November 14, 2010

Death and the idea of museums

(My usual excuse for not blogging much = Text Festival organising, preparing for the government destruction of public services, writing the Tragedy of Althusserianism, etc.).

Anyway, I joined the Museum-id network recently ( ). A quick trawl through more recent discussions that drew my attention to a question from Steph Mastoris, Head of the National Waterfront Museum: Are Museums About Stories or Objects? He answers:

"The boring and safe answer is, of course, that museums are about both. Objects are central to the very existence of the museum, but without telling stories about them the museum is just a storehouse. For me, the key issue here is much more about whether the museum's displays begin with the object or the story. I feel that the concept-centred display is far more robust and logical than one driven by what is available in the stores. The imperative to inform that lies at the heart of the museum's purpose is best served when coherent narratives are on offer. Once these stories are established the museum's collections really come into their own by providing unrivalled sources of evidence. Indeed, such a clear narrative structure also enhances the more random inspirational powers that objects possess. It is so easy to say "let the objects speak for themselves", but their language and their messages are often difficult to understand without a good narrative context. So we need museums that are story-driven, but object rich. "

Although Mastoris uses the phrased ‘concept-centred display’, ‘story-driven’ privileges narration, linearity over concept; I read his conclusion as bypassing ideas as the driver of the concept of a museum (despite the word itself of course being rooted in ‘the place sacred to the Muses’).

Contrary to a response framed in museological theory, my reflex in these sorts of debates is more phenomenological, referenced back to my own first museum ‘epiphany’ in the Isle of Man. Back before the Manx Museum had its rationalising extension and modernisation, it was a magical place. When asked questions about what museums are for, or how museums work best I am always taken back to a memory from 1972 standing in the museum’s reconstruction of a dimly lit Victorian shopping street and looking up to see the giant skeleton of a whale hanging overhead. It made no sense (probably a mixture of historic display accident and/or lack of storage space) but it remains my most striking experience in any museum. When I last visited everything had changed for the less imaginative. This panorama link:
now shows the whale skeleton hovering above where it ‘should’ be in a natural history gallery. I have thought often on why this bizarre juxtaposition worked. It clearly wasn’t a curatorial strategy – generally deliberate curatorial surrealism is egotistic and irritating – it had hung like that since the early Sixties, I think; I’d guess in a time when a little isolated island museum didn’t even have what we now think of as a curator. It wasn’t an ostentatious surrealist act; it was just the way the architecture of the building worked. When you were upstairs you could see the skeleton contextualised with the natural history collection but in the ‘street’ the outline of whale flew overhead. In terms of the debate about what are museums about, this experience is about an object (the skeleton) but, unless you are a museum professional who can interpret the installation as an operational configuration, there was no story. I recall and still find that the installation was unfathomable: it was what it was and was magical because of that. That moment represented, and still does, the possibility of imaginative space; in negating any meaning at all except itself it offered the exhilaration of creative freedom in an act without precedence. My answer to “Are museums about objects or stories” is neither. For me, museums are about the possibility of freedom, the ground for creativity. The curatorial responsibility is the mobilisation of objects to create the opportunity for that space. This is why the political imperative over the last decade or more for UK museums to be educational, to spoon feed the visitor and the school pupil with the story, is fundamentally destructive to museums’ value and raison d’etre.

With the new Dark Age pending in the UK and the sad and sudden death of Sue’s father, this question and my intuitive response to it, were in my mind when I checked out the People’s History Museum exhibition “Death and the Working Class” this week.

This video link gives a pretty good visual of the layout.

Although I have blogged previously about how disappointing the new PHM is, I approached the show with an open mind, maybe even optimism – reasoning that the banality of the permanent displays could be put down to funder sensitivity/expectation of political neutrality but that a temporary show working with such an emotive subject has the room, even the imperative, to address the seriousness of its intent.

Predictably given where PHM seems to have located itself, Death and the Working Class lacks the idea that would make it a serious show: anger. It is a bland social history show of objects supported only by fragments of context. It doesn’t evoke the idea of death or the experience of people dying. The display goes down the route of parsing the subject by themes:

preparing for death
causes of death
laying out
the ceremony
wakes and wills
mourning and remembrance

but the absence of the theme of struggle leaves you wondering why it bother to mention Class in its title. How can you curate such as show and not impart a sense of injustice in the viewer?

Whatever seriousness the exhibition could claim is badly undermined by the ubiquitous nonsense of ‘access’ play. In amongst the exhibits you are invited to read an epitaph and guess whose name it relates to under a flap you lift. There is a comments board where you are invited to write your own epitaph. On the floor there is a snakes and ladders game with coloured plastic skulls as pieces. But the stupidity prize has to go to the rack of mourning clothes with its sign “Put on these mourning clothes: how do they make you feel?” This is really unacceptable - especially having had Sue's father's funeral last week.

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