A review of Museum of Unheard (of) Things by Roland Albrecht

Reviewed by Melanie Fisher

Museum of Unheard (of) Things
by Roland Albrecht
translated by You Nakai and Alexander Booth
Already Not Yet
2015, ISBN-13: 978-0996944205

At the core of history lies a paradox: historical inquiries aim to excavate a past that has not yet found a place in current historical knowledge. It follows that the writing of history is always also a re-writing of history. This is an interminable process, to be sure, but therein also lies the ethics of history. For what demands the constant re-writing are happenstances that have been excluded from given history. These oddities, not acknowledged as constituting our past, and thus appear necessarily trivial and insignificant, ask for a different story to be told. In short, history is driven and conditioned by the excesses that do not fit into history. History is the unconsciousness of history.

The late paleontologist and evolutionary biologist Stephen Jay Gould labeled this paradoxical nature of history “The Panda Principle,” following his observation that the highly inefficient but serviceable false thumb of the panda could not be explained by the simple mechanism of adaptation to the environment. The only way to understand panda’s enigmatic “sixth finger” was to take recourse to history.

Our world is not an optimal place, fine tuned by omnipotent forces of selection. It is a quirky mass of imperfections, working well enough (often admirably) […] A world optimally adapted to current environments is a world without history, and a world without history might have been created as we find it. History matters; it confounds perfection and proves that current life transformed its own past. (Gould 1985, 54)

Which is to say that history told solely from the perspective of those who thrive in the present, ends up being ahistorical. While it may be true that history is always written by the winners of history, if that is the whole story, then history would cease to exist. The winners justify their success by resorting to some inherent trait that they own(ed). What they forget is that survival was and is strictly a matter of luck. A historian’s gaze, on the contrary, must focus on the contingency of happenstances: that things which happened might not have, and things that might have happened did not. The sensibility to history thus necessarily overlaps with the imagination of historical fiction.

It is in this sense that Roland Albrecht’s unusual project is fundamentally historical in nature. His Museum der Unerhörten Dinge (The Museum of Unheard (of) Things) in Schöneberg, Berlin, has become a favorite destination for visitors to the German capital who seek something different than the ordinary tourist attractions (and why else go to Berlin?). The self-run institution displays a panoply of miscellaneous objects Albrecht has collected over the years—figures of penguins, differently shaped rocks, an old telescope, fragments of a typewriter, a piece of petrified tree, and so on so forth. Each of these seemingly trivial and insignificant objects are categorized according to their weight, and coupled with their own stories Roland has extracted by patiently lending his ears to them. These stories, which function to cast a dim aura to the otherwise miserable objects, are “Unerhörten” in the two sense of that German word: they are “unheard” and “unheard of”—unknown and outrageous, suppressed and surprising. But for the non-German speakers, this adjective carried a third meaning: it was impossible to hear them, because all the stories could only be read in German. Until now, that is. The 78 stories in the entire collection have been translated into English by You Nakai and Alexander Booth, assembled together following the order of their weight, and published as the official catalogue raisonné of the museum. Now for the first time, English-speakers have the chance to appreciate the idiosyncrasy of Museum of Unheard (of) Things in its entirety. The unheard (of) is finally rendered audible.

And what we hear through this beautifully illustrated book, page after page and object after object, are histories of failure, stories of things and events that did not manage to register themselves into history. We read about a Swiss watchmaker from the mid-nineteenth century who attempted to create a new standard of time, but was suppressed by authorities who wished to maintain control of how time is kept; The first modern ID card that was created at the request of Michel de Montaigne, which did not prosper as the imperial cities failed to agree on a common format; The miniature model of a statue to commemorate the Soviet dog Laika which never got to be made since the “Committee in Honor of Socialist Achievements in Orbit” could not reach any consensus; A primordial photographic imprint of a girl made by her lover which is taken as a miraculous apparition of the Virgin Mary by the local villagers, consequently sending the girl to a convent and bringing the young romance to a tragic end; or an image of Mao Tse-tung that was venerated as St. Anthony of Padua in rural China to save the Christian villagers from the rampage of Cultural Revolution.

The common theme running through these diverse stories is that of a constant failure of objects and people to adapt to the present. Intentions and hopes are misunderstood and neglected, leaving a gap between the object (and its human provenance) and the rest of the world. They become lost because they have lost. As a result, the stories are silenced and forgotten, the objects rendered trivial. Relationships collapse and people die too soon, but hope lies in the fact that things survive—they remain unheard, but nonetheless they remain, clutching onto the periphery of the shared present like the enigmatic sixth finger that demands (a different) history to be told.

