Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Million Dollar Shed

It's refreshing to see that the USA is not the only place where people chunter about public spending for museums. In the UK, a minor storm in a teacup is erupting over the fate of Roald Dahl's shed. The Dahl museum wants to move and conserve the shed, a 1950s "temporary" structure in which Dahl wrote most of his classic stories and which has been left untouched since he died in 1990. This comes with a £500K price-tag, which strikes some people, notably Andrew M. Brown of the Daily Telegraph, as a bit steep.

In part, this comes down to the usual problem of people not understanding what's involved in conservation; if you look closely at the film of the hut on the BBC's website, it becomes immediately apparent that many hours of work will be required to stabilise the hut and its contents; it's packed full of archival materials, including papers, photographs, furniture, and other items, all of which will need treatment and most of which appear, even from a distance, to be severely degraded. Conservation is expensive. Get over it.

A bigger issue from Brown et al, is the fact that Dahl's family are asking for help rather funding the project themselves. Dahl's books remain best-sellers world-wide, no-doubt ensuring a dependable revenue stream for his Estate. According to the Museum  the family has made "a very significant financial contribution" to the project. It may seem a little intrusive to them, but if they want the public to pony up funds they may have to come clean about exactly how much that contribution is. That's the world we live in

Million Dollar Attic

I might as well confess right now that I don't listen to National Public Radio, because I have to spend all day listening to other people's opinions and the idea that I might spend my leisure time doing the same thing is, frankly, a real downer. Nonetheless, I *did* listen to this piece from Morning Edition, because it featured my former colleagues Mark Norell and Carl Mehling, and because it included the remarkable claim that Carl actually goes to lectures at SVP before he starts partying (only kidding, Carl!).

However, I came away irritated because, as is usually the case when journalists come to the museum, they kick off with an assenine comment about how museum collections are like "my grandparent's attic, only more exotic." Hahahaha. Well guess what, guys? I'm currently spending about half a million of your taxpayer dollars on my olde curiosity shoppe, so you'd better hope that it's a bit more useful than the contents of grandad's attic.

And, of course, it is. If you want to how we could possibly justify spending all that money on a bunch of dusty old bits of this-n-that, take a look here. For now, I hope Morning Edition sticks to talking about more appropriate, light-hearted topics. Suggestively-shaped vegetables seems more up their street.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Big Ideas

Museums should be places where we celebrate the human experience, rather than dwelling on all the nasty stuff. This is the gist of an op-ed piece by Tiffany Jenkins in The Independent. I'll let you mull over her thesis yourself. It does raise an interesting point, I guess, about why museums preserve stuff; if the sole purpose of the collection is to memorialize, is it really a museum? It also raises questions of balance - how can the moral certainty required for a memorial co-exist with a balanced, dispassionate consideration of history? But I ended up being much more interested by the author's home institution. Dr. Jenkins works for the Institute of Ideas, which is not to be confused with the Ideas Institute. Puts me in mind of the People's Front for Judea and the Judean People's Front. The Ideas Institute shows what happens when Marxists go Libertarian, and the results are predictably hilarious. I had a great deal of fun reading their 21 Pledges for Political Progress - for example #20 says "direct state funding of health to biomedical research into cures, the latest drugs and equipment, rather than punitive campaigns to change individual behaviour, in the interests of public health and good cheer." In the light of my previous post, this is something that I would be all in favor of.

Weighty Matters

A couple of weeks ago a colleague sent me a post from the Center for the Future of Museums blog about a new exhibit that is being planned for the Peabody. It's called "Big Food" and its about the "global obesity epidemic." She wanted me to (1) give the blog post a plug and (2) make it go "viral." This is me doing #1. For #2, I showed her that honey badger clip from YouTube and asked whether she really thought the blog post had the same potential. It's a good post, but frankly I can't see it on a teeshirt. She asked me, rather sniffily, how I would have blogged about this exhibit. And here's what I told her.

I am, not to put to fine a point on it, fat. Not hugely, break the furniture, fat, but I am carrying a few too many pounds. My doctor continually gives me grief about this, along with my cholesterol levels, blood pressure, triglyceride levels, and a bunch of other stuff. She makes me get on a scale and afterwards she plots my weight and height on a BMI chart and tells me I'm overweight, which I already know. I exercise and diet, and it doesn't do a whole lot of good. I once lost over 30lbs, then put it all back on. All of this makes me feel bad. So why would I spend my leisure time going to a museum exhibit that, frankly, sounds like a big fat downer?

This is a challenge for any museum. Consider the statistics. Around 33% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. In some communities, the figures are as high as 45-55%. These communities are often those that, traditionally, have been underserved by museums. We want them to come and visit, but are they really going to be drawn to an exhibit if it lays out, in loving detail, the medical consequences of their "lifestyle choices?" If I go to the exhibit, will skinny visitors point me out to their children as living proof of the effects of too much high fructose corn syrup? Will I become, in a very Nina Simon sort of way, part of the exhibit?

The "Obesity Epidemic" is actually a good fit for a natural history museum - it has both biological and cultural aspects and the Peabody's success in reaching out to diverse audiences means that there is the potential to make a genuine impact in the community. Partnering with the Rudd Center means that there is a good chance that the exhibit will manage to navigate the complex issues associated with obesity - unsurprisingly, effecting major changes in public health is not as easy as banning fast food and making people eat up their greens. I just wonder whether the people that we most need to talk to are the ones who will be least inclined to visit. It will be fascinating to see how the team creating the exhibition addresses this challenge.

Or maybe they could just do something on fat dinosaurs. People love dinosaurs. Even chubby ones.

Excuses, excuses

I must apologize for the relative scarcity of posts over the past couple of weeks. First, I went on vacation. Then, when I returned, I found a tree had fallen on my house, courtesy of Hurricane Irene. I realize that this sounds like the blogging equivalent of "the dog ate my homework" but it's true, as the accompanying image shows. Anyway, cleaning up has absorbed a lot of my time and I haven't been thinking much about museums while I've been doing it. Which is bad, because I work in a museum. Anyway, normal service is now resumed.