Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Polite company

There’s a small museum in the back streets of Istanbul that's rather like the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. They are each obsessed by history, founded in the vision of one man, and they both play around with the idea of the museum. The Turkish one is built around the novel The Museum of innocence by Nobel Prize winner Orhan Pamuk who also created the displays and labels. And what did he call it? The Museum of Innocence, as you probably guessed.

Pamuk has mixed feelings about museums in general and The National Museum in particular. “The aim of the big State sponsored museum….is to represent the State. This is neither a good nor an innocent objective.” He didn't just grouch though, he went on to invent his own museum that is highly personal, richly fictional and enormously evocative of a place (Istanbul) and a time (1950s and 1960s) that is decidedly not state funded.

For New Zealanders the obvious state sponsored museum is Te Papa. Way back in its planning phase it proclaimed itself a ‘neutral negotiating ground’ but that's long gone and was never an affirmation they were able to achieve anyway. Now it avoids controversy, hides behind personal anecdote and carefully shapes its chosen stories into interchangeable modules. History in a series of controlled snapshots.

Take Te Papa's  proposed First World War exhibition opening on the centenary of Gallipoli next year. The big draw card will be an experience of the trenches  designed by the movie folk at Weta that will “bring home the detail and grain of unimaginable horror, the squalid day-to-day existence, the food, and the lice.” As Orhan Pamuk would claim this is neither a good nor an innocent objective. 

Naturally no museum display can come close to the horror of war and so instead works to devalue it. And even if it could represent this experience who in their right mind would want to go to Te Papa to see “unimaginable horror” presumably in the form of bloated bodies, severed limbs, gag inducing stench and the thousand mile stares of the combatants?

What will inevitably be a suitable-for-children-of-most-ages display is just another step along the way as Te Papa skillfully performs its state appointed role to help promote and solidify the existing and acceptable national versions of our stories.

Image: a Weta Workshop Design Studio concept drawing of the WWI display designed to show the “unimaginable horror” of trench warfare