Below: An image from “Jerusalem 3D,” an exhibit at the Natural Museum of National History. Note that more than half of the image is empty sky.
“I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel.”
-The Creature ( in Mary Shelly’s Frankenstein )
Despite what you may have heard, the museum is neither a temple nor a forum. It’s a different beast altogether.
The specimen of beast I examined this week is the National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C.. It was close enough for a metro ride, but taking public transit meant I could only bring a metaphorical torch and pitchfork.
The museum’s exhibit on cannibalism at Jamestown was its best. The exhibit is unusually linear compared to the rest of the museum, serving as a kind of hallway between two other exhibits. It begins not with the statement “ENGLISH COLONISTS WERE FORCED TO EAT EACH OTHER” but with humble signs that ask “What was life really like at Jamestown?” and “Why were some people buried alongside eating utensils?” After grabbing people’s attention with mundane (if ominous) questions, the hall presents forensic evidence that museumgoers have little choice but to agree that cannibalism probably occured in Virginia’s early settlement. The good thing about this is that visitor’s mind-images of early American settlement should be less fantastical and romantic. The bad thing is that the exhibit only provokes people with questions that they would have no means to answer on their own. That means they have no choice but to take the museum’s word for it.
Worse, the questions are forensic in nature. The museum does not go so far as to suggest what the implications of this discovery might be. Even most of those who accept the other dark historical truths of American colonization will often accept the notion that the colonists were more “civilized” without question. Now compare that perception to the image of English gentrymen eating a baby. Who are the barbarians now? It makes the modern “American Exceptionalism” ideology sound quite silly, and if the museum hammered home this uncomfortable truth, maybe politicians would start to find the use of founder’s myths to be a little less effective in their… politicking.
Needless to say, the exhibit does not take the line of thinking this far. Its questions stop and end with hard physical evidence of whether an historical event took place (“Was there cannibalism at Jamestown?”) and does not question anything else (“How does this new information affect our perception of colonial Americans?”).
All the talk about cannibalism made me hungry, of course, so after stepping outside for a light meal of bottled water (and trying not to get sick at the smell of a hot dog cart), I checked out the other exhibits. The Egyptian artifacts were pretty and the summaries were mildly informative, but that exhibit did little for me. It did a good job at making the Egyptians look like a macabre bunch, what with their burying themselves with their cats and slaves, and pulling their brains out of their skulls, but I think the Egyptians would be mortified by what the Europeans would do a few thousand years later.
The Hope Diamond exhibit was dumb, dumb, dumb. It’s a diamond. It’s big and pretty. Okay, cool, but why does this belong in a history museum? The Smithsonian answers this question in its exhibit with statements like “it passed through the hands of many noble families” (whether that is unusual for any jewelry is never mentioned) and “some say it is cursed because X and Y happened but it probably isn’t really cursed.” The latter is especially bad pandering. Apparently, it would be rude to question the audience’s superstitious notion that “curses” exist, so instead the museum simply says that the gem is probably not cursed and lets the audience ooh and aah with wonder, and the possibility that the museum is wrong. The stupid notion that ownership of an object can affect an invisible force that people call “luck” is a big draw for the exhibit anyway, so why let people leave the museum a little smarter than when they came in? They might not come back!
I bought a ticket to the film “Jerusalem 3D.” I don’t know why. It was heavily advertised on signs and in the museum pamphlets, and apparently the goal was to illustrate how “beautiful” the city is and how the three major religious groups who live there do not know how much they have in common. It sounded.. Informative! Maybe even provocative!
“Jerusalem 3D” was one of the worst films I have ever seen, inside or outside a museum. The film is 45 minutes of scenery porn interspersed with CGI recreations of what parts of the city might have used to look like (according to whom? The film’s art crew?). The recreations show the filmmakers know their American audience: Islamic-owned Jerusalem is virtually ignored, and instead the recreations fetishized the Second Temple, which is of less historical importance to modern Americans than it is of eschatological importance.
Despite the early pandering to the Left Behind crowd, “Jerusalem 3D” takes a pseudo-secular turn one-third of the way into the film. The movie begins its story proper by discussing the people of the three major faiths who share Jerusalem. Unfortunately, the film remains light on facts and thought-provoking argument alike. Instead, the movie repeats a weak call for peace and understanding between the three major faiths.. After every five minutes or so of silent, lovely scenery, the filmmakers play 10-second sound bites from their interviews with three girls; one a Jew, one a Muslim, and one a Christian. None of these girls say anything particularly insightful, except for how segregated they feel from people of other faiths. The film uses this feeling of segregation not as a tool to build a narrative or ask tough questions, but relegates it to a masturbatory instrument while the American narrator asks, repeatedly, questions that are all a form of “Why can’t we all just get along?”
If museums really are temples, where’s Jesus? We need some tables flipped in this one.
My museum should be a house of education, but you have made it a den of ignorance.
