I somehow imagine that all museums before 1990 were cheerless, unheated places run by men in tight weave and small round glasses who begrudgingly typed up and laminated information cards to dampen any morbid curiosity the general public had in their objects of curation. In this distorted way, the museums of the recent past look like places run out of scholarly indifference to their visitors.
However (in)accurate this might be, times have certainly changed. Landmark openings like the Tate Modern, intelligent funding – including funding allocations that preserve the free entry to main collections – and cleverly stage-managed and publicised exhibitions have fetishised museums for art junkies and every kind of tourism. The kind of culture that speaks through Britain’s galleries is no longer an arcane or elite activity, but a culture that in the same cuddle-me motion embraces the wider public.
But the whiff of intellectual snobbery – that was, until fairly recently, more like an insufferable stench – remains, albeit in a pungently perfumed form. The public availability of our museums has simply made its exaltations something in which anyone can share. High culture these days is a prickled tongue in which any willing member of the public can proclaim.
This means that, whether elitist or populist, museums in this country retain some notion of ‘improvement’. They embody a spirit of edification and sophistication, even where the culture they foster is irreverent and subversive. Status and value of whatever complexion (classical, avant-garde or something else) preen naturally in the spotlight of cultural fashion.
Things are a little different in Italy. If you find yourself in Turin for a long week-end and carry with you a copy of the Lonely Planet Guide to the country, it will recommend the Mole Antonelliana as one of the two essential tourist magnets.
The Mole satisfies every tourist’s apparently inalienable right to a good view. You can climb up it and take on the city in panorama. This is fun, but if you want an altogether different view of things, it’s worth visiting the museum of national cinema inside.
This museum takes the idea of museums to a completely different level. The first, slightly secluded and perhaps under-visited, floor is a lot like a conventional museum. It contains a collection of exhibits that chronicle the history of cinema from magic lanterns to kinetoscopes, with information, examples, and plenty of things to watch and tinker with.
You emerge from this floor via a Lynchian curtain into a corridor and ascend to the rest of the museum. It immediately becomes clear that the first floor in which you had whiled away a conscientious and studious hour was, in fact, more of a perfunctory nod towards the assumed idea of a museum, but one through which most visitors are more than happy to impatiently glide. The rest of the museum is more like a physical recreation of a cinematic dream. It is like a tour under the heavy heat of a spotlight through every film that has ever been made as they are being made. It is an enveloping duvet of experience rather than a fussy thoroughfare of self-improvement.
Everything is built around a literally towering space. The circular hollow of the tower has been recreated as an auditorium on a grand scale. Two large screens hang midway up one of the walls beneath which lie reclining chairs with built-in audio. These chairs – which any commercially minded cinema chain should imitate immediately – are like armchairs purpose built to stare in wonder at the artificial heavens on display. At the perimeter of the tower are a series of rooms that have been created around cinematic genres: westerns, horror, comedy etc. Each room does not simply showcase snippets of film from these genres, but attempts to recreate the genre in the room.
Spiralling up the tower, the floor reverts to more familiar fare, with a series of videos on different aspects of filmmaking: special effects, directing, writing, sound. And finally the visitor’s path circles upwards in the company of a cinematic pantheon that simply paints the walls with glamour.
In spite of the museum’s half-hearted attempt to tell me something about cinema, I didn’t come away feeling hugely well-informed. Yet it is hard to imagine a better homage to the silver screen. At its best cinema can give you a unique experience. Hollywood has been known as the ‘dream factory’ since its inception, and this says it all. Great films construct something like a dream from the more sobering materials of mundane reality. The genius of the Mole is not that it stands on the outside of that experience explaining how it works, but that it gives you the role of an extra.