Commissioned Museum-Literature

Chiara Zampieri (KU Leuven / RIMELL, Belgium)

Commissioned museum-literature is a worldwide phenomenon that emerged in the early 2000s in conjunction with the so-called “contemporary writing outside of the book” (Rosenthal & Ruffel, 2010). At the crossroads between a museum practice and a literary practice, commissioned museum-literature consists of commissioning to contemporary writers the creation of literary works inspired by museums and heritage sites to be realised in close collaboration with museum institutions. While being creative productions, commissioned museum-literatures are also a branding device intended to contribute to the promotion of museums, to the attraction of a diversified audience, and the patrimonialization of heritage. Commissioned museum-literature may assume various forms, which include autofictions, short stories, poems, and graphic novels, and may rely on different media, including paperback volumes, e-books, YouTube videos and audiobooks. These literary productions are all embedded in larger editorial projects, which may include collections, publisher’s series and collective volumes.

The earliest example of a commissioned literary work realised in collaboration with a museum and openly presented as such can be traced back to 1995, when, on the occasion of its twenty-fifth anniversary, the Elvehjem Museum of Art – known today as Chazen Museum of Art (Madison, Wisconsin) – published the volume Wisconsin Poets at the Elvehjem Museum of Art forwarded by the museum director Russel Panczenko (Panczenko, 1995). Under the sign of the Horatian’s principle “Ut pictura poesis”, on this occasion, thirty-four American poets were invited to visit the Elvehjem Museum and to write a poem inspired by the artworks exposed in the museum’s halls. The volume resulting from this initiative includes, in addition to the thirty-four poems, thirty-four coloured plates representing the paintings having inspired each poem.

In the following decades and up to the present day, the practice of commissioning literary works inspired by museums and their heritage has not ceased to multiply, manifesting itself through ever-new and technologically advanced formats and platforms. In 2010, the British weekly magazine The Economist inaugurated an “Authors on Museum” column in its 1843 supplement. The formula is simple: in each supplement issue, a writer is invited to return to a museum that has special meaning for them and write a short text about this nostos experience. In 2012, the Archaeological Museum of Naples (MANN) asked forty poets to compose poems inspired by the displayed ruins and statues. Likewise, in 2013 the Château de Versailles invited fifteen poets to celebrate its gardens in verses and, on the other side of the Channel, the National Museum of Ireland also solicited more than forty poets for the writing of poems in both English and Gaelic inspired by their national heritage. Since 2014, the Musée des Confluences in Lyon has regularly asked writers to produce short stories inspired by the artefacts preserved in the museum’s exhibition halls and storerooms. The same approach was then rapidly adopted by Museo Borgogna in Vercelli (2017); Musée d’Angers (2019); Musée d’Orsay (2019), Musée d’Art de Nantes (2021); and by the MACRO - Museum of Contemporary Art in Rome (2021). As of 2018, and at the initiative of Alina Gurdiel and her media agency, several museums (including the Louvre, Musée Picasso, Museo del Greco, Punta della Dogana, and the Acropolis Museum) have gone much further, allowing writers to spend an entire night, alone, among their artworks. Writers, in return, are then asked to write a book about this overnight experience. Since 2005, with the initiative “Le Louvre en bande dessinée” launched by the Editions du Louvre, this collaboration model between museums and literature has also broadened into the universe of comics and graphic novels. On the same wavelength, but with a strong educational slant, since 2018 the Italian Ministry of Cultural Heritage and Tourism has been financing the vast project “Fumetti nei Musei” which counts no less than 51 albums dedicated to Italy’s major museums. Although the book object still represents the preferred format for this kind of project, there is also an increasing number of initiatives that take advantage of the possibilities offered by the virtual realm, these include YouTube, audiobooks, QR Codes and the Metaverse.

