’) deals with the direction and function of time in the museum. The author begins by arguing for a more liberal definition of linear time, aptly stating that chronologies and periods are often arbitrarily designated. The Ashmolean Museum is arranged chronologically, and the author does well in addressing the shortcomings of the museum in that it mostly focuses on “European and Oriental histories with little account of the Americas or the Antipodes” (p. 138). It is argued that the museum presents Grand Narratives, which should be questioned. In contrast, the Pitt Rivers Museum offers a different form of narrative by allowing visitors to create their own narrative while visiting the Museum, which the author suggests has parallels to the picaresque tradition. The cathedral-like structure of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History is quite intriguing and the connection to the creation of the Grand Narrative as defined by Lyotard is adroit. Additionally, the discussion of the display case (one of the original features of the Wunderkammer) in creating “linear temporal movement” is compelling. The work of Erich Auerbach on grammatical ideas of tense and aspect is astutely utilized to evaluate the wall texts and chronologies, noting the usefulness of the timeline to contextualize events. Photographs from the three museums serve as a positive visual complement to illustrate the author’s point of view. For instance, the author touches upon the conservation debate by displaying a photograph of a purposefully broken vase at the Ashmolean and what this means for the relationship between linearity and degradation. The museum visitor is also seen as a participant in the actions encouraged by the texts in the museum, and this is related to the work of Barthes and Bergson.

Chapter 6 (‘Disrupting the Arrow – Other Directions for Museum Time’) addresses the limitations of linear time by returning to Genette and making connections with the work of Walter Benjamin and Jacques Derrida. The author critiques the arrangement of the Islamic Middle East gallery at the Ashmolean for creating a sense of estrangement, which is rightly compared to Modernist writing. The author also examines the presence or absence of windows in museum spaces, suggesting differing experiences with time based on the availability of natural or artificial light. The author completes an analysis of text panels that accompany objects, and notes that all museum objects are really transtextual, since “they all draw fragments of other times and spaces into the present” (p. 171). The author suggests that museums free themselves of the confines of linear narratives to open up spaces for philosophical reflection and openness, concluding appropriately that there is “always more than one way through time” (p. 201).

Chapter 7 (‘Manifesting in Time – Examining the Presence of Things’) discusses both presence and absence in the museum as related to notions of authorship and lacunae. The author’s description of presence is innovative as she discusses how it is engineered in the museum space through various modes of sensory perception, including the importance of location and framing, the architectural structure of museum buildings, objects that can be touched, and auditory environments. She returns again to Barthes, suggesting the visitor should be active in the museum, just like the reader in the text. This chapter also importantly refers to the authors of museum exhibits, and how authorship can often be observed in curatorial decisions, both in presence and absence.

Chapter 8 (‘In Real Time – Authenticity in the Temporal Museum’) applies transtextuality to verisimilitude to examine authenticity in the museum space. This chapter does well in questioning the role of the museum as the purveyor of truth and the artificial nature of museum exhibits, engaging with the work of Jonathan Culler, Genette and Patricia Waugh. Culler’s definition of vraisemblance is utilized to understand how museum exhibits integrate the rules of other discourses. This is particularly brought forth with Yuri Lotman’s idea that paintings are always translations, which can be translated to other objects in museums, such as casts of sculptures (p. 263). The author also engages with a recent trend in museums to ask people to please touch a small board or plaque that explains how touching affects materials in order to help visitors understand that they can contribute to the decay of objects in museums by touching them. This chapter discusses issues with representing history accurately, and from which perspective historical events are narrated, which certainly impacts their representation.

Chapter 9 (‘Unique Things in Time and Space – Auracity and Temporality’) relates the concepts of  the aura, wonder, epiphany and focalization to time and space in the museum, returning to Huyssen and others who write about museum studies such as Paul Basu. The author rightly points out that “the ‘museum effect’ is akin to the ‘making strange’ of language that characterizes the literary work” (p. 293). Anonymous objects are discussed and the idea of their distinctive aura due to their anonymity is indeed an interesting concept. This chapter does well in explaining the spiritual aspects of museums as cathedrals, imbued with aspects of the sublime, and the dangers of fetishizing such an environment.

In the conclusion to the dissertation, the author notes that temporality is a creation in museums, manipulated to produce differing effects. The aspects of the malleability of time in museums are sometimes manufactured intentionally, and other simple things like decay also contribute to alterations in temporality. The museum visitor is directly affected by temporality and is seen as an active participant in the narrative of the museum space, and each individual experiences the museum space in a distinctive manner as a “scriptor of [the] museum timescape” (p. 322).

The literary elements of the three museums analyzed by the author are original and convincing, and as she notes, they could be applied to the analysis of other environments. Fomenting discussion about how literary tools can be applied to museum environments is innovative, and as the author notes, literature can teach museums a great deal. Walklate also does well in forewarning museum practitioners as follows: “Museum makers, in particular those seeking to create auratic environments, must be careful in their choice of words if they do not want to sound, or be, dogmatic or indoctrinal” (p. 319). This advice could be given to any pedagogue, and is important to heed. As museums deal with challenges of how to attract and engage visitors, they would do well to consult literary strategies for effective forms of narration and use of compelling language as well as ideas of language and temporality in museums. For instance, how are spectators engaged with the past, present and future based on language in wall texts, the chronology of exhibits, and the architecture of museum spaces? Museums are texts, and they are relational, social spaces, and should be thought of as such by curators and museum professionals.

Dr. Marcela T. Garcés
Assistant Professor of Spanish
Department of Modern Languages & Classics
Siena College, New York

Primary Sources

The Ashmolean Museum
The Pitt Rivers Museum
The Oxford University Museum of Natural History

Dissertation Information

University of Leicester. 2012. 403 pp. Primary Advisor: Simon Knell.

Image: Two Dodo Reconstructions, Oxford University Museum of Natural History 2012. Photograph by Will Ellwood.


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