“The Spitzmaus Mummy and Other Treasures,” Curated by Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf Opens at Fondazione Prada
Have you ever wondered what it might be like to step into one of Wes Anderson’s films? This may be the closest way yet.
The renowned filmmaker whose work has transformed the way we think about storytelling in cinema and his wife, the imaginative illustrator, Juman Malouf, take on the museum experience in Milan, Italy.
In partnership with Fondazione Prada and the Kunsthistorisches Museum, Anderson and Malouf curate over 500 artworks and objects from 12 collections of the Kunsthistorisches Museum and 11 departments of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna in a monumental show, “Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori.” In English that translate to: “Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures.”
The show is unique in that it upends many museum traditions by excluding placards, mixing the origins of works, and presenting objects in unprecedented ways. The result is a new and engaging experience for the visitor that may unlock new ways to appreciate history and precious objects all through the perspective of one of the greatest storytellers of our time.
In conversation with Mario Mainetti, associate curator of the show and longtime team member of Fondazione Prada, RAIN explores the show’s origins, contents, and perspectives on what may end up becoming a paradigm shift for how the public interacts with art and institutions.
Images courtesy of Fondazione Prada. On view: September 20 – January 13
RAIN: There are over 537 artworks and objects from collections from across the ancient world. The size and scope of the exhibition seems as monumental as some of the objects!
Mario Mainetti: “Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori” has a long checklist. It is definitely the biggest group of works traveling abroad from the traveling collections of these institutions. But many artworks, artifacts and natural finds are tiny and Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf chose to display them in a series of cabinets of curiosities you can walk through.
It is an extremely dense display and a captivating physical immersion into art. To give you an idea: there is a tiny room that is about three by three meters and inside you meet more than 100 objects, but they are miniature pieces so you don’t feel crowded when you are in the room.
“Wes and Juman found a good way to match the interest of serious objects and an entertaining display. They are artists and you feel it. This is definitely an artist’s project.”
I read that this show was originally in Vienna. Is that right?
The project is a collaboration and had its first presentation at the Kunsthistorisces Museum last winter. While we were defining Vienna’s show we began to think about the exhibition that we would have at Fondazione Prada as a sequel, borrowing a term from cinema.
The show had to travel in a specific way and in a short period of time. Many of the objects had never traveled abroad or even to other exhibitions because they are too fragile. A small percentage of the works that were included in the Vienna exhibition were replaced by different pieces, but the eight sections as seen in Vienna are included and travelled with their scenography, as a sort of ready-made.
Our space is much bigger and allowed Juman and Wes to further research the collections and showcase two more subjects. So, the Milanese iteration of the project is like an expanded version or, let’s say, a chapter two of the Viennese presentation.
Like in a book or in a movie, in Milan, Wes and Juman are telling a new story in which all the protagonists are there with new brilliant characters.
Do Wes Anderson and Juman Malouf have a passion and a long interest in antiquities?
That is something you should ask them… I know Wes and Juman share an interest in all things that are not only up to date, let’s say. They are very keen to preserve things and good in looking back.
Speaking about our project, they like the Mitteleurope vibe of Vienna and had been many times to the Kunsthistorisches Museum before they were asked by Jasper Sharp, associate curator of the show with myself, to do a project there.
Wes and Juman already knew the collections and had their favorite pieces from the permanent display. Some of them are now in the show. Juman did wonderful drawings of these works in order to replace them in the original vitrines or on the walls while they were on loan to us, so you can meet the Spitzmauz coffin in the show in Milan or its interpretation by Juman back in Vienna. You can also say the show is 800 kilometers wide…
Were there any objects that Wes and Juman wanted in the show but perhaps because of logistics or another reason the museums weren’t able to lend?
This was an issue since the beginning for both exhibitions. The mission of a museum is to preserve and present remarkable pieces. Museums have their rules and narratives and when you are a guest you cannot do whatever you dream to do.
You can suggest shifts, imagine variations, propose experimental displays and unreleased selections of works. But you should also respect the institution and the reasons behind its attitudes and decisions.
The Kunsthistorisches Museum has incredible masterpieces. Some of them are not meant to travel for various reasons. Some are too fragile, some are too precious, some are the reason why people go to the KHM and cannot leave their own room, some are simply enormous…to imagine having them shipped abroad…
The project was in fact built together with the staff of curators and registrars of the collections and the final list of artworks, artifacts and natural finds is the result of months of brainstorming, discussions, suggestions, travels and amazing conversations and attempts of reciprocal understanding.
I read that there are objects like an ancient Egyptian bracelet that dates back to 3000 B.C. all the way to the present day such as the three emu eggs. That’s quite a big chunk of history. What is this show meant to communicate to a wider audience with such a large span of history?
Looking back to the idea of a Wunderkammer, the exhibition explores the reasons behind the decision to create a collection and the ways in which it is housed, presented and experienced. Challenging traditional museum canons, it also proposes new relations between the institutions and their collections, and between their professional figures and their public.
‘Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori’ is a clear example of how a show curated by artists can contribute to the open debate over the role of museums, the rules of their organization and the customs that determine each exhibition. As we write in the introduction of the catalogue, it is a heartfelt attack on the idea of masterpieces placed on display, set in contrast with found objects that must merely be conserved and studied. Against the rigidity of divisions in knowledge, it is a playful, democratic proposal to enjoy a princely Wunderkammer today.