Commissioned museum-literatures can be implemented at the request of and/or in collaboration with various entities, including museums, heritage sites, writers’ houses, publishing houses, periodicals, media agencies and ministries of culture (Zampieri, 2023). To investigate commissioned museum-literatures, accounting for the type of entity at the origin of the commission is of paramount importance since, as pointed out by Adrien Chassain and Hélène Martinelli (Chassain & Martinelli, 2020), commissioning acquires multiple functions and values depending on the spaces it invests and the actors it involves. Indeed, every space and every actor involved in the implementation of a commission (be it literary or artistic) carries with them a certain amount of visibility and a specific symbolic capital that have a significant bearing on the reception and circulation of the work resulting from the commission. When it comes to commissions implemented at the request of or in collaboration with museums, the issues of visibility and symbolic capital are crucial (Martens, 2021; Martens, 2022).

Regardless of their level of involvement, through the commissioning of museum-literature, museums can present themselves as institutions that collect and store art and actively produce it, soliciting contemporary creators. In these terms, commissioned museum-literatures are also branding devices involved in creating and conveying an image of the museum as a dynamic place of artistic creation, open to renegotiating its boundaries and positioning in the museum field. Furthermore, commissioned museum-literature also represents an essential means of communication, promotion, mediation and advertising (Zampieri & Martens, 2024). Indeed, commissioned museum-literature allows heritage to circulate through non-traditional channels (those of literature), thus reaching an audience that museums would otherwise have been unlikely to approach. Through these publications, museums can attract a wider audience – including visitors who might discover the museum precisely through their interest in the solicited writer. This is especially true when the museum invites the writer to literary events and book presentations after publishing the commissioned volume.

Writers, for their part, also benefit significantly from the acceptance of writing commissions in collaborations with museums. Simply by being invited to collaborate on a project with a museum – the quintessential place of prestige and high culture in the Western world – writers are invested with recognition and prestige, which cannot but confirm, and even increase, the visibility and symbolic capital that prompted their invitation in the first place. While commissioned museum-literature might limit the author’s creativity by imposing a set of formal and thematic constraints, at the same time, it also allows the resulting volume to reach a wider audience – the museum’s audience –, which is not necessarily an audience of readers. In addition, a visitor who, at the end of their visit, buys the volume because of its tie to the museum may also take an interest in the author, thus buying more of their books and discovering their entire oeuvre. The impact of these benefits and outcomes clearly depends on the museum’s size, budget and visibility.

Finally, publishing houses also profit from being involved in commissioned museum-literatures. Regarding visibility, like the writers, publishing houses benefit from being associated with a prestigious cultural institution like a museum. Through these collaborations, publishing houses are also entitled to publish authors traditionally attached to other publishing houses, thus expanding their readership and catalogue. Considering that these publications often correspond to large-scale editorial projects (publisher’s series, anthologies, series, collective volumes, etc.), the publishing house can also count on the loyalty of its readers. Moreover, readers loyal to each of the solicited writers will likely buy that writer’s volume and those of other authors who have participated in the same initiative.

Commissioned museum-literature results from the interaction of these three poles and the combination of their respective symbolic capitals. This three-pole system (museum-author-publishing house) enacts a variety of symbolical, patrimonial and economic interactions, resulting in each actor benefiting from and consolidating the symbolic, patrimonial and economic capital of the two other actors involved.

How to cite this dictionary entry: Zampieri, C. (2023). Commissioned Museum-Literature. In R. Baleiro, G. Capecchi & J. Arcos-Pumarola (Orgs.). E-Dictionary of Literary Tourism. University for Foreigners of Perugia.


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  • Martens, D. (2022). Un écrivain dans les couloirs du Louvre. Les pas de côté du commissaire Toussaint. Recherches et travaux, 100.
  • Martens, D. (2021). “Ouvrir une boîte comme on ouvre la bouche”: Le maniement de l’archive par l’écrivain-commissaire dans les cartes blanches de l’IMEC. Littérature, 230, 118-136.
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  • Zampieri, C. (2023). Muséo-littératures. Les musées et la commande aux écrivain.e.s contemporain.e.s (1998-2022). La Lettre de l’OCIM, (207). [Accepted for publication.]
  • Zampieri, C. & Martens, D. (2024) Un noctambulisme de commande. De la carte blanche au marketing éditorial: La collection “Ma nuit au musée” (Stock). Communication & langages. [Accepted for publication].