The Attic (a name which commemorates our first physical location) is, first and foremost, a site for the research students of the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester: a virtual community which aims to include all students, be they campus-based and full-time, or distance-learning and overseas. But we welcome contributions from students of museum studies - and allied subject areas - from outside the School and from around the world. Here you will find a lot of serious stuff, like exhibition and research seminar reviews, conference alerts and calls for papers, but there's also some 'fluff'; the things that inspire, distract and keep us going. After all, while we may be dead serious academic types, we're human too.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Creationist Sideshow

This article caught my eye the other day: "A year later, Kentucky's Creation Museum claiming big crowds" I'm "lucky" enough to live in a province that boasts its own creation museum, but I will resist the urge to critique the concept as such. What I really want to talk about this week is form vs content: at which point does a show about something become a museum? What are the boundaries of showmanship to scholarship?

You may disagree with me, but one trite way of describing early cabinets of curiosities might be that they were forms of interior design: a way of acquiring and arranging possessions to reflect the owners internal and external worlds simultaneously (according to Renaissance ideals of microcosmic-macrocosmic concordance). We all know, I am sure, how much the V&A owes to the Great Exhibition and its ways of seeing. There has also been recent scholarship around Victorian museum architecture and exhibit design and department store models.
I love this quote from the news article:
Patrick Marsh, who helped create exhibits at Universal Studios in Orlando, was brought in as the museum's director of design. "We made a decision quite a few years ago, that we wanted to do it first-class ... as good as you would see at museums or Disney World or Universal Studios," Ham said. "It's become an attraction in its own right, regardless of the message that we have here."

Now, normally, I would be down this man's throat like a rabid pitbull, but since this is a PhD blog, and we are all trying to expand our horizons, I am going to throw out a perhaps-unexpected question. Are Disney World or Universal Studios museums? Why or why not? And following on this, might we not look at the Creation Museum(s) in the same way: a reflection and record of popular culture?

How much of museum work is actually "srs bizns" and how much of it is about striking visual effects whose meaning may or may not be grasped by a lay audience? It's a question that may be equally asked of a Gothic cathedral, so I don't intend to offend. But where do we draw the boundary of the Museum, if we seek to distinguish and define the field? Or should I just change up my ivory tower values for a different set, and apply for a job at Big Valley? What, dear readers, is the point?

4 comments:

Amy said...

Wow! I haven't yet read your post Julia, but the picture is the same one that some of us have been contemplating here in the Department *quite a lot* recently: Exactly how do you attach a crocodile to the ceiling (answers on a postcard).

Okay, going to read the post now...

Amy said...

Hmmmm - okay, post read and digested. Ah, the dreaded 'edutainment' dilemma! I guess it depends on how one (and who) defines a museum. Which is a difficult task in itself. I'd like to think that most visitors to the Florida theme parks (for example) are cogniscent of the difference between them and museums, even if we can't articulate them. Personally I feel that museums could learn a lot from the 'heritage' and entertainment sectors about presentation, *without* trivialising the subject/objects at hand. It's a delicate balancing act (I'm sitting on the fence again!).

Amy said...

Oh, and how about the usage of the term 'museum?' I.e. the context of the entertainment industry (in the narrowest sense) - I'm thinking about the new 'Ripley's Believe it or not in London.' Does 'museum' validate a collection/exhibition?

I think there is also, at least in the UK, a sense that commercial exhibitions and displays (into which category the type of displays you're talking about Julia fall) are NOT as valid as their museum equivalents not least because they are about hard cash, and making lots of it! Blockbuster exhibitions tend to straddle this divide, which (along with being, by their very nature, 'populist') leads to the perception, in some quarters, that their scholarship is less valid than supposedly more worthy, uncommercial exhibitions. Like it or not, museums - or the perception of - are still terribly elitist despite *our* best efforts. ;)

J said...

LOL, I think the crocodile on the ceiling would be a great practical joke, like the sort of thing engineering freshmen do the world over. Can you imagine waking up to that above you? Like the horse's head in the bed, but more gravity-defying!

Back to serious matters, though... I like your question of whether "museum" validates a collection or an exhibition. People have been struggling with that one for over 200 years, I suspect. And of course, the elitism of the museum institution is one that dates back at least that far - the dictatorial style by which taste is diffused in a museum was always held up as better than the "Ripley's" ilk of dioramas, sideshows, etc etc that populated the exhibitionary landscape of the 19th century.

But I will confess something. I don't think we can deny or change the essential exclusiveness and elitism in museums. (I will never forget a former coworker, after leading yet another noisy, messy, sniffly group of schoolchildren through the gallery, wailing out in sheer desperation, "What was wrong with the Ivory Tower???") The nature of communication is directional (if it isn't, it's just noise), and I don't think museums that focus on particular messages or audiences have anything to apologize for, unless they actively incite hatred for another group. Should the horizons be as broad as possible? Of course. But I don't think that the kind of thoughtless relativistic liberalism so often promoted by government talking points and funding objectives should be allowed to run museums. I am sure, however, that museums are run by people cleverer than that, who know better.