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Germany’s contribution to the development of museums and their history is a well- documented fact.9 The part played, for instance, by German collectors in the creation of the Wunderkammer and of the Kunstkammer during the Renaissance is widely recognized by museum and art historians (such as von Schlosser, Schnapper, and Impey and MacGregor to name but a few). The same, however, cannot be said when it comes to its influence in the founding of museology itself. Indeed, it is fair to say that the role of German tradition in the development of the discipline per se has thus far only been timidly recognized by historians and museologists. This can perhaps, in part, be explained by the language barrier – too few key texts written in German have been translated. It is only recently, for instance, that the often-cited but undoubtedly not as well-read 18th-century work by Caspar Neickel, Museographia oder Anleitung zum rechten Begriff und nützlicher Anlegung der Museorum oder Raritäten Kammern (Museography or Instructions for the Better Understanding and Useful Organisation of Museums and Chambers of Rarities, 1727), has been translated into another language (Italian). Whatever the reasons may be for this lack of recognition, the fact remains that many of the texts frequently cited as important early museological writings have been written in German. It is also noteworthy to observe that the earliest recorded uses of museology and museography are also both found in German literature.

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Van Mensch is the first to point out the German origins of the words “museography” and “museology” in his thesis, Towards a Methodology of Museology (van Mensch, 1992: chap. 2). He traces the first reference to “museography” to Neickel’s aforementioned book, which was published in Breslau and Leipzig. As for “museology”, van Mensch traces it back to Philip Leopold Martin’s Praxis der Naturgeschichte (The Practice of Natural History, 1869), published in Weimar, and the second part of the book entitled Dermoplastik und Museologie (1870). Recent research, as we will later see, has since brought to light an even earlier occurrence of the term “museology” but, again, in a German text.

Art historian Germain Bazin is amongst the first authors to have recognized the important part played by Germany in the founding of museology. His position is somewhat ambiguous however. While he states that most of the work surrounding the problems around the organisation of the museum and its situation within society is conducted in 19th-century Germany (Bazin, 1975: 447-450), he also writes that the endeavours of Comte d’Angiviller to transform at the end of the 18th century the Grande Galerie du Louvre into a museum must be regarded as the first expression of modern theoretical and technical museology (Bazin, 1967: 154). But Bazin also states that museology is born in the 18th century and that Museographia… by Neickel is the oldest writing of its kind, though he mistakenly indicates that the work is written in Latin (Bazin, 1967: 115 and Bazin 1975: 447-450).

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It is today generally accepted that Samuel Quiccheberg’s (also Quicchelberg and Quickelberg) in-quarto entitled Inscriptiones Vel Tituli Theatri Amplissimi… (Inscriptions or Titles of the Immense Theatre…, 1565), published in Munich, is actually the earliest known museological writing in the western world (even Neickel recognised it as one of the oldest texts on cabinets almost three hundred years ago10). Quiccheberg, though Flemish, spent a good part of his short life (he died at the age of 38) in Germany and wrote Inscriptiones… while in the employ of Albert V, Duke of Bavaria. An important part of his short treatise informs the reader on how to organise a collection of the world’s objects into five classes and 53 sub-classes or inscriptions (for a complete description of these, see Brout, 2004). The booklet, Quiccheberg hoped, would encourage collecting, primarily by princes, and lead to a greater work that unfortunately never materialized due to his death in 1567 (Brout, 2004: 70). What distinguishes the Flemish physician’s text from other writings are not the principles of selection, of classification, or of exhibition that are already present in the collections of the period. Rather, the originality of Quiccheberg’s work lies in the setting out of rules for the organisation of a collection forming the structure of his “theatre”. The object in Quiccheberg’s system is truly an object of study, of knowledge, of wonder and of discussion; it plays a leading rather than a supporting role, and thus significantly differs from past collections where the object was merely a source of inspiration (as for example in the Mouseion of Alexandria)11 (Mairesse, 2004: 17-20).

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The works of doctors Johann Daniel Major, Unvorgreiffliches Bedencken von Kunst – und NaturalienKammern insgemein (An Unprejudiced Consideration of Chambers of Art and Nature, 1674) and of Michael Bernhard Valentini, Museum Museorum… (Museum of Museums, 1704-1714) are other early texts, often cited together, as important museological titles. The former, published in Kiel, discusses, amongst other things, why man collects and provides advice on how to organise and conserve a collection. The book also compiles and defines some 40 different words used in various languages to describe collections and enumerates important collections known to the author (Schulz, 1990: 210). The twenty-page leaflet12 in-folio even gives a name to the new theory: tactica conclavium (Stránský, 1987: 288). Valentini’s work, published in Frankfurt, is a book-museum of sorts. Within its three volumes, Valentini reprints in its entirety Major’s above-cited work (perhaps already difficult to find) along with other titles by Major. Valentini furthermore ambitiously draws a list of things that make up the universe and explains their usefulness as well as describes a number of natural history collections including his own. His work also lists 159 museums that are known to exist at the time (Wilson, 2006: 19-20).

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According to François Mairesse, all of these texts are examples of the vitality of the scientific work taking place in Germany and are part of a new body of work in which appears the outline of what will soon become museology (Desvallées and Mairesse, 2005a: 10) or, as Stránský points out:

From the contemporary scientific point of view, the thoughts of Mayor (sic) or Nickellius (sic) for instance could certainly not be considered as museological in the proper meaning of the word, but within the context of science and scientific thinking of the period, we must admit that they have the same level. (Stránský, 1987: 291).


The Babelian Tale of Museology and Museography: A History in Words

Janick Daniel Aquilina

Main Photography: Trevor Triano

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