If you have “avant-garde” and “museology” or “museum exhibitions” in one sentence, especially if that sentence is in English, the first name that comes to mind is El Lissitzy and his collaboration with Alexander Dorner in Hannover.
Everyone who has an interest in experiments with display design has seen images of the Abstract Cabinet installed at Landesmuseum in late 1928. This masterpiece marks the limit of known ambitions for the transformation of the museum in the time associated with the young Soviet state or even the historical avant-garde. But most interpretations of the Abstract Cabinet reduce its meaning to formal innovations distinctive for Western modernism. The new concept of the museum that resulted from the combination of new social relationships and a political agenda remains unconsidered.
I’d like to risk going beyond this limitation to describe the trajectory and logic of the transformation of the concept of the museum and art in general from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century in Russia and the Soviet Union.
Let’s use the proletarian revolution in Russia as a point of departure for our discussion of avant-garde museology. Not only did this event determine a majority of interpretations of art and the role of institutions charged with preserving art after the fact, it also served as a point of attraction for the goal of establishing social equality even before it took place. Beginning from the revolution will make it easier to describe the radicalized conceptions of the museum that emerged at the time, and the hierarchy of these conceptions. At its foundantion lies the historical avant-garde's destructive impulse towards any attempt to preserve the past. Kazemir Malevich expounded this idea, writing in 1919: “Contemporary life has invented crematoria for the dead, but each dead man is more alive than a weakly painted portrait. In burning a corpse we obtain one gram of powder: accordingly, thousands of graveyards could be accommodated on one chemist’s shelf.”
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