Tuesday, June 2, 2009

Adieu… Indiana Jones

The eulogy to Dr. Jones (MUSEUM magazine) splendidly explores the roll over of Western curatorial colonialism. By tracking the path of institutional self-discovery the article traverses a comprehensive overview across the landscape of our industry’s baseline history. The field notes of ‘Indiana Jones is Dead’ log the emergence of a collective museum-world conscience rooted in altruism and collaborative outreach, presenting most of the major discoveries that nudged us along the trail to enlightenment, save for one. By missing the clues left by our own museum-going audience, ‘we’ as museum professionals risk to tumble once again into that hidden trap, whereby we neglect to fully consider the impact and contribution of the millions and millions who have streamed though our turnstiles over the last one hundred plus years.

Simply put, average people, the ‘native’ visitor, have played as equal a role in tuning the pitch of our universal mission to collect, preserve and interpret as have any single museum, administrator, curator or political advocate. Whether natural science, aquarium, art institute or zoo every institution is mission bound to engage the never ending struggle to push exploration beyond the immediate horizon and in succeeding to achieve greater connectivity with the target audience.

Museum and visitor must advance as one. However, in the heat of pursuit every form of museum has come to rely and weigh heavily on its audience like a trusty assistant, museum and visitor working side by side in an ongoing and ever changing effort to maintain an objective balance. And possibly, even objectionably on occasion, to define a moral position, a compass point, a hard reference that might allow and empower the museum, zoo or aquarium to remain both vital and relevant.

Over the last century the American museum and its audience have grown not only in sheer numbers but also in maturity of spirit. Together, museum and visitor have become increasingly aware of the whole Earth as an immensely diverse but finite location, a place of measurable distances and limited resources. There has always been a creative tension in the exchange between visitor and venue. The behavior of visitors does contribute to the determination of how museums do their work and how they achieve balance of purpose and process. The Field Museum serves as an ideal example as it, like many other institutions, has engaged in reinvention several times since its founding in 1893.

The Columbian Exposition was intended as a robust response to the devastation of the Great Chicago Fire. A showcase set on a world stage. As a part of this event the very first iteration of The Field Museum was nothing less than the largest and grandest ‘Cabinet of Curiosities’ of its kind ever imagined, an excess of wonders leaving the public with nothing to wish for. However, as monumental and moving as that display of material culture and natural treasures might have been, Marshall Field must have recognized instinctively that transforming a side show into a meaningful museum experience would require more than a simple donation of money.

As selling dry goods caused him to understand, the public must be served appropriately, whether one were selling fragrances or displaying fungi the pitch must be straight forward and possess real value. Therefore when Ayer finally made it clear that the opportunity was to achieve more than display …“you will have the privilege of being the educational host to millions of people who will follow us in the Mississippi valley…” Marshall Field understood that a business plan grounded in education could be established, a plan that would not only vouchsafe but connect an audience to a collection. And so the one hundred year old story of the founding of The Field Museum reminds us that museum-making is a never ending work in progress, a job carried out;

*In the field
*Inside the storeroom
*Within the exhibit hall
*In the public eye.

A revealing and in many ways very relevant comment is provided midway in ‘Raiders of the Lost Ark’ when Dr. Jones is confronted in the streets of Cairo by his dark rival. The words of the French archaeologist Rene Belloch taunt Indiana by reminding him of the immense difficulty the museum professional confronts in remaining objective and the precarious nature of keeping vigilant, an acknowledgement that there is indeed a right and a wrong way of approaching the work. He says to Indiana Jones;

“You and I are very much alike. Archaeology is our religion. Yet we have both fallen from the pure faith. Our methods do not differ as much as you pretend. I am a shadowy reflection of you; it would take only a nudge to make you like me, to push you out of the light.”

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