(Re)claiming the Jubilee Artifact

Ann Mirjam Vaikla

Photo: Ann Mirjam Vaikla

What kind of sensations are generated by the word museum? Is it still characterized as an Enlightenment institution whose power to collect and display objects is a function of capitalism and imperialism, and whose power to form individuals is exercised through the careful and ordered deployment of knowledge within an institutionally controlled and publicly monitored space (Beth Lord,  Foucault’s Museum), or has its qualities changed through the times?

The phenomenon known as the technology museum is one great branch in the discourse. Considered as having made a big difference in the development of culture, tools lost their meaning as tools and were turned into objects as soon as they were moved into the museum. How is it that something so obvious as tools, and later on, machines that worshiped the economy, were suddenly part of the cultural experience? Museums of technology completed the evolutionary picture in representing the history of industry as a series of progressive innovations leading up to the triumphs of industrial capitalism.

One of three exhibits of the "Sound of Silence" project at Norsk Teknisk Museum

The Norsk Teknisk Museum (the Norwegian National Museum of Science and Technology) is located in the North-East of Oslo, approximately a 15-minute train ride from the central station. It is a postmodern, red brick house located in-between the railroad and the riverbed, built in 1985 to function, from the start, as a technology museum. Nowadays the institution appears like an artifact, struggling just like many other museums having an identity crisis in terms of the vision of what a museum should be in the 21st century. NTM, which has changed its location four times since it was established in 1914 (and is consequently celebrating its 100-year jubilee this year), started out as a classic technology museum with an avant-garde approach in offering the experience of touching and smelling – a place where engines are running and displayed, having been removed from the external contexts of the machine. It was described as a playground and promoted also as a place for children. The fascination of machines and pure engines served the aim of presenting progress instead of the objects themselves. When the museum moved to its present location, new ways of displaying were employed. The new setting had a more theatrical approach, mixing various different objects and placing them in the context of society. This way of showing things, of communicating with its audience, is still present. The attention of a visitor is spread out between the artifacts and the former tools of exhibiting.

Label with the information of the product and the producer

I was invited to the museum along with eight other scenographers, all having different nationalities and cultural backgrounds, for a three-week-long laboratory. Our aim was to listen to the space, listen to the institution – get to know its being, its strengths and weaknesses. Through in-depth investigation and research, the final intention was to open an exhibition of scenographical interventions growing out from the institution, questioning its obsolete body, vitalizing the circling discourse in order to find new entries.

I and my two co-authors (Ylva Owren and Matias Askvik) of our project, “The Sound of Silence” (“Stillhetens Larm”), discovered quite quickly that, among the thousands of different objects exhibited throughout the four floors of the building, there was a lack in the presentation of armory. The absence of the theme of Norway's weapon industry became even more apparent when one considers the fact that it is the third biggest industry in the country (after oil and fisheries), and that it also has a notable position on an international level. Therefore, “The Sound of Silence” explores the Norwegian weapons industry and critically assesses the tendency to not discuss its impact on Norway’s economy. The aspect of silence surrounding the topic is especially notable when considering the museum as an arena of power and education, and its ability to produce, and therefore create, the reality and awareness of the country's citizens.

Cast of Light Anti-Tank Weapon

The three stark white objects placed among the exhibits at the Norsk Teknisk Museum are accurate negative casts of military weapons being produced today by the Norwegian firms Kongsberg Gruppen and Nammo. Since much of the exploration lay on the idea of molding the absence, we had the opportunity to play with the dramaturgy of the museum by intervening into the audience-chosen narrative by making the exhibits appear unexpectedly, and in relation with the existing contexts. Somehow, by laying it out as an “open work” (Umberto Eco. 1962), the exhibits (accompanied by minimalistic signs describing the objects) didn’t aim for one single interpretation nor for a closed narrative; rather, it challenges the public to construct their own meaning and values. Therefore, two of the objects were placed in relation to the 20th-century romanticism of progress, which are located in the departments of communication and revolutionary machinery. The cast of the M72 (LAW Light Anti-Tank Weapon) caught the light on its poetic, already-decaying surface of plaster, surrounded by the phone booth on one side, a train and cars on the other side, and an airplane “flying over” above. The collection of training ammunition (Plastic Blank Ammunition 40mm L70; 75mm; 30mm; 25mm) was placed one floor lower, close to the biggest object in the museum – the paper machine, a sort of symbol of the potential to spread information to the masses in earlier days. The “grand finale”, the NSM (Naval Strike Missile) realized at three-fourths its actual size, thereby resulting in a length of 2.6 meters, was placed next to the temporary exhibition of the Norwegian oil industry and its “environmentally-friendly image”, which, sadly, is sponsored by the oil companies themselves. The materiality of the objects played an important role in that it caused the exhibits to vaguely touch  upon the boundary between objects of function juxtaposed with the poetry found in them.  By choosing the medium of plaster, we ensured a similarity of effect of geological layers being built on top of each other through time; we were also aiming at creating something rather more earthy and not characteristic for a weapon.

Training ammunition casts

The museum, standing as an embodiment of both the material and the symbolic, endowed with the power to “show and tell”, is an invention of the Enlightenment, and considered as an institution filled with artifacts. For the most part, this phenomenon is taken for granted by silently relying on it as we direct our attention elsewhere. By claiming, jointly with Michael Foucault, that the museum is a heterotopia (“a space of difference and representation, a space that is absolutely central to a culture, but in which the relations between the elements of a culture are suspended, neutralized, or reversed.” Beth Lord), we believe that there is a need to maintain it relevant – and that is where the performativity of objects has its role to play: in having an active dialogue with its visitors and reclaiming the role of a museum.