The possible reasons why the people of Jerusalem do not just get along are not explored in the slightest. Again, the presentation is devoid of both basic fact and higher levels of thinking. There is no mention of historical events like the 20th-Century creation of the Israeli state and the wars that followed, nor the destruction of ancient settlements of Palestinians and the people’s forced resettlement. Nor is there mention of controversial issues like the Israeli government’s use of apartheid-like policy in dealing with Muslim populations, nor the slightest hint at that unique Muslim propensity to practice self-destructive religious violence, often in the form of young people strapping explosives to themselves and detonating in crowded public squares. If one were to come into the museum knowing nothing about the subject, one would suppose from this exhibit that the city of Jerusalem is home to three peoples who were simultaneously dropped from the sky by the same god, peoples who would make great friends if they only noticed how alike they are. To come into the museum knowing nothing about the subject is to come out knowing nothing about the subject.
You might be tempted to tell me that their presentation of the subject is somehow progressive. Maybe you think that it deserves some praise for approaching this historical/modern problem in a secular, rational light. You haven’t seen the film yourself, so maybe I’m not giving it credit for its attempt to inspire the progression towards tolerance we all want to see in Israel.
I would then ask you to reassess the situation: This exhibit is talking about two (or three) distinct peoples who claim exclusive divine knowledge from their holy books, and exclusive rights to “the holy land” they live on via an invisible real estate broker. What about this scenario suggests that these people are at all rational? Even if grown, educated Jews weren’t bowing to and screaming at piles of old masonry, and young, disinherited Muslims weren’t filling their pockets with ball bearings to increase their kill count when they blow themselves up inside a bus and thus increase their rewards in heaven, even if these people were sitting politely and sober at a conference table, what the hell could they ever do to get along?
Even worse is the movie’s ignorance about women in these cultures. Jerusalem 3D presents the story through the perspectives of three women in its bid for peace. It is not mentioned that each of those three cultures consider it divine to treat said women like second-class citizens or even slaves. Instead, it exploits an image in the American consciousness of women as non-violent peacemakers who can talk sense into their brutal husbands.
The exhibit mentions absolutely none of these issues, and thus an uninformed American has little to think about but “Wow, those Jews and Muslims sure are silly for not getting along with one another!” They’re silly alright, but it’s outright idiotic for a museum to suggests to its audience that religious people can just tuck their silliness away and hug it out. The assumption that people are rational must be abandoned when discussing people who believe in ladders to heaven or self-propelling Virgin Mary rockets or chicken-based salvation.
This exhibit is a perfectly cromulent example of the intellectually sluggish, feel-good nonsense that most private museum exhibits offer. Why are my tax dollars involved in this kind of endeavor?
So, let me summarize with a TL;DR:
- The Jamestown exhibit presented uncomfortable facts to an interested audience, but it did not go far enough.
- The Egyptian exhibit presented uncomfortable facts to a disinterested audience.
- The “Jerusalem 3D” exhibit completely ignored all uncomfortable facts.
- The Hope Diamond exhibit is dumb, dumb, dumb.
- None of these exhibits facilitated discussion.
I have concluded, therefore, what a museum is not:
- The museum is not a temple; it does not venerate enough.
- The museum is not a forum; it handles controversy too delicately and often ignores it altogether.
The exhibits in a museum are not universally designed with one goal in mind. Instead, a museum’s exhibits are more like an arbitrary collection of literature, written by an arbitrary group of authors, each one trying to cultivate reader interest–while being as provocative as he or she dares (or cares) to be. You can tell how provocative an exhibit team wants to be by analyzing the exhibits themselves. The Jamestown exhibit dared to discuss something with serious implications for our historical consciousness, but dared not encourage the audience to discuss the implications. The Egyptian exhibit treated its subject as if those people were from an alien race and dared not suggest we have anything in common with superstitious slaves bound to a godlike aristocracy. The “Jerusalem 3D” exhibit was feelgood fairytale, so that people who couldn’t derive meaning from the other exhibits would still leave the museum feeling satisfied that they had “learned something.”
It is clear that every one of these exhibits was fashioned by completely different people with different goals. However, every one of them, by choice or by force, is an intellectual eunuch.
Museums are monsters. Until public museums are given the freedom to be controversial, until they are staffed by professionals who care more about the intellectual development of society than they fear the guillotine of public and political pressure, the museum will remain neither a temple nor a forum. Like the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, they will remain chimeras. Each monstrous head and wing and claw pulling in a different direction. One head whispers forbidden thought to the audience, barely audible beside the head that loudly croons to the status quo. The eagle wings that want to bring the public to the peaks of higher levels of thought will remain rooted to the ground by grasping chicken talons. Each part only cooperates and compromises because the well-being of the whole is so often at stake.
I think I’ve made enough bad analogies. I’m going to go use my holy book to annex my neighbor’s yard.
Oops, I made another one.