Visitors are amazed by the variety of the works on display. Juman and Wes imagined an extremely engaging show, one developing curiosity more than trying to teach you something. Walls and vitrines are designed to preserve the experience of proximity, typical of visits to collections’ storages and private houses.People experience something very special. The display devices they conceived with Itai Margula are tools to be closer to the objects, to be rather free in the exhibition space, instead of being forced in a path through historical periods or artistic media as in a traditional museum. So, back to your question, the whole show is at the same time, old and new.
What are some of the objects that stood out to you the most?
When I describe the exhibition, everything sounds precise and I can imagine listing some masterpieces included in our checklist… but every time I walk through the rooms I find new details and get passionate by different things. Definitely in ‘Spitzmaus Mummy in a Coffin and Other Treasures,’ you don’t enter a room trying to understand which is the picture you are supposed to look at. You are free of this cultural imposition.In our book, we asked the collection’s curators about their favorite pieces and the masterpieces from their collections.
You cannot understand the value of the objects in terms of money – they’re precious. But many answered with small or unknown objects that they have a special relation with.I have one, too. It’s a small ivory sculpture I saw for the very first time in Vienna during the installation of the red room which contains a whole bunch of miniatures. It is a Memento Mori made in the 17th century, a head divided in two parts: on the right, the bearded face of a man, probably dead, with his eye closed; on the left, the skull out of which an animal’s horn emerges. In another exhibition, I wouldn’t even have noticed it. Here, I show this piece when people ask which is my favorite artwork.
I also read there’s a mummified shrewd. Is this the Spitzmaus you were speaking about?
The German word for shrew is spitzmaus and we took this word as a character’s name for the communication of the project both in Vienna and in Milan because the show turns around the Egyptian coffin of a shrew. Its vitrine has a central position in the space. It is the piece Juman and Wes decided to highlight. But this coffin is an exception in the display; a physical statement about a project of secret but relevant works of art and mastery in craftsmanship.
You really enjoy looking at the works trying to understand what they wanted to tell us with the selection. Even if it is full of masterpieces—the incredible Emerald on a Gilded Copper Plinth (1596), a little wooden sculptures of Adam and Eve (16th century), phoenix (1610/1620) in ivory that has the size of a pigeon and it’s very aggressive in its attitude, but also paintings by Lucas Cranach, Albrecht Dürer, Bernardino Luini and Peter Paul Rubens just to name a few—there is no hierarchy on the walls or across the rooms and anyone is asked to build his own masterpieces list.
“Il sarcofago di Spitzmaus e altri tesori” is an exhibition that sheds new light on the collections of the Viennese museums, because even though maybe 80% of the selected pieces are from the museum’s storages, they are works that certainly deserve being on display.
One of the most recent works in the exhibition are three emu eggs. What are those about?
Yes, they were “commissioned” for the exhibition in Vienna. I’m not really into eggs except the ones we eat but I never saw eggs of this color. They are black and of course very big. You feel the weight when you see them. They look like stones. But maybe it is because they are displayed very low on the wall, near the floor. Wes and Juman organized the exhibition with the architects in an unexpected way.
We are used to putting together exhibitions where we hang paintings at the perfect distance and height. Vitrines have their standard measurements. This show is different. It’s creating a unique massive installation that includes paintings, prints, sculptures, drawings, artifacts of any kind, natural finds, and if you want to look at them, you have to be close. Sometimes you have to look down, sometimes you have to look up. It’s kind of performative. And people enjoy it. People discover the pleasure of being with artworks in a way that is the way many collectors enjoy it. You feel at home, maybe it’s not yours, maybe you are invited, but that’s the attitude that you receive from the display.
The exhibition is so enormous in terms of number of artworks that it’s clear that you cannot read all the captions in the guide or get information on everything. It’s a museum in a room. You simply don’t have the time. You don’t want to stay in a show for five hours unless you are a scientist. Wes and Juman found a good way to match the interest of serious objects and an entertaining display. They are artists and you feel it. This is definitely an artist’s project.
There’s also a book that goes along with the exhibition. I can imagine this is a really nice book to have.
You are right, it is a special book. It lives within the family of books Fondazione Prada has done as a publisher, same size and same freedom in arranging and organizing the contents. We wanted to fit the concept of the project within the book. We decided from the beginning that it would be possible to have different books for the two shows. The Kunsthistorisches Museum had a traditional catalogue whereas ours is an artist book: a box produced in 999 copies.
Inspired by Marcel Duchamp’s Boîte-en-Valise and by board games, it contains the catalogue of the exhibition, an exhibition display guide, the transcription of an audio guide by Anderson, Malouf, Jasper Sharp and Jason Schwartzman, a poster of the works selected for the project, a series of postcards, two slides with installation views, a dessert recipe, and a bookmark.
I’m excited for the book, the show as well, but you know sometimes you walk through an exhibition, especially one like this with so many details and so many objects, it’s always nice to be able to go back and really study it.
When you do a publication for an exhibition you should also provide the audience with what they expect from it, so the catalogue of the exhibited works. With our publication we wanted to provide the readers with the selection of artworks, the scientific information that goes along and their images, but also tell the process of doing an exhibition in a different way. We wanted it to be as serious and as playful as the exhibition is.
Of course we all know it is very useful to have the caption with the label very close to the work. In this show you don’t have any. You need to have a picture in the catalogue to find it. But you get something else; you get to have the experience of having the works very close and opening a dialogue between works. This gives the audience the possibility to make connections and form new ways to understand.
Mark Benjamin is the editor of RAIN magazine. Formerly a menswear buyer for a luxury fashion brand, he started RAIN in the Fall of 2016. The magazine has since realized several noteworthy profiles in print and continues the mission in print and online.