WORDS AND THINGS: Unveiling a collection
Order is, at one and the same time, that which is given in things as their inner law, the hidden network that determines the way they confront one another, and also that which has no existence except in the grid created by a glance, an examination, a language; and it is only in the blank spaces of this grid that order manifests itself in depth as though already there, waiting in silence for the moment of its expression.
Compared with most other institutions in Moscow which specialise in literary history and the legacy of different writers, the Mikhail Bulgakov Museum located at No. 10 Bolshaya Sadovaya Street – in the famous Odd Flat – is extremely young. It was officially opened in March 2007. Nevertheless, in the few short years of its existence, the museum has seen its collection grow by a considerable number of items offering various degrees of approach to the figure of the writer. On the one hand, there are typewritten texts dating from various years, rare editions of Bulgakov’s works, letters and photographs; on the other hand, there are objects which belonged either to Bulgakov personally or to members of his family, and also interesting artefacts which were part of the material culture of the 1910s to 1930s and formed the daily surroundings of the people who lived at that time. The present contents of the museum’s collection is largely the result of an amalgamation of four private collections: those of E. A. Zemskaya and V. M. Svetlayevaya – Bulgakov’s nieces, and those of V. F. Dimenko and K. L. Tarasevich. A number of significant items were purchased specially by the museum.
Until now, the museum has approached its expanding collection in a rather selective manner – some of the items have been displayed as part of temporary exhibitions, others were incorporated into the permanent exhibition, which reconstructs the key reference points in Bulgakov’s life and occupies various rooms in the former communal flat.
The project Words and Things is an attempt to display the collection of the Bulgakov Museum in a more systematic manner. Its primary goal is to give the collection a greater degree of order and regulation: to give the professional and wider audience a sense of its character and distinctive features, to disclose and present the most important items, but also to identify the inevitable gaps in the collection and to clarify which courses should be pursued in the process of its further consolidation. At the same time, being essentially investigative in nature, the project demonstrates how a group of objects which have been assembled within a few short years adds to our understanding of the life and literary world of Bulgakov and his era. Finally, on a methodological level, the project invites us to contemplate what form a contemporary exhibition in a literary museum can, in principle, take: what knowledge it is called upon to transmit to the visitor, what experiences it should engender.
These challenges have given rise to the unconventional spatial and temporal parameters of the current project, which diverges fundamentally from the format of a chronological or thematic exhibition. Words and Things is conceived as a series of twelve smaller exhibitions which will succeed one another over the course of a year. Not having a continuous, linear narrative, instead being self-contained each in their own right, they will, like pieces of a puzzle, gradually combine into a complex, discrete story.
The project will unfold in one of the rooms of the Odd Flat. Formerly used for temporary exhibitions, the room has now been completely refurbished and given an original design concept. Radically different from that of the other rooms in the flat, its appearance is intentionally ascetic – it reminds one simultaneously of a museum’s stockroom, a depositary and an archive. Like the interior of an immense cupboard, the room’s walls have been turned into a strict floor-to-ceiling lattice, into which illuminated cabinets have been installed. This is where the various exhibits will be placed. Although this basic framework will remain the same throughout the project, determining the house style for the whole series, it leaves ample room for variation in the details. Over time, cabinets with various exhibits will appear and disappear in the walls of the stockroom, like in a three-dimensional matrix, and elements of the room’s scenery will change. Exposed to the visitor’s gaze, the museum storage system, which is based on a rationalist striving toward classification and order, will, in Bulgakov’s flat, almost inevitably manifest itself in strange, unexpected and grotesque forms.
Each exhibition in the series will present a unique configuration of a number of items (generally around ten) taken from the museum’s collection. These will offer us a means of approaching – directly or by implication – specific themes connected with the life and literary work of Bulgakov, although they will, of course, by no means exhaust the respective topic. Items from other museums and collections will complement each exhibition, as will copies of important documentary sources: these will all be incorporated into the cabinets of the stockroom, thus enriching the associative network, the picture of similarities and contrasts. The exhibits in Words and Things should not be viewed as illustrations of concrete historical-literary themes – here, they are on display as valuable cultural artefacts, capable of generating a range of readings and, in their very materiality, interesting in themselves. Various transitional items openly demonstrate this interpretative flexibility – at the end of each exhibition, one of the exhibits will be taken and incorporated into the contents of the following exhibition: falling into a different context, it will offer itself to fresh interpretations.
The collection of the Bulgakov Museum, which, for the first time ever, is now to be comprehensively presented to the visitor thanks to the project Words and Things, is like the collection of any writer in that it reveals a connection – fundamental not only for literature but also for culture as a whole – between the objective world which can be apprehended via sense perception, and the ability to discourse upon that world, to describe and make sense of it. It discloses the hybrid union of words and things. Manuscripts and typewritten texts, books and thick journals are just the most palpable examples of the interpenetration of these principles. At the same time, words are both the theories of academics, wrenching items from the routine of their daily existence, and the commentaries of visitors, uttered here and now.