Brown Bag 16th May 2012
“Exchanging Values: Steampunks and Museums”
Dr. Jeanette Atkinson
Associate Tutor, School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester
Well, it’s that time of year again – summer is coming, the bluebells are out, Research Week is almost upon us and this is the last Brown Bag write up of the year. Luckily, it went out with class; and with one of our own.
Dr. Jeanette Atkinson has worn many hats in this department, having been involved in some capacity since 2004. In 2008 she completed her PhD here. Entitled ‘Learning to Respect: the Perspectives of Heritage Professionals in Aotearoa New Zealand’, it focussed upon cultural values and practices for educational professionals working with and within indigenous communities. Of late her interest, and her mode of research employed in her thesis, has been turned towards costumed communities, including re-enactors, cosplayers and, in particular, steampunks.
In wider culture, steampunk is often seen as simply an aesthetic; certainly, it takes much inspiration from the artistic tone of the Victorian period. But it has an interesting history which suggests there is something more to it; some say it originated as far back as the 1960s, in fact. However, the culture as a defined phenomenon really began to take off in the 1980s. The term ‘steampunk’ was coined by the author K. W. Jeter in a 1987 letter to Locus Magazine, regarding his book, Morlock Night, which was highly influenced by the work of H. G. Wells. He used it to describe the works of himself and others which exhibited sensibilities combining steam era technology and ideals with fantasy or science-fiction settings. It is a movement grown from literature; but it, in turn, influences current artistic production, and its influence has reached as far as Hollywood – the most recent filmic iteration of Sherlock Holmes has something of its tone. But its sense of community and specificity remains; on forums such as Brass Goggles, Silver Goggles and Beyond Victoriana, the dedication of its followers – and the broadness of their demographic – becomes immediately apparent.
Museums have certainly made significant recent attempts to engage with cultures defined by geographies or long histories; but how should they interact with those communities whose membership is one of personal choice? All culture falls under the remit of museums in general (though individual institutions obviously interact with different groups in different ways) so openness and willingness to engage with those with whom mutually beneficial relationships can be constituted should be maintained - no matter the nature or origin of that cultural grouping. How do such relationships develop and play out in the case of steampunk, a movement in which Jeanette has developed, and continues to develop, an increasing fascination.
Should curators take an interest in steampunk, then? If so, how and why should they go about it? Jeanette has found that responses to such questions are mixed; Philip Warren, Principal Curator at Leicestershire County Council Heritage and Art Service (LCCH&AS), which holds the Symington Collection of Corsetry, Foundation and Swimwear, seemed unsure when interviewed. In terms of actively seeking to collect and display steampunk objects, he thinks it prudent that curators wait and see if the culture became important and influential enough to warrant attempts at acquisition or display. On the other hand, Professor Jim Bennett of the Museum of the History of Science in Oxford sees steampunk as a movement with currency and popularity – and therefore hugely important to engage with. In many ways, these distinct attitudes themselves highlight different cultures of curation; one predicated upon the past and future, the other with a foot firmly in the present.
This difference in attitude is also, I suspect, a result of experience. Having been approached by the New York artist Art Donovan, the Museum of the History of Science played host to the world’s first exhibition of steampunk art between October 2009 and February 2010. This hugely successful exhibition, though it was displayed in a narrow corridor space, channelled over 70 000 visitors into this small museum, the original site of the Ashmolean. Since then other museums, particularly those of a scientific, industrial, or technological bent, have also taken part in such events. At Snibston Discovery Museums’s New Age of Discovery, staff dressed as steampunks took visitors on a performative tour of the collection, and later the same artists involved in this piece of museological theatre also took their work to Bradford Industrial Museum. Steampunks, it seems, are becoming increasingly visible and popular partners for museums of a particular discipline.
