Myth in Museum’s space


As a mean of communication, the function of museum is to represent meanings of each collection to a wider public in three-dimensional and accessible forms (Lumley, 1988). Consequently, museum should take a concern on a direct relationship between context, content and spatial experience in museum’s design (Macdonald, 2005). The purpose of this essay is to show that museums in the present days can be dramatically enhance their spatial and display’s impact to the mind of visitors by maximizing and attaching ‘myth(ology)’ to the contents.

The understanding of myth here is not like the common explanation as we have known so far. Myth here refers to the term in Roland Barthes’ Mythologies (1957), where he updates the Ferdinand Saussure’s theory of linguistic (signifier & signified of sign) by introducing the second level of meaning where sign are transformed into Myth. I found that Barthes’s concept on ‘Myth’ is useful for museums to communicate the representation of meanings in their collections which resulting deep impact on visitors’ experiences. Therefore, the question on how does myth effect and enhance the visitor’s experience in museums deserves to be asked. The same curiosity should be raised on how myth is retold in exhibition displays. In the beginning, this essay gives a brief overview of the current challenge in museum’s role in giving more experiences to its visitors. Then, it tries to describe the understanding of ‘myth’ as a system of communication in linguistic that conveyed meanings in several levels. The final section will examine how to incorporate the myth concept in museum’s design and displays through two case studies discussed here; The Fallen Leaves installation in Jewish Museum Berlin and New Suzhou Museum in China.

Museum today

Creating feeling & understanding in the minds of each visitor is the challenge of twenty first century museum (Spalding, 2002)

Nowadays, museum encounters substantial problems in terms of their role in society. It is not only challenged to find ways in reviving public interest on museum’s historic collections but also to provide knowledge which can be understood and be meaningful to the visitors. Museum is not only focusing on collecting, classifying, researching and displaying contents just like in the past, but it also need to present a communicative narrative story to the visitors and make them experiencing the objects which can evoke their imaginations and senses. As argued by Greenhill (1992) that in the past, the experience of visiting a museum was two-dimensional which means the museum only provided a slow and controlled experience walk through the displays. The way the museum was designed, in fact, without considering the need or interests of the visitor in mind. Moreover, in the past, museum’s collections merely as objects displayed to fit into space in museum inflicting no anxiety from the visitors to explore those displays. Indeed, displays were organized by the curators without considering the visitors’ needs. However, Greenhill said that today the museum visitors should experiencing three dimensional experience which mean new articulations of space, object and subject were devised to create the conditions for the emergence of new presenting techniques in museum. The result of the new techniques is a museum that offers different experiences and senses for its visitors.

Certainly, visitors need to be encouraged to come and enjoy the experiences offered by museum that stimulate them to become interest again and regain knowledge about the past that have been lost from our society. One way in which museum can do is to create displays that effect emotionally and providing more curiosities through their collections with the process of experiencing and moving through displays which stimulate the visitors to be interested to come again. As Gaston Bachelard described in his book The Poetics of Space (1969) about the importance of setting is to offer readers a new angle of vision that reshapes any understanding of the displays. He suggested that choices on objects to display and how to display will influence the visitors’ acceptance. In the same way, the things in museums might not change, but our ideas about them can, and often do (Spalding, 2002). This is also indicated by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill (1992) that “ideas are now more important than objects. Now the idea is to tell a specific story and objects are gathered as they relate to the story”. Objects and collections of the museum perhaps are not much different or increased by time, but the ways the curators choose and represent them in a narrative setting are becoming decisive factors to make those collections become more interesting again in different meaning. Moreover, the idea on how to represent the objects in displays will change according to the interpretation through the time. However, these new interpretations should contain communicative meanings which become the key factors to attract visitors to come to museum.

Meanings in museum’s displays construct symbolic and narrative stories to be told to the visitors. Objects that displayed in museum after being treated and interpreted by the curators, tended to become symbolical and then re-interpreted by visitors in different ways. Symbolic objects in museums are objects that lifted out of their use, for museum, it means that through the objects they possess their meaning is no longer limited to their use. Thus, meanings are not constant and the construction of meaning can always be undertaken again in new contexts and with new functions (Greenhill, 1992). Once objects in museums are lifted out of its use and regain their meaning behind to be deciphered, they lifted up to the level of Myth. Like example given by Julian Spalding in The Poetic Museum (2002), “A wine glass in a museum is automatically different from the wine glass in life”. We see a wine glass in the restaurant as a glass functioning as a container for liquid, but when this wine glass is displayed in museum, the meaning has changed. The wine glass in museum has a specific content attached to it differently than the same glass in the restaurant. The wine glass in museum is deciphered as an object of elegance, an object that representing the symbolic status of bourgeois society that retold again in display.

