Charles Correa, Museums: An Alternate Typology

A review of — and a response to — Charles Correa’s Museums: An Alternate Typology.

Charles Correa writes about the importance of context and the meaning it lends to an artefact. An Egyptian mud pot takes on a different meaning when bathed in halogen light at a museum. Context defines objects.

I will digress here and cite an example from art. In 1917, Marcel Duchamp took a porcelain urinal signed “R. Mutt”, turned it upside down, and called it “Fountain”. The Fountain becomes art by two processes:
a) It is defined by context, and by its modes of production and reception. It is art simply because it has been installed and displayed in an art exhibition and it is art because the audience considers it so. Objects have no intrinsic character of their own.
b) It becomes art by “inversion”, which is an act of defamiliarisation: a method of abstracting an object from its purported function (or to at least signal that abstraction). Inverting a urinal doesn’t fool you into nonrecognition, but confronts you with both its original form and its otherness by strategies of abstraction and distantiation.

The questions Duchamp asked were different from the ones Correa asks and answers, but the process by which an object becomes an historical artefact seems to me to work in much the same way: divorced from its “natural context”, — the original environment for which it was crafted — and placed in a neutral, indifferent, generic space that is designed to house a wide variety of objects, it takes a different meaning than the one originally intended. To perceive it the way it was historically perceived, and to understand its original context, the museum in which it is kept must be faithful to the natural setting of the object and present it to us the way its original environment would have. Correa cites numerous examples of such relationships between the “container” and the “contained”, and says that both the architectural design of the museum and the manner in which objects are arranged within it — whether in chronological order, or grouped together on the basis of geographical location or material/techniques used — affect our perception of them. He talks about how the structure of the museum and its pathways construct a narrative around the displayed artefacts. Courtyards and terraces and open-to-sky spaces and hallways are metaphors for people/places because they evoke certain emotions in us which we then associate with the artefacts on display. And therefore, typology not only classifies objects according to their type/function, but also studies both the characteristics of physical structures and how we interact with said structures.

Buildings have rhythms of their own and “flow” physically much the way music moves through time: the variations in physical structure — lend to it by the techniques using which various parts of the structure are constructed — seem to make it flow organically or appear disjointed or evoke emotions (or even memories of other physical structures found in nature). The spaces and the lighting create a certain atmosphere which, in a well-designed museum, comes very close to the natural context of the object and adds to the experience of the spectator. He uses this argument to point out the need for alternate museum typologies.