Get the showcases out of museums…Part I – By Roberto Concas


    By Roberto Concas

    f we want to renovate our museums, we have to start with the showcases.

    In spite of this, they have become symbols and as such are subject to be “demolished”, modified and replaced.

    This is what the demolition of the commemorative sculptures looks like, an action of Iconoclash.

    Of course it is a paradox, and it is not about any of this, but only about the search for an evolution of museological and museographic thought assuming that to innovate, somewhere you have to start!

    The showcases, perhaps more than museum spaces, recovered in old architecture or designed from scratch, represent true continuity in museums for over two centuries.


    To have a certain chronological reference, the date of 19 September 1792, when the Minister Jean-Marie Roland, Viscount de la Platière, established by decree the transit of the imposing royal collections from the Crown of France to the competencies of the new French Nation.

    This is how public museums are born.

    However, the “revolution of the people” brought back in the form of the constitutional monarchy, evidently, did not place much trust in the people themselves and for these reasons the collections, which previously adorned the royal palace, began to be enclosed and protected in large showcases.

    Having taken note, with a fictionalised licence, of the possible date of birth of the museum showcases, it remains that since then they have seen neither sunset nor such substantial changes in their museological, museographic and conservation use.

    The museum displays revolve around them, “the showcases“, the central pivot of the exhibition, an essential instrument of protection, a physical limit to the use, an ordering container, a magnificent space for exhibits and objects.


    Already in the early nineteenth century, the showcases gave organizational form to the collections and then to the museums themselves, while the exhibition profile that manifested itself at that time was between, the classifying cabinet and the exhibition on the wunderkammer model, the so-called “cabinet of wonders“.

    On display, to the “wonder” of visitors, also archaeological finds, historical and artistic evidence and the first collections of anthropological and ethnographic goods.

    The museum showcases were first and widely used mainly in the university field, where they performed an illustrative and educational function for students in medicine, anatomy, zoology and geology, a sort of encyclopaedia or visual atlas of various finds.

    Entire and full-bodied collections of insects, embalmed and deformed animals, exotic rarities, shells and minerals, human anatomical parts in glass containers with alcohol solution and other fruits of years of research, excavations in the mines and tropical travel, therefore found space in the dark corridors of the oldest university buildings.


    This didactic-expository function of the showcases soon moved into museums, giving full satisfaction to the emotion caused by the discovery and, once again, to the wonder.

    Since the mid-nineteenth century the showcases have taken on the significance of a museum and for this reason they become imposing, articulated on several levels until they reach the high ceilings, enclosed in uprights made of precious woods, often painted with graybeige colours, equipped with thin glasses with some imperfections.

    Over time, the shapes of museum showcases became more and more refined, almost becoming the living room furniture of the good bourgeoisie, some are like tables with glass, others vertical with shelves, hinges and brass-plated locks with the upper edges decorated with floral decorations.


    At the same time, a new profession is also being formed, that of the “clavigero“, the handing over of all the keys to the showcases and rooms of the museum, such as those of the Vatican museums, where there are as many as 3,000 keys.

    It is also in this context that the image of the “director with the keys to the showcases in his pocket” is formed, a devout custodian and sole custodian of the goods on behalf of the King, who over time has become on behalf of the Superintendences.

    The debate in the first half of the 1990s was already inflamed, because museums seemed to lose their roots of contemplation and temple for elected scholars and disciplined disciples, in favour of a wider public, though not yet much.

    In the container and museum space called “showcase”, the directors and curators work to illustrate archaeology and art history to many generations, while the finds from a crowded exhibition, as said in wunderkammer style, moved on to a more reasoned model with a careful selection, targeted and in accordance with a chosen line of scientific and cultural storytelling.

    The finds gain space, greater visibility and enhancement while they are accompanied by full-bodied, and sometimes even boring, captions to replace the more narrow typographical tags with inventory number, dating and, sometimes but not always, place of origin.

    With a personal museological interpretation, for some directors, the showcases have also been interpreted as a continuity with the archaeological excavation just finished, and the exhibits on display as, a trophy!

    copyright ©️Museo Archeologico nazionale di Cagliari



    In the second half of the twentieth century the entrance of collective enjoyment in the culture of these “illustrated showcases“, breaks the schemes of museum interpretation passing to didactic and more didactic models open to a public of different specific preparation.

    At the same time, also the lighting solutions are updated and inside the showcase-museum is a flourishing of lights, spotlights and luminous tales; the showcases, first irradiated with filament bulbs of 10 candles and then by uncertain, cold and flashing neon lights, suddenly light up, highlighting qualities and defects of the collection, as of the showcases themselves.

    A new museological component enters fully into the exhibition making space between the lids and uprights of the showcases, without interruption.

    The only warnings about the lights came from the museum’s conservation, which required the control of Lux and harmful UV rays, as well as from the punctual observations of those who pointed out the risk of “jewellery shop windows“!

    The arrival in the eighties of computer science, expressed in personal computers and then in digital prints, still upsets our showcases that are filled with the other colors of the panels made by creative digital graphic designers.


    The visual “struggle” inside the showcase, between the find and the illustrative caption, becomes difficult and competitive, the scale relationship is often disproportionate and the illustrated caption beats the find, in size, four to zero.

    The display case is compressed at the sides and squeezed forward to make room for the background panels, while the texts continue to increase in close relation to the size of their print characters, which are getting smaller and smaller, until the visitor is forced to put his nose on the glass.

    In the last few years the showcases have come alive with digital-frames in which images, films and 3D reconstructions flow, a feast full of additional information to illustrate the history of the find that has remained still, and museumized, on the oldest exhibition pedestal.

    The years go by and the showcases are always there, with displays of different materials, sizes, shapes and colours, glass shelves, finds arranged according to an aesthetic that is not always textbook, while some intruding xylophagous agent leaves a trace of its past … in history.


    So what to do with these showcases?

    To be continued…


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