The meaning of “Myth”

When it comes to talk about ‘myth’, we cannot overlook other concepts in linguistic and semiology area as Barthes’ myth is much developed based on Saussure’s insights on linguistic area. According to Saussure, every language is a complete system of signs (De Saussure, 1974). In that system, as explained by Saussure there are three units that construct it which are Signifier, Signified and Sign. Signifier means the thing that carrying the meaning. It is the acoustic image which is mental. Signified is the concept that is conveyed or commonly referred as meaning and the sign is the relation between image and concept, in other word the signifier and the signified are the components of the sign. Subsequently, Barthes takes Saussure’s concept a step further where for Barthes, myth is a second semiological system which means that what we know as a sign in the first system (language) becomes a signifier in second system (myth). The sign, as the final term in the first linguistic system provide itself as raw material for the myth as signifier. In other words, signifier in second system has two distinct and unique positions, as the final term of the linguistic system, or as the first term of the mythical system. Thus, in order to avoid confusion between these terminologies, Barthes differentiates the names used in his explanation on myth’s components. He uses meaning to refer to signifier as the final term of the linguistic system and uses form, to name it in the system of myth in order to differentiate them. In the case of the signified, he retains the name concept as he found no ambiguity is possible there. As the third term is the correlation of the first two and it is already named sign in the linguistic system, thus he uses signification to define the third term of myth.


Figure 1: Myth Scheme

Furthermore, Barthes explains myth as a system of communication which delivers a message, not in a long narrative storytelling but in a ‘discourse’ (Barthes, 1957). Hence, the message of the myth has its own immediate value which conveys meaning and can be defined by its form. In fact, myth plays on the analogy between meaning and form because sign’s form in the first system is the raw material for myth and has no meaning except from the material itself. Then, this material must be treated before ready to be used for communication. However, before the material becomes suitable for mythical use, it must has already been recognized as part of social usage; it must produce ‘meaning-effects’. Meaning in myth is always distorted and deformed because its form is constituted by meaning in linguistic. In fact, myth can be interpreted in various and even opposite ways. Because of it, a certain degree of consciousness is necessary for myth to function, for it to be deciphered or read through the form. For readers of myth, they will receive at the same time two messages when reading the form. The first message is literal which has a role as a general message, accessible to all those who understand the language in which it is expressed. The second message is more specific and functional which is experienced as more important than the first one because myth deals only with the final sign.

Moreover, concept of myth is at once historical and intentional. It postulates a kind of knowledge, a past, a memory, a comparative order of facts, ideas, and decisions. According to Barthes (1957), myth is a type of speech chosen by history: it cannot possibly evolve from the ‘nature’ of things. Myth as Levi Strauss states can have a specific historical content, but also functioning as a permanent explanatory model. It is that double structure, altogether historical and ahistorical (Levi Strauss, 1979). As the result, a myth explains the present and the past as well as the future.

How “Myth” enhances space and display in Museum

The understanding of Myth’s terms brings us then to see its relation to museum’s design, space and displays. Many museums have begun to define their image more carefully, and this can be seen in the way in which their spaces are articulated. As the changing of presenting museum and its role nowadays, contents cannot be displayed as it is to be looked at glance if they want to be meaningful for visitors. ‘Meaning’ should be attached in a careful and thoughtful way in the beginning of design of the building, space and displays. As Barthes says that “as soon as there is society, every usage is converted into a sign of itself…objects signify even when they are not being used…” It means things that are showed in the museum as displays (that have no function in use anymore) can turn into myth. These myths would be the attractor to the curiosities of the observers. It is the task and challenge of architects and curators to decide how to use myth in their museums.

Architecture for Barthes is both function and symbol. If architecture communicates something, it is in the form of a symbol. A symbol can have several meanings implied to be conveyed and deciphered by visitors. Umberto Eco also mentioned about symbolization that architecture does function as a form of mass communication. Therefore, he distinguishes between the primary function – architecture as functional object – and the secondary function – architecture as symbolic object (Leach, 1997). The architects read the projects in what presented from the past and then give them new form of symbolization. These symbolizations can be read with many different meanings and interpretations beyond its literal messages. Symbolization in form of the building and space inside can be seen in several museums such as Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Jewish Museum in Berlin, New Suzhou Museum, Louvre Museum in Paris, and Horno 3 Museo del Acero in Mexico. The same treatment is also applied to space in museum. We put it into level of myth by giving it second level of meaning to decipher. It can become creative and meaningful when it expands the potential of the visitor’s cognitive freedom. Here, space becomes dynamic and blend with visitors’ experience without being imposed by the content so a holistic integration between space, exhibits, and visitors will contribute to understanding the meaning behind the content. It is about imaginary & reality on display when this integration reaches its impact on the mind of visitors. This holistic integration can be seen in next two examples of myth discussed here.

