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How Should an Exhibition Be Viewed, or a Few Words about the Nineteenth-Century Longing for Transparency of Experience
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In my article I analyse how in the Polish press from the second half of the nineteenth century an experience of the exhibition was projected and presented. I am mainly interested in the opposition between chaotic experience (no orientation in space, lack of knowledge about what to look at) and structured visual experience. Journalism of that period expresses the belief that the spatial order of the exhibition should transparently structure the experience: the visitor always has to know what he is looking at (thanks to catalogues, maps, signatures, a suitable arrangement of exhibits), easily orient himself in space (thanks to the appropriate organization), to know how to move. He should also behave properly: watch and learn. The sense of sight is to dominate the touch, hearing, taste, smell, analytical reception – over active participation. The visitor is therefore expected to be a passive spectator in Richard Sennett’s sense, excluded from the active shaping of interpretation, interaction and space. However, the messages dealing with how the exhibition should be experienced simultaneously reveal concerns about “inappropriate” reception. These concerns manifest themselves in images of the space post-exhibition (rotting flowers, lost umbrellas and children), comments on the “wrong” behaviour of the audience, criticism on how the exhibition was organized. Planned in advance visual order of the project therefore remains in constant tension with what goes beyond it – chaos, spontaneity, multi-sensuality, melancholy. This ambivalence seems to indicate that the exhibition was a specific attempt to “subdue” the modern experience (the rate of change, motion, opacity) by limiting it in time and space, organization, regimentation, bringing to the visual aspect.
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