Saturday, July 12, 2008

Is this a sign of advancing age?

I was initially going to post this as an update to my post about the British Library, but then it sort of ballooned into its own issue.

UPDATE: Contrary to what I said, the old Round Reading is no longer a museum to itself. I went to pay hommage to it the other day, only to find the door to the Reading Room closed and guarded, with a sign about how it is closed while they install an exhibition. Closed? Now, or at least recently and in just a week or two, it houses blockbuster exhibitions, such as the upcoming Hadrian show, which I will barely miss. However strange it was to go into that room just to see it, without a reader's ticket in my hand, I want it back in its old form! I have been told it will be, after this series of shows about emperors--so where are they storing all the desks?

Anyway, there are activities for children in the Great Court around what had been the Reading Room. Why go see the mummies when you can play with plastic tubing?

I am seeing, though, that this is a larger tendency in museums, seeming to reply to the question: How can we get people interested in our boring old stuff? The answer, typically, is to construct multi-modal shows telling the history of something or another, but without using actual artifacts. Instead, there might be reconstructions of the way rooms worked, complete with "authentic" recreated smells and sounds. Or they might involve flashy films with music of the time rendered techno.

For instance, at Hampton Court Palace, there is the "Young Henry" exhibition, which uses a repeated series of three simple wooden thrones to represent the interactions, roles, and power plays of Henry VIII, Cardinal Wolsey, and Katherine of Aragon. There are a few authentic paintings on the walls, but the real attention falls on the three thrones, each representing one of the three players, that appear in each room of the exhibition. Their positions and their carvings (which give in a sentence or so the person's situation at that moment) shifts, and they are always set on a carpet with a brief motto for the period in question. Somewhere in every room is an audio track, filling in more detail. As the Palace advertises it, "Historic paintings from the Royal Collection, together with audio-visual and hands-on displays, will help you explore and discover a very different King Henry VIII."

Harrumph. Do you really explore and discover when all you're doing is reading brief synopses of historical moments? Are we all so simple that the only way we can follow palace intrigue is through the shifting of chairs, like chess pieces?

And does anyone going through the show really look at the paintings? And it is a shame, too, because some of them are extremely precious and/or give clear views of the situation--from the perspective of the historical moment itself!

But to look at a painting requires more focus than the play of moving chairs.

Which takes me back to the initial question that I imagine curators asking, How can we get people interested in our boring old stuff?

The answer, sadly, seems to be: don't make them pay attention to our stuff, despite its great historical, artistic, etc. value. Instead, give them new stuff to be distracted by, so that paying the price of admission does not require them to look at the old stuff.

Distracted from distraction by distraction, or so someone said.

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