The Fallen Leaves installation in Jewish Museum Berlin by Menashe Kardishman represents myth that has a very strong impact on visitors’ experience and it sends messages to our understanding of the tragic event even we are not physically in there. The iron plates cut coarsely form circular open mouth and cover the floor powerfully compliments the spatial feel of the void area. Literally, at the first level of reading it reads as sculpture or forms scattered around the floor taking form of man’s face. While these serve symbolically at the second level as an architectural expression for the massacre of Jews people in Europe, the installation evoke painful and horrible silent memory of that even. It will be read as victims that shouting out their pain, their humiliation and tears without teardrops. The iron plates will be rusted by time, and it can be read as the even that gone by the time but the memory of the pain will live forever to remember. It reminds us to contemplate in the voidness that echoes messages of the past that this tragedy in human life must never be happened again in the future. This installation has become myth in its way. The architect, Daniel Libeskind designed the void space that blend perfectly with this installation and intensify the echo of the meanings. The material treatment of this installation which supported with a thoughtful space from architect speaks out myth to the mind of visitors. It conveys meanings from the content and then totality of it enhances their experience in this museum.


Figure 2: The Fallen Leaves Installation

Next, in New Suzhou Museum designed by I.M Pei, we see how the nature is blending with human-built structures represent past as well as present. A codified meaning which given a cultural context is attributed to the design. Its form is inspired by traditional buildings surrounding Suzhou area but it is designed with modern articulation by the architect. He used whitewash plaster and dark grey tile which the colour and material are typically used in traditional buildings construction in Suzhou. To add mysterious effect to the building, Pei used dark grey granite tile for roofing contrasting with the whitewash plaster wall, which when the tile get wet by rain it will become darker as looked like the surrounding buildings where it situated side by side with a row of building with Ming architecture style. According to the architect that colour and the spirit he chose intentionally taken from substances which we can found around the city of Suzhou. The spatial layout of this museum is inspired by and has similarity in sense of place with classic scholar gardens nearby such as Lion Forest Garden and Humble Administrator’s Garden. In the middle of the site, empty space and pond in the centre courtyard invites visitors to contemplate and to visualize ‘scenery’ of this museum. Visitors brought by the bridge to walk across the pond viewing the landscape or sit at the pavilion.


Figure 3: Classic Chinese Garden in Suzhou


Figure 4: The road in front of the museum


Figure 5: Plan of New Suzhou Museum


On the first level of reading, we see the landscape that put in orderly way as part of the design. On the second level, we read the stones form the shape of mountain in distance scenery. Natural stone was cut and become not just ordinary stone anymore. The treatment of the material has lifted it to the level of myth with message to represent. The architect tended to create a micro representation of Suzhou province’s landscape and mountain where it is known for its famous beautiful scenery. He used natural stone that he personally picked up one by one and structured it, even regulated the way the bamboo tree was planted. We see ‘old’ Suzhou is represented again in a new way where the city is tended to move forward but not leaving the old and tradition. Again, we see the old objects from ancient Suzhou area are sheltered by ‘new’ Suzhou traditional building which intended to create a spatial sense like classic scholar garden so visitors can remember and connect themselves with the old value they have. We see how old value is manifest again in new present value. Since myth is not defined by the object of its message, but by the way in which it utters this message; it is the motivation which causes the myth to be uttered. The motivation we can find in this museum’s design. We see how the design creates a sensuous mysterious feeling of silence, tranquillity and memory of past that gaze at us through its white and grey primary colour in wall and roof combine with the voidness from the pond, through the unusual rock formations & stone bridges to find its new modern representation.


Without a doubt, each museum is unique and the most successful are of they place, of their setting. Each has a specific content. What our diverse audiences need is a diversity of spaces, spaces that excite and thrill, spaces that calm and provoke intense reflection and spaces that stimulate thinking and learning. In our two examples of myth presented here, we can see that the application of myth enhances dramatically the experience of visitors in those museums. Instead of just recreate in the imitation of the event literally, myth can be applied in careful and thoughtful design combining with spaces in building. Museums need myths to become interesting again to visit by visitors in which strong myth representation will enhance the experiences and retold by them. Since objects reach its meaningful realm whenever displayed in museum, then the application of myth concept in the objects then can strengthen the perceiving of meaning by visitors. However, meaning that rooted in the past may clash with contemporary interpretations that challenge their continued validity. Therefore, it is a challenge for architect and curator to carefully reinterpret and represent the meaning in their design and objects.


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Barthes, Roland (1957) Mythologies, trans. Annette Laver. London, Granada

De Saussure, Ferdinand (1974) Course in General Linguistics, trans. Wade Baskin. New York, Fontana/Collins

Greenhill, Eilean Hooper (1992) Museums and the Shaping of Knowledge. London: Routledge

Lavers, Annette (1982) Roland Barthes: Structuralism and After. London, Methuen

Leach, Neil (1997) Rethinking Architecture: a reading in cultural theory. London, Routledge

Levy Strauss, Calude (1979) Myth and Meaning. New York, Schocken

Lumley, Robert (ed.), (1988) The Museum time-Machine. London, Routledge

Macdonald, Sharon and Fyfe, Macdonald (ed.), (1996) Theorizing Museums. Oxford, Blackwell

Message, Kylie (2006) New Museums and the Making of Culture. Oxford, Berg

Spalding, Julian (2002) The Poetic Museum. London, Prestel