Inside the British Museum, the Parthenon galleries mimic the real thing, but inverting interior and exterior in relation to the Parthenon: in the literal reconstruction of the temple façade in part of the gallery, in the columns placed in the corners of the gallery, and more generally in the display of the friezes. Even though the friezes run around the interior walls of the gallery and not the outside of an internal structure (as at the New Acropolis Museum), they are given much more space than their original context and the overall design of the gallery reflects what Christopher Marshall (2012: 34) calls the museum as temple — it was seen by its architect to be a more appropriate setting for the display of treasures than a mere container for sculptures. What its architect called the ‘unsightly litter' of didactic material is banished to a separate gallery, where the visitor’s response to the friezes is staged before reaching them (ibid.: 36).
The museum-as-temple is now seen as a dated idea; according to van Winkel (2012), ‘the museum that no longer conserves and exhibits, but stimulates. The grave has become the engine.' But just as public space is psychological space, architecture provokes specific behaviours in its occupants (in this case museum visitors), and despite the lack of written rules, in the museum-as-temple, people are inevitably calm and quiet. No one runs, conversations are hushed, and any shouting children are quieted, so as not to disturb others’ direct encounter with the original; this phenomenon has been well documented.
At either end of the Parthenon gallery, pediment sculptures and metopes (high-relief sculptures originally just below the pediments) are displayed atop a small flight of steps. This not only adds to the general aura of respect (the act of climbing steps mirrors the act of climbing up the Acropolis and the Parthenon’s own steps), but it also puts them slightly closer to their original viewing angle. According to Campagna (2021: 39):
Roman author Pliny the Elder and medieval historian Ioannes Tzetzes spoke of a contest to build a monumental statue of Athena, which had taken place in the 5th century BC between the Greek sculptors Phidias and Alcamenes. During the weeks of preparation in the workshops, Alcamenes’ statue had impressed the judges for its perfect beauty, while Phidias’ work had appeared monstrous due to its grotesque proportions. Yet once both had been mounted on pillars, the decelerated perspective suddenly made Phidias’ Athena beautiful, and Alcamenes' ugly. Unlike his rival, Phidias understood that the Divinity’s ‘true’ beauty would have become apparent to human onlookers, only on condition of sacrificing its ‘actual’ perfection.
As information architecture, this harkens back to the tradition of the memory palace, or memory theatre. Kunzru’s Memory Palace draws its title from the practice which originated in ancient Greece (from Simonides as told by Aristotle), linking things that were to be remembered (in a primarily oral culture) with memorable, often monstrous figures placed in specific positions.
Yates (1966) refers to this practice as ‘artificial memory,’ and we might make an analogy with contemporary scenography, the museographic practice of staging exhibitions using theatrical techniques, as discussed by Patten (2020): proto-architect Vitruvius ‘describes skenographia as a Greek invention associated with the theatre that was exclusively concerned with the species — the external appearance or aspect. Species could also mean apparition or phantasm and is, in turn, associated with the verb specto – to watch, to observe’. As such, scenography in museums can involve the use of lenses, gauzes, filters, mirrors, shadows and illusions (Crawley 2013). Veras (2020) describes the museum itself as a mnemonic device or medium, proposing museums as ‘hyperstitional devices for lost futures of technological utopias’ or ‘time machines of the future’.
The term ‘artificial memory’ also evokes our primary form of memory today — the digital. Kunzru makes this link directly, and in his post-digital world, everything digital has been erased by a ‘Great Magnetization’ event, and the protagonist is part of a group of people who have revived the ancient technique of the memory palace in order to preserve the last remaining knowledge of the past.
But the concept of memory relies on its mirror-image, that of forgetting. According to Zwart and Chahine (2020), ‘[i]n order to remember, we need to forget. Recent discourse in memory and heritage studies acknowledges that “forgetting” is as much part of memory practices as “remembering”’. When do we get to forget what, and who decides? The concept of conservation of cultural heritage implies saving something for future generations of humans; what about natural heritage, and future nonhumans? As DeSilvey and Lowande (2020) observe, the very concept of ‘cultural heritage’ points to human exceptionalism in the modernisation metanarrative, but various extramodern cosmological perspectives do not accept this; they suggest attention to ‘how things stay together and take care of themselves regardless of human desires’.
Regarding museums as memory palaces is where the architectural definition of ‘programming’ meets the curatorial. I believe there is value in the computational definition as well — considering the gallery as a space of inputs, outputs, processing, communication and memory (Walker 2001); even as ‘object-oriented programming’ in a relational approach which ascribes agency to artefacts. Beyond parametric architecture that results in soulless ‘blobjects’ (to use designer Karim Rashid’s’s term, Cullerton 2005); beyond shiny virtual models like the Parthenon reconstruction on a screen in the British Museum gallery adjacent to the friezes; the concept of computation, I believe, reimagines a script, a space, and objects that can be ‘run’ like a program, interacting with people without the use of anything digital. (In fact, the earliest known ‘computer’ is said to be the ancient Greek Antikythera mechanism; it inspired the work of Expanded Museum founder Grace Pappas.)
Inspired by Walter Van de Velde (2003), who conceptualised the world as a kind of computer that computes the future and can be programmed through design, I have transferred computational methods into a design methodology (Walker and Fass 2015), applied this to museums (Walker and Liang 2013), and run experiments in programming gallery spaces computationally, using computational concepts and technologies (Walker and others 2013).
Since architecture is oriented toward the future, we might therefore look to technology for contemporary or future-looking museographic and scenographic practices. If the digital screen can be considered a contemporary version of the frieze, projected images go further, animating or activating architectural surfaces to make walls seemingly disappear; digital information becomes a material for architectural construction (Uribe and Walker 2019). In this condition, according to Lavin (2011), architecture and projection converge without collapsing into one; projections give otherwise mute architecture meaning, and architecture gives images monumentality. Projected images, she says, can thicken a building’s envelope. Artist Yiyun Kang (2017) calls this ‘deep surface’ — her practice of projection mapping comes at the other end of site mapping, being applied to completed (even ancient) architecture, not as an archaeological practice either, but a (non-invasive) reimagining.
Another artist and architect, Mále Uribe Forés, goes further to create computer-generated textural surfaces, cast into physical forms and then illuminated using projection mapping. The use of light as material has thus moved from the natural, Mediterranean light of Athens to the controlled artificial light of the gallery, now full-circle to the lighting up of monuments like the Parthenon at night. Friezes that have been removed can now move.
According to Lavin (2011: 111):
Architecture today need not be just that which you bump up against when you try to look at something else [in a gallery] nor a monument culturally framed and rendered visible by its own importance. Architecture’s new confounds are not just making buildings visible but are encouraging them to find ways to make perception enter the realm of experience rather than vision, to make images that produce material impressions, to make experience that is vivid.
Museums and monuments are not utopian spaces, architecturally or conceptually. They may exhibit and embody utopian ideals of the past, but ultimately they are not places for imagining alternatives or being otherwise, in Levitas’ terms — though Arévalo (2020) believes they have great potential for doing so.