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.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Selling Heritage

I was visiting my mother this weekend (am actually typing this using the free wi-fi on the bus!) and we decided to go check out the new expansion of the local historical village, Heritage Park. Although the original park consists of buildings dating from the 1880s to about 1920ish, the directors recently decided to expand the mandate of the park to cover the period 1930-1950, as well. As my mother said, if it's older than her, it's an antique.

But the difference between this expansion and the original park is that the buildings in the expansion are new - not reconstituted antiques from other sites. There is only one museum, which is of automobile history, and the rest of the space is devoted to commercial enterprise: a restaurant, brewery, photo studio, a couple of souvenir shops, and even - wait for it! - an antique store.

I caught myself thinking, "but this isn't authentic!" as we wandered about... If there was ever a clear sign that I am not yet fully brainwashed as a museologist, this was it! It was especially strange to go into the antique store. Now, here in the Canadian West, vintage is anything not sold yesterday, and older than God is 1880, so most of the objects being sold at Heritage Park easily fit into its own collecting mandate. Sure, there are signs everywhere saying how your purchase supports the Historical Village - but the boundary becomes very blurred.

Can you imagine if the V&A started selling antiques in its shop? People find the current gift shop problematic enough - what would happen if the boundaries were blurred even further? Or am I just being a snob, worried that museum objects won't be special enough if they are side by side with marketable objects? Which is the commodity - the artefact or the antique?

2 comments:

Amy said...

I think it's certainly problematic. And it lends weight to the image that 'heritage' is the bastard son of 'museology' - a little too commercial, a little bit 'grubby'. But, perhaps that just reveals my prejudices?

Thinking about the V&A and BM, to take just two examples: They might not sell antiques, but they have no qualms about offering (frequently exorbitantly priced) reproductions. So, perhaps the distinction isn't quite as clear cut as it might seem at first glance.

And another thing...the name 'Heritage Park' - not very imaginative, eh? S'pose it does what it says on the tin though.

J said...

No, poor old Heritage Park isn't very imaginative in its marketing. Their new slogan is "How the West was Once." Har de har har. The website used to have the sound of a steam engine chuffing away in the background... It's a local institution, though, partcularly at Christmastime. I do think that the extension is a lot more commercial than anyone really expected it to be. It's one thing to sell striped candy at the "general store", and quite another to sell player pianos at the antique mall.

Reproductions are fine - they are labelled as such, and no one would think otherwise. But if the BM started selling bits of Greek pottery, that would be an issue, would it not?

Heritage is a murky sort of business, especially when it comes to theme parks with houses and interiors - the line between fantasy and reality is already a bit uncomfortable. I'm thinking of the "Ghost in the house" talk at Material Worlds, and how that highlighted the gap between visitor expectations, interpretation, and historical reality. Scary. (And not just because of the ghosties!)