Recently, I had the opportunity to present a paper at an International Museum Conference in Antwerp, Belgium. The paper was based on an independent study featuring composer Richard Wagner and the Gesamtkunstwerk, also known as the total work of art. The topic was my response to the conference theme: “Catching the Spirit. Theatrical Assets of Historic Houses and their Approaches in Reinventing the Past.” The goal of this conference was to explore the current impasse in historic houses and museums. Visitors often experience historic house museums as boring because of the static presentation of the past. In contrast, modern visitors want to experience something ‘authentic’ in an otherwise fake world. So, how can museums tap into this modern perception of authenticity, and what is authenticity in the first place?
These were some of the intriguing questions discussed at the conference, most notably by the keynote speaker, filmmaker Peter Greenway. After seeing his multimedia spectacle “Last Supper” in New York in January, I anticipated something “Wagnerian,” and by Jove, he did not disappoint. “Historians are liars” and “fuck the narrative” were some of the bold statements that could beheard from the maestro’s voice. According to Greenaway, modern cinema is dead because of its failure of imagination. Historians are suffering from the same ills as they try to reinvent something that is necessarily a personal interpretation. Therefore, the only thing we can rely on is our imagination, Greenaway says.
One of Greenaway’s latest projects includes the ‘repopulation’of historic houses with huge video installations in which he seeks to replace the historic narrative with something that holds sway between art and entertainment. Listening to Greenaway, it dawned on me that authenticity is in the viewer’s response. If we want to cure the ills of museums we may.