museums in our minds
imaginary and virtual museum concepts and realities

Winter 2004 I received an invitation from Angel Kalenberg (director of the Museum of Modern Art in Montevideo, Uruguay) to participate in a debate and series of talks on ‘new technologies and new art forms’ during the yearly ARCO conference in Madrid. Kalenberg had specified my subject with the following long line: “From the Unimaginable Museum to the Virtual Museum Stopping Over at the Imaginary Museum”. I was quite familiar with the notion 'imaginary museum' as it has been coined by Andre Malraux in the forties of the last century, but I had to inquire with Angel Kalenberg what he meant by ‘the unimaginable museum’. He told me that he took the word ‘unimaginable’ from the book of the French art historian George Duthuit “Le musee inimaginable” published in 1956, in which the ‘imaginary museum’ idea of Andre Malraux is criticized. I managed to find a copy of Duthuit’s book and read and viewed again some of Malraux’s original works together with some critical essays and biographies and started to compare the 'imaginary museum' concept of half a century ago (often wrongly translated in English as 'museum without walls') with the 'virtual museum' idea of our times.

Modern travel and photography form the technical basis of some of the book projects of Andre Malraux in which he presents his readers with a wide overview of art objects from all over the world putting together what had been kept separate, making comparable - by the process of photography - what otherwise stands out as distinct in size, material and color. The dematerialization of an art object through photography gives it at the same time a new ‘material’ form: the single photographic print and slide. These serve not only the reproduction in a book and projection for a lecture, where a fixed order of images and text is established, but also support a process of perusing and constant rearrangements. A flexibility that –eventually – did lead to the breaking of the canon of art history specialists.

What was at first only known from hear say, textual description and drawing, what needed a long period of costly travels to be seen and experienced, became over the last three centuries more and more available through an ever improving and expanding industry of graphic reproductions and material replicas.
Still the hunger for originals, the feverish quest for unique treasures, the glory and financial gain to bring them “home”, remained, be it that the booty of war and conquest would soon pass from the hands of soldiers and raiders to those of scientists and museum curators. What often started in contempt of another culture might end in an almost religious esthetical admiration. Some of such original objects might be well preserved in material sense, but their immaterial quality - as a device in a believe system and religious ceremony – did get lost.

Dematerialization and desecration of artworks through reproduction and replication does not only take away from the original artwork, but also generates opportunities for new context and meaning. It allows us to make museums in our minds on the basis of what we choose to retain from the landscapes of images we cross in our lives, combining the experience of the ‘real museum’ with the flood of images of print and electronic media; “a metamorphosis that daily, and inexorably, changes the present into the past”. *

The ideas of Malraux (1901-1976) for an imaginary museum – as they developed from the thirties onwards - are certainly not unique in its time, there were several people working in a similar way in the arts, or expressing the same ideas in adjacent fields of knowledge, like: Abby Warburg (1866-1929) with his associative iconographic atlases; Paul Otlet (1868-1944) with his project for a world conscience facilitated by international documentation systems and educational institutions like the Mundaneum; Alfred Salmony (1890-1958) who first put Malraux on track by showing him possible comparisons between Asiatic and European art on the basis of photographs; Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) with his idea of reactivating photographic reproductions of art – that had lost the aura of the original - by creating new contexts.

The following series of visual scrolls, are the basis for a lecture which does not have yet a fixed text. The scrolls function as visual notes that trigger my narrative which may differ according to circumstances. Over time such narrated scrolls get less spontaneous and may result in a fixed text.

The concept was for a series of 7 scrolls. Four have been realized, three more are in the pipe-line.

museums in our minds – concepts and realities

1 the imaginary museum idea
2 the museum of lootings and the looting of museums
3 grand tour and detour - in fact or effect
4 ordering the museum to make sense of the world

5 duplicating or the copy that is better than the original
6 recaptionizing the museum - revanchism or relativism
7 the museumification of almost everything

Tjebbe van Tijen 25/2/2005

* Andre Malraux/Museum without walls 1965/1967 p.234


By clicking the image at the top a web page with the 4 available scrolls will appear. By using the slider at the bottom of the navigation bar one can see/read all the images and texts. To see the scrolls in full size click one of the small versions.