I love museums. In fact, going to museums is one of my favorite things to do. I have to say though, I’m rather picky about exhibits. Very rarely do I find it interesting to look at objects out of context. I want to see a series of objects, descriptions and media that tell a story. I want to be led on a journey to a place, or a time, where I’ve never been and possibly could never go. Of course, considering the title of this blog, I imagine that this doesn’t come as a big surprise. It’s amazing how effectively an exhibit can tell a story.
Archaeology as theater
One of the most effective and enjoyable examples of museum exhibition as storytelling that I have ever experienced is the main exhibit at POINTE-À-CALLIÈRE the Montréal Museum of Archaeology and History. The museum is built on the site, the actual spot, where the city of Montréal was founded. An amazing archaeological excavation revealed generations of construction and life in the city as physical layers of foundations and artifacts. The museum was built over the top of this excavation.
You enter the very modern museum building, and after purchasing your tickets enter a theater. As the multimedia presentation begins, you discover that you’re looking down into the excavation. The show is projected onto screens above the excavation, and on the rock surfaces and foundations themselves. It is an extremely effective orientation to the history of Montréal and brings you back to the founding of the city. When you leave the theater, you go down into the excavation itself, and the rest of the exhibition consists of winding your way through the physical foundations of the city of Montréal. As you take this journey, lighting and projections are used very effectively to bring to life what was happening in the various locations you see. It really is an amazing journey.
Storytelling in a tomb
In my mind, one of the most important aspects of that experience is that the story is laid out by a clear opening which draws you in, and also provides the background context you need to understand what you’re seeing. I think that all of my favorite museum exhibits do this. About a month ago I went with friends to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts and we saw the special exhibit The Secrets Of Tomb 10A. This is an exhibit drawn from the museum’s immense collection of ancient Egyptian artifacts, but this exhibit is special because all of the objects came from one place — the Tomb 10 A. of the title. Here, the storytelling was a little bit more subtle, but very present and very effective.
When you enter the exhibit, you come into an opening gallery where objects, maps and descriptive text along with a projected montage of photographs set the scene of where in Egypt these objects were discovered and begin to tell the story of the excavation. Each succeeding gallery continues the story, weaving together the ancient Egyptian religious and funerary practices, and what we can learn about that particular people for whom this tomb was built as well as the story of the excavation and in some cases the conservation of the objects. It is a wonderful journey, the context provided by the way the objects are organized and displayed makes it incredibly powerful. While I have toured the Museum’s permanent ancient Egyptian exhibits many times, and enjoy them, they lack the flow and context of The Secrets of Tomb 10A. That’s something that I really miss when I visit them.
By the way, The Secrets of Tomb 10A will be open through May 10, 2010 at the MFA. If you have any interest in ancient Egypt and anyway of getting to Boston, this exhibit is not to be missed. I love ancient Egypt, and have seen many exhibits on it — this is one of the very best.
As I think about exhibits that I’ve enjoyed, I keep coming back to how they open, your first experiences you visit. I think this is so critical to setting the context for what you’re about to see, and I think it’s something that’s often minimized or left out altogether. I’ll leave you with one of the most indelible examples of a wonderful opening in my mind.
The grand vista of space
Many years ago (it must be close to 20) the Boston Museum of Science had a special exhibit called Soviet Space, an amazing array of spacecraft and satellites built in the Soviet Union, and I believe exhibited in the US for the first time. I still remember the opening of this exhibit. You waited in a small foyer after your ticket had been taken, and at the appointed time a curtain was pulled aside and you entered a small theater. There was a panoramic screen at the front of the theater up fairly high, and on that screen a multi-image slideshow (the state-of-the-art technology at the time) introduced the story, and at the climax of the presentation, the front wall of the theater opened (much to my surprise,) revealing a giant fiber-optic star field with a sputnik spacecraft floating in front of it. That moment was pure magic for me. I still remember it so clearly all these years later.
Off to Hogwarts
There’s a reason I’m talking about this today, yesterday my sister and I visited the Harry Potter exhibition at the Boston Museum of Science. This post is really a preamble to my response to visiting that exhibit which I will post tomorrow.
In the meantime, I’d love to hear how important, or not, these aspects of exhibits are to you when you visit. I look forward to your comments!