Ernst’s Digital Memory resonates with my research interests more than any other piece we’ve read, and not only because the first chapter deals in romanticism and archeology; in addition to these, I’m interested in Ernst’s exploration of “mediatized” (38) historical memory exemplified in the organization and assembly of museums.
Of the museums Ernst mentions, I visited the Soane Museum on my most recent trip to London this past July. Ernst aptly calls it a “kaleidoscopic collection of cultural history,” (53) consisting as it does of cramped rooms and darks hallways full to the brim with archeological acquisitions from around the globe. One can view a Greek vase across from an Egyptian statute, or a wall decked in paintings from floor to ceiling. For a traveler like myself accustomed to museums arranged by historical epoch, artistic movement, etc., this arrangement overwhelmed my senses. I’m the sort of museum-goer who tries to see everything for fear of missing something important, an approach the Soane actively resists. There’s simply too much art in one place, not too mention the thousands of rare books lining the shelves. The antiquarian method of “singling out an object and telling its story” (61) seems to me the only way to experience it without feeling like you’ve missed out.
Ernst decries the cluttered “organization” of this museum because it forces the visitor to impose history on objects, which we should otherwise view with the “cold gaze of media archeology” (36). This approach would instead allow the object to work on its own, resurrecting an image of the past in a truly mediatic way (54). And yet, as invested as I am in media’s shaping of the past, I’m not sure this approach does justice to the cultural memories of objects. Take the Elgin Marbles (in the British Museum, not the Soane), for example. If I’m reading Ernst correctly (and please advise me if I’m not), the cold gaze of the media archeologist sees them as remnants of the Parthenon. That’s true, but they’re also tangible evidence of British imperialism, the expansion of empire, and the rise of the museum itself. Yes, those are human narratives, but they leave traces on objects, especially in places where the Marbles are scratched or broken. In this case, it’s difficult to separate the materiality of an object from its cultural memory.