Muzeul Etnografica (Cluj)

Cluj Napoca, Romania. A visit to the Muzeul Etnografica al Transilvaniei begins at the dismal entry. It doesn't make sense, but a museum's entry is often the most unappealing part of the experience. Why go in at all?

Inside, things get better. The displays are designed with tasteful wood framing and platforms, an aesthetic that could have been introduced sooner in the entry.

Most of the dark objects are placed against white in a thoughtful, artful manner. The approach is simple and reverent.

Black & white photos are tucked nicely into the old architecture. If adjusting the historical photos is allowed(?) a similar value and contrast would unify these side by side photos.


A display backing on a hallway uses a translucent panel to catch the shadows.

A hands-on touch counter along this corridor includes toys and bells you can ring. Strange use drawings are wall-mounted at an angle impossible to view. Later I was dismayed to see these staff women eating their brought lunches inside the restroom, on a narrow little window sill.

Upstairs is a room crowded with costumed manequins. A special offering at ethnographic museums is historical style as an expression of culture, and lost fashion is fascinating. Here they manage to avoid being creepy. The wall mirror is meant to reveal the back of the clothing, but the figures are too close, to the mirror and to each other. The visitor has to step up and lean in between the figures to see. So the main effect of the mirror is to make the room feel even more crowded.

In this situation it doesn't help that the cabinets across the room are also mirror backed.

The back of 2 badly placed landscape panels ruins the drama of figures facing each other across the balconies.

Dropped in the middle, is the exhibition "Brave New World" designed by Xaver Victor Schneider. Like many European exhibition designers, Schneider is a stage designer (as well as architect). His goal is to make challenging themes accessible on an artistic level. At first glance, the exhibition seems jarring. But getting into it, the juxtaposition adds to the power of the content. This is a complex photo documentary around the central theme of symbolic "proud houses" built by Romanian migrant workers.

Schneider's design concept is to represent the house as an icon, not a shelter. It is uninhabitable, like a chainmail dress or parade armour, hiding a vulnerable identity from the public. Like chainmail, it is constructed of pre-assembled plates held together by shiny metal rings and transparent threads. It can be built anywhere, with no foundation or grounding. Like the houses themselves, it is like a foreign spaceship that pierces the landscape, and the whole social fabric of Romania.

The concept for the exhibition is "three worlds in one space". The idyllic landscape, the realized dream of a house in the homeland, and daily life in a foreign land. The house is in the center, and the idyllic landscape surrounds it, with daily life in a foreign land on the outside. Aspects of the social fabric of Romania permeate the whole exhibition. Historical photos are mixed with current photos by various photographers. The lead documentary photographer is Petrut Calinescu.

Themes include rituals and visits to the homeland, parallel worlds of old and new, architecture and the changing landscape, fatherless and split families, difficulties of life and work abroad, western fashion and consumerism, icons of success. Ironically, these over-sized houses are often truly unlived in, too big to heat and constantly under construction.

Windows and doorways cut into the house are open, or filled with building materials or small objects.

The photography is superb.

The arrangement is generally dense and mixed, reflecting complex thinking. It's powerful and sometimes difficult to digest. This particular inner wall stands out, with it's simpler, more obvious order. A bit refreshing, but it doesn't seem to fit in.