Would you expect to see a car from the 1970s in a contemporary ethnographic exhibition? No? That, however, was what the museum guests could see in the newly re-opened Moesgaard Museum in 2014. A tiny blue Fiat Maluch displayed on a thick red carpet. What a car, produced in the 1970s, has to do with anything in a cultural historical museum, one could ask. The answer is, in short: a lot!
The exhibition, in which the Fiat Maluch was displayed, was curated by five master students from the Department of Anthropology in Aarhus University. They exhibited some central topics from their master thesis. One of the students was Anders B. Christensen, who had collected the car during his fieldwork in Poland. His thesis was about land rights (or something like that) in the former Soviet state. Something of a “cult” had evolved around this small, low-tech piece of technology, and it caught Anders’ attention.
In Denmark, people would find it difficult not to smile, if they saw the car in between the fleet of fancy SUVs and Audis. In Poland, people smile too, but for different reasons. The MoMu/Aarhus University exhibition in 2014 was the culmination of an initiative called ‘the laboratory’. Morten Nielsen, a former head of department at The Ethnographic Collections at Moesgaard Museum took the initiative back in 2012. The idea was to approach the concept of materiality from new angles. In my view, we succeeded.
So, one may ask, how can a tiny blue Fiat Maluch contribute to an anthropological understanding of materiality? The answer lies in the exercise to look at the world through the optics of a piece of materiality – such as a particular car. And looking at the world through the car, a particular understanding of contemporary Polish society appeared. To make a long story and complicated story (as anthropological understandings always are) short, the conclusion of the exhibition was that the car embodies a particular longing for a past, in which life was (or at least seems) much simpler than it is today.
Along with the car in the exhibition was the original tool kit of the Fiat Maluch. The kit consists of six pieces of non-tech tools, with which the car (supposedly) could be completely disassembled. We never tried that, though, in the exhibition. But it opened some perspectives, at least for me, about what a car really is. Is a car just a means of transportation? Or a status symbol? Or perhaps a way to catch a past that is long gone, and perhaps never existed? Being forced to pay a minor fortune every time a lamp is on in my high-tech car, one can understand the temptation to drive a low-tech car, where every defect can be handled with a little tape, some wire, or an unauthorized bolt.
Anyway, the Fiat Maluch served its purpose in the exhibition. It was never incorporated into the Ethnographic Collections, although the intention was there. As museum employees, we have to weigh the possibility of re-use of an object against the space it occupies in the storage room. But the museum audience had the possibility of looking at the world through the Fiat Maluch. And what a sight that was….
Bonus info: Fiat Maluch was introduced in October 1972. It is also known as Fiat 126. The majority of these were produced in Bielsko-Biala in Poland. The last Fiat Maluch (meaning ‘the little one’ in Polish) left the production line in 2000. The car had 23 hp (horse power).
//Ulrik Høj Johnsen