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Sunday, November 18, 2001
'Art and Soul

The Night of the Museums
B.N Goswamy

SOMETIMES, when I despair of our own museums, and the torpor into which most of them tend comfortably to sink, I begin to recall — for my own good — the energy that flows through countless like institutions abroad. There is a sense of excitement that you feel as soon as you step inside them, a strange pulsation: Crowds of men and women and children coming in and going out, literature being picked up, inquiries being made, museum shops bustling with activity, galleries packed with people eager to gain a new experience, hold a dialogue with the past. It is a different world than the one that we see here, for it is rich and textured, and remarkably focussed. Also, remarkably diverse.

Wooden Mask for a Man Africa; from the Segu region of Mali, Museum Rietberg, Zurich
Wooden Mask for a Man Africa; from the Segu region of Mali, Museum Rietberg, Zurich

Consider an event like the one that the cosmopolitan, although still relatively small, city of Zurich held not too long ago. Between the September 1 and 2, this year, in this elegant Swiss city was organised an uncommon cultural happening — "The Long Night of Museums" it was called—- in which 33 museums, all located in Zurich and its immediate vicinity, were involved. This was the second time that the city was doing this, following up the resounding success of a similar event a year before. The idea was to create a different ambience for museum-viewing, bring about an experience with a difference, by keeping every participating museum open well past its usual hours, into the night, or the early hours of the next morning, in fact. Every museum that was a part of the event threw its doors open at 7 in the evening and stayed open till 2 am; a few of them kept receiving visitors till 6 o'clock the next morning. It sounds strange to our ears, I am sure, used as we are to rigid schedules and strait-jacketed working. But here were institutions,not one or two, but a whole range of them, that were willing to do something different. They succeeded in their venture by staying open in the night and putting up imaginative programmes and were successful in releasing fresh energies into the system. Zurich does not go dead, unlike most of our cities, soon after darkness falls. But the numbers out in the streets in the late hours, ordinarily, are excitement seekers of a different kind: pub-crawlers, party-goers, those interested in the entertainment district. On this night, however, the crowds had something else to do.

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To get a true sense of what must have happened through that event-rich night, one has to understand, of course, that Zurich is dense with museums of all description. In the city, naturally, are museums, some of them great museums, devoted to the arts, and to crafts—in other words, what the common man's idea of museums here is — but the range goes well, way, beyond that. There are, thus, museums there that are built around, say, anthropology or archaeology or architecture, as much as around music and jewellery and toys; one can go to a museum that features the history of coffee or to a museum dedicated to clocks and watches. The crowds that the different museums attract are of course different, but on this night everyone was invited to partake of culture laced with a sense of fun and surprise. City trams ran throughout the night; you bought one "combi-ticket" for 20 Swiss francs and you could enter every museum, ride any transport, without paying anything extra; restaurants stayed open and coffee stands occupied every other corner. If the mood was magical and withdrawn at one place, it was boisterous at another. To see, to hear; to smell and to taste; to experiment and to discover: this is what the city was inviting its citizens to do.

This does not give an adequate idea perhaps of how much fun it might have been. One should therefore look at some of the programmes the museums were offering. With imagination and resolve, some of them went beyond what they would ordinarily be doing to make that night memorable. The Architecture Forum of Zurich, thus, decided to project, besides throwing its collection of documents and models open, full-length film classics with architects or architecture as their motif: Films such as Fountainhead and Blade Runner and Alphaville; at the Johann Jacobs Coffee Museum, to the accompaniment of the choicest coffee and accompanying snacks, one could learn all about coffee culture in Costa Rica and Guatemala; the Museum Bellerive offered special programmes on diving and snorkeling, bringing the mysterious world under the waters to life; at the Museum of Toys, one could see the beginnings of 'moving pictures', from magic-lantern shows onwards; the Nature Centre of Sihlwald invited visitors to walk through the mystery of the Sihl forest in the night, challenging them to hear and see and smell more sharply than they ever had before. And so on. All this while the great art museums in the city - the Kunsthaus, the Museum Rietberg, the Landesmuseum, among others - were showcasing their Giacomettis, their Impressionists, their avant-garde collections, inviting visitors to go behind the scenes and see how exhibitions are mounted, or how art works are restored. And all this done with that fine combination of panache and elegance that the Swiss excel in. An embarrassment of riches, as they say.

An African season

On the night that we speak of, Museum Rietberg, that wonderful repository of non-European art in Zurich, was focussing on Africa. Not only by showing some of those stirring objects from that continent which it possesses, but by enlarging, imaginatively, the general visitor's experience of Africa. There was a musical ensemble from the continent that performed at regular intervals; 'Afrope' was a programme that drew attention to the cultural bridge that joins Africa with Europe; there were African story-tellers who sat there, weaving potent magic with their simple tales; and one could go out and taste African cuisine in the eating joints that operated from tents specially set up in the park around the Museum.

In subtle ways, all this also was a build-up towards a major show of African art from Mali that was to follow the Museums’ Night soon after. Bamana was the title of the coming show, featuring wonderful masks and other wooden artifacts. And, to remind ourselves of another aspect of museum practice in Switzerland: the entire show was going to be sponsored by the highly respected banking firm of Rahn and Bodmer.

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