The slow death of museum exhibits

No, not another rant about the Coronavirus situation. Actually, a sparkle amid the gloom: the news that John Lennon’s piano is to be put on display at Strawberry Field in Liverpool. Apparently he bought it in 1970, and although it’s an upright it’s also a Steinway and so a long remove from your village hall Joanna. The piano was bought by George Michael after John Lennon’s death, and so it has the distinction of being used by two musical geniuses of the recent past.

But my heart sank when I watched the news clip, as two sturdy curators lowered a huge Perspex box over this marvellous creation. The implication is that the piano is being buried, the box a symbolic coffin which says that it will never be played again. Surely the point of its being on display is not that it should be admired as a visual object: it’s not a Rubens or a Henry Moore, it’s a piano! Its existence is in the sounds it makes. There must be some way it can be played and heard, responsibly and consistently with the duty of curators to preserve the objects in their care.

Let me contrast this with the approach of the National Museum of Computing at Bletchley Park, which houses – and most importantly, demonstrates – a half-century of computing machinery. Splendidly there are computers with flashing lights and the strong smell of hot pre-transistor electronic components. Best of all is the electromechanical Bombe, a replica of the World War II machines which were used to tease out the settings of the famous Enigma machine and thereby allow the coded messages to be read for the duration of the fighting war. These machines are not in boxes, because their essence is that they are machines, and they need to be working to be understood and to be admired.

The replica Bombe on display at The National Museum of Computing
The replica Bombe on display at The National Museum of Computing

Working machinery is a problem for museum curators, because machines wear out and need maintenance and new parts and visitors do unspeakable things with their dirty fingers and there is health-and-safety – and so there are a thousand excuses to park the object in a glass box and pretend it’s an art-work. Machinery is more difficult to display than static objects, because even if you agree with the philosophy that it’s the operation that counts, in many cases the expertise required for operation has been lost along the way. Nobody dares to switch it on or turn the handle in case something breaks. The instruction manuals – assuming they were written – may have been lost and in any case were written in jargon which was unintelligible even in its own time to the uninitiated. But these problems were all overcome by the Bombe Rebuild team at Bletchley. With enough dedication and resources it can be done.

Sometimes even these excuses don’t wash. I despair of the fate of Doron Swade’s marvellous reconstruction of Charles Babbage’s Difference Engine, now found in a glass box in a stairwell at the Science Museum in London. This used to be demonstrated regularly, the only gem in an old horror of an exhibition on computing, which has fortunately been replaced by a modern, engaging and hands-on gallery devoted to information technology and mathematics; but a casualty of the reorganisation was the Difference Engine, condemned to a slow death in a glass coffin as if it were an irrelevance.

Another test-case of glass cases and curatorship came to my attention the same week as the news of John Lennon’s piano. There is a magical place tucked away behind the dinosaurs at the back of the Oxford University Museum of Natural History. This is the Pitt-Rivers Museum. Ostensibly it’s a museum of ethnology, but to define it that way is to miss its main point. Until recently, Pitt-Rivers preserved faithfully in Victorian glass-and-mahogany cases a wholly Victorian way of presenting extraordinary finds from societies around the world, with tiny handwritten sepia-coloured labels naming the innumerable objects crammed into the inadequately lit overcrowded space. There are cases of musical instruments, drug-taking equipment, arctic clothing, ceremonial masks, mummies, English village stocks and you-name-it. Even shrunken heads. Except that the shrunken heads are apparently to be taken away.

The excuse this time is this:

Our audience research has shown that visitors often saw the museum’s displays of human remains as a testament to other cultures being ‘savage’, ‘primitive’ or ‘gruesome’. Rather than enabling our visitors to reach a deeper understanding of each other’s ways of being, the displays reinforced racist and stereotypical thinking that goes against the museum’s values today.

One could debate any number of things in that statement, but what the decision to remove the shrunken heads in deference to twenty-first century values says to me is that the Pitt-Rivers has forgotten its purpose. Nowadays, unlike when it first opened, Pitt-Rivers is itself an object – it is itself a kind of box located within a museum, a whole collection, arranged as the Victorians wanted it, to be viewed, interpreted and admired as a single thing in its own right. Pitt-Rivers is a Victorian museum of Victorian ethnology, and it has much to tell us, in its inglorious messiness, about imperialism, collection, theory of museum display – as well as other cultures as found by the Victorian explorers and seen through their eyes. Even if Pitt-Rivers is taken at face value as an ethnology museum, censorship is not the right response to modern sensibilities; removing the heads is a cop-out from what museum folks call ‘interpretation’ – the challenge of helping the visitors discover the stories behind the objects. The shrunken heads logic suggests that the white notes should be removed from pianos on display if they are made of ivory. (Apparently Steinway stopped using ivory in the 1960s, before it was banned, so John Lennon’s piano’s white notes are probably plastic.)

Museums have a lot to cope with these days, not least the implications of Coronavirus for visitor flow, reduced footfall, repatriation demands, calls for authenticity, compliance with best practice rules and more. But these things are operational nuisances, not the raison d’être. Each museum needs to remember why it is there at all. And that is certainly not to bury its objects.

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