Stanley William Hayter (1901-1988)
Palimpsest, 1946
Sugar lift, soft-ground etching and scorper
Plate: 8 7/8 × 6 7/8 in. (22.5 × 17.5 cm) Sheet: 13 1/8 × 10 3/16 in. (33.3 × 25.9 cm)

Stewart S. MacDermott Fund, 1983
Accession Number: 1983.1141.1
© 2017 Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York

palimpsest is defined as:

  1. writing material (such as a parchment or tablet) used one or more times after earlier writing has been erased
  2. something having usually diverse layers or aspects apparent beneath the surface

Originally a palimpsest indicated things like parchments with layers of information. It used to be so costly to get new writing materials, that scribes would scrape away the surface of old documents and write new ones over them. The Morgan Library & Museum has two examples, one of 12th century religious text written over by a 15th century Italian grammatical treatise and another fragmentary piece with layers of biblical text from Egypt.

But I am always more interested in the idea of a museum object – even the museum itself – being a palimpsest of meanings, embodying layers of significance that have changed and been “rewritten” over the years. (I won’t go on too much, since I’ve already written a whole dissertation about researching the meanings and lives of museum objects.)

In museums, objects always represent something else – a time period, a culture, economic patterns, ideals of beauty, etc. Over time, the way museums use their objects change, too, to reflect different interpretations, research, and even simply changing tastes. All of this gets coded into the documents attached to the object, labels, publications, exhibition records and in the way the object is contextualized and re-contextualized by the visitors.

The museum itself is also a palimpsest of history – some cases look clearly like they’re from the 40’s, the 70’s, the 90’s. In one museum, you’ll see decades of different ideas of how to communicate to the visitors. The American Museum of Natural History in New York is especially like this – taxidermy animals displayed in neat nuclear family units, dioramas that were cutting edge museum design when Margaret Mead made them in the 1930’s through 70’s, and interactive technology in the temporary exhibitions.

So the next time you go to a museum, think about the layers of history you are experiencing.


One thought on “Palimpsest

  1. Pingback: The Magic of London – Between Fiction and Fact

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