The story of Albrecht’s stories places him in a lineage of German thinkers who sought ways to fight against the tyranny of the non-historical present and re-collect the vestiges of unassimilated past. One can surely think of parallels with the approach to the unconscious developed by Sigmund Freud—whose strange fascination with basilisks is narrated in one of Albrecht’s stories. The psychoanalytical method of revealing repressed events via the incoherencies and noises (parapraxes) that they effect on the supposedly neutral surface of the conscious presents a model for listening to the unheard. (Freud 1914) But perhaps a more pertinent connection is with the sensibilities of Walter Benjamin—another protagonist in this book—who shared an affection for small, seemingly useless junk, which he placed at the center of his approach to history that aimed to set alight “the spark of hope in the past.” (Benjamin 1969, 255) Benjamin’s aphorisms in his last manuscript “On the Concept of History” could be read as a theoretical commentary on The Museum of Unheard (of) Things: “The past carries with is a temporal index by which it is referred to redemption.” (Benjamin 1969, 254)

In both Freud and Benjamin, it is the dimension of materiality that serves as a pathway to the past; the thingness of things which by their nature resist interpretation. But how does this resistance to interpretation align with the format of “storytelling” so central to Albrecht’s book? One may be reminded here of the polemic between Carlo Ginzburg and Hayden White on the relationship between history and narrative. Against White who claimed the confluence of history and narrative, Ginzburg maintained the irreducibility of history to narrativization. (Ginzburg 2012, 165-179) Albrecht does not offer a straightforward answer to the issue, but the idiosyncratic nature of his project suggests an alternative.

Two seemingly “meta” stories in the collection, both found towards the very end of the book, prove to be essential here. One is a story entitled “On the History of Interpretations of Nature Based on a Cobblestone from the Natural History Museum in Vienna,” which traces the wide range of disparate interpretations that a particular cobblestone has been subjected across history, from the Bronze Age, through the medieval time (Pope Benedictus VIII), Renaissance (Leonardo Da Vinci), to nineteenth century fascination with dinosaurs. It is a story that tells how a singular object is assigned a variety of stories over history, and thus seems to both explain and self-criticize Albrecht’s attempt to make objects speak their stories. There is always a gap between the object and its story. The second “meta” story is located at the very end of the book, and is the story of the Museum of Unheard (of) Things itself. Here again, the account of the history of the museum seem to offer a grand narrative which explains and encompasses all the other stories in the book. But contrary to this impression, what sustains throughout the book is the specific singularity of each thing and its (hi)story. The sheer multiplicity of stories and the panoply of things collapses the desire of forming a universal perspective to account for them all. In other words, the story of the museum (or that of the natural history of interpretations) does not provide a meta-narrative. On the contrary, the very itemization of museum itself as one of the “Unheard (of) Things,” weighted and all, upsets the logical hierarchy usually set between the container and the contained, which lies at the basis of the idea of something being “meta.” Put differently, the narrativization of museum relativizes the “reality” against which “fiction” is erected and measured. In either case, the dream of meta-history crumbles apart.

What is left, is of course, (hi)story itself. Or more accurately, (hi)stories. And here we could pay homage to Albrecht’s apparent interest in the culture of the far-east (as displayed in one story about the lost tradition of miniature animal bonsai developed by Zen monks), and resort to one Japanese word for “story” that beautifully captures the essence of Museum of Unheard (of) Things: “Mono-gatari”—or “Things-Talk.” History is the story of things yet unheard.

Works Cited:

Gould, Stephen Jay. 1985. The Flamingo’s Smile: Reflections in Natural History. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.
Freud, Sigmund. 1914. Psychopathology of Everyday Life. London: T. Fisher Unwin.
Benjamin, Walter. 1969. “Theses on the Philosophy of History.” In Illuminations. New York: Schocken Books.
Ginzburg, Carlo. 2012. “Just One Witness: The Extermination of the Jews and the Principle of Reality.” In Threads and Traces: True False Fictive. California: University of California Press.

About the reviewer: Melanie Fisher is a novelist and creator of Fictional Speculation. Her writing and speculative skills were honed by her father, an obscure performance artist, who spent his life fighting against what he called “the tyranny of age specificity” (i.e. the ideology that people only have one age and should act and think according to it), and made Melanie write as herself of different age from very early on (e.g. as a 50 year old Melanie when she was 8). Melanie is currently preparing her first and only novel “The Ages of Melanie Fisher,” a pseudo-auto-biography whose chapters, though proceeding chronologically, are each narrated by a Melanie of different age. Now that the written chapters of the book have caught up with her present life, she intends to work on one chapter every year until her death. Melanie is a very critical reader of Marcel Proust.