Generally projects have resulted in temporary exhibitions and special events, but Jeanette points out that museums and steampunks are also building relationships through their shared interests in material culture. For all that the curator of the Symington Collection is reserved about the collection and exhibition of steampunk material, he has little issue with opening his holdings to members of that community for the purposes of research. The relationship, it appears, is a truly reciprocal one, and it is interesting to speculate, as Jeanette does, whether and how far museum collections are influencing the ‘authenticity’ of steampunk creations. Two questions spring immediately to mind. One is to do with curatorial practice and desire, the other with the ontology of authenticity itself. Firstly, does the increased ‘authenticity’ (perhaps we should say ‘accuracy’) of a steampunk creation enhances or inhibits the desire of a museum to collect it, now or in the future? Secondly, I wonder how the authenticity is constituted and determined for an artefact which is at once an echoic reference and a thing entirely its own?
Having examined two methods of engagement – the production of collaborative events and the sharing of information - the wider practices and negotiations surrounding their initiation need to be investigated. In the case of the Museum of the History of Science, it was the artist who approached the museum and connected them with the steampunk community. Though it involved some collaboration, particularly in terms of object loans and advertising, the arrangement and interpretation of the objects remained in institutional hands. At Kew Bridge Steam Museum, however, it was the museum that made the first move. Similar events were, nonetheless, held at both institutions, including fashion shows and musical soirées; much of the joy of steampunk, it seems, arises in social interaction.
The events discussed here have largely been of a temporary nature – less emphasis placed on the kind of acquisitive engagement which creates and displays collections and objects for posterity. The V&A collected clothing and artefacts from subcultures both historic and contemporary for their StreetStyle displays; but such practices are rare. When a culture is living, is as mutable and changeable as steampunk is, the issues surrounding this particular musealising practice are massive, and should not be overlooked.
The first issue, of course, is a practical one. When considering relationships of a more permanent, acquisitive nature, museums have to determine various things. Is the relationship a mutually beneficial one? Are the objects and activities of this group of relevance to their collection? Do they have the ability, or even the right, to create collections based upon the current cultural visibility of a phenomenon and a prediction of its future relevance? In answering these questions, whether negatively or positively, museums must make bets and take risks. I cannot judge which risk they should take at any given moment and in every case. Prudence is well and good, and perhaps for the moment the situation in the case of steampunks should remain spontaneous and event based; but this should not preclude more permanent material collections being developed in the future. I would certainly suggest that it is short-sighted of an institution to actively shy away from the possibilities which such cultural engagements offer.
That question of spontaneity leads us onto a second issue; cultural propriety, representation and musealisation. Ethnographic museums have been embroiled throughout their history in debates about cultural representation, Othering and the ethnographic present; and similar issues arise when considering the collection, interpretation and display of contemporary subcultures. At what point does an institution begin to musealise a group of people, and what are the implications for that group and the institution when and if they do? Will that act stultify and freeze that group and its further development? Certainly, any representation made will be a mediated snapshot. In that case, the current level of dialogic engagement between museums and steampunks is promising – it suggests that, if and when more permanent collecting practices begin to emerge, it will be on the community’s terms – a very different, bottom up kind of anthropological collection building than museum history has often seen.
The modern museum needs partners, needs interested parties with whom to develop; steampunks of all kinds are often willing to be such partners. Every culture, including that of an individual museum, constantly undergoes change, and all are constantly being reinterpreted by each other. They are mutually constitutive – they may not depend on specific groups of each other for their survival, but they certainly enrich the existences of those cultures with whom they interact. So it is, perhaps, opportunities which museums and those who engage with them should see, and take up when they are able, without prejudice or expectation.
And there, my friends, I leave you; for this is my last Brown Bag of the year, and probably my last Brown Bag ever. I’ll be finishing my PhD, hopefully, by the time the next wave of lunchtime seminars rolls around, and so I’ll not be writing to you in this capacity again. But don't worry – as you may have noticed, I'm leaving you in several good pairs of hands. It’s been a good three years, and I’ll miss it; I’ve certainly learned a lot, not just about museum studies and related disciplines, but also about myself and others, how people respond in debate and think about their own work in relation to those of their peers and predecessors. Writing here has forced me to question presuppositions and expectations of my own, and has forced me to think about my own writing, and how to express and interpret the ideas and work of a multifarious variety of people. It's been quite a ride, chaps, and not always a smooth one; nonetheless, it's been fun, and I hope you’ve enjoyed it as much as I have.