May 24, 2004
Deadly medicine, Bengal tigers, and spies
Spent Wednesday in Washington at the Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage, which will be hosting six or seven fellows in connection with their Theorizing Heritage Program. Dinner with one of my favorite dining companions, Frank Proschan (we ate many a fine meal in Hanoi), at what he described as Washington's oldest ethnic restaurant, a Lebanese establishment. The foul madames was outstanding. Had the pleasure at the end of the next day of a few hours with Anna Cohn over drinks and skewered tidbits in the lobby of the hotel at L'Enfant Plaza. Most helpful on thinking about how to place an exhibition of Mayer's paintings.
Spent Thursday at three museums. Started with my main mission, Deadly Medicine: Creating the Master Race, an outstanding show created for the 10th anniversary of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. Threading through the Holocaust in a myriad of significant ways is the forte of this museum and this exhibition shows the USHMM at its best. A clear, but not reductive argument, wealth of original documents and artifacts, trace how a utopian visions inspired by evolutionary theories and genetics were translated into social engineering, wedded to a nationalist project that was driven by a program of racial purity and economic calculation--with genocidal results. Throngs of visitors, especially school groups, roamed the museum, many of them visiting the temporary exhibitions while waiting for their turn to enter the permanent one. Nervous laughter on the part of young teens.
From the USHMM to the National Museum of American History to see the new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals. This hall is consistent with a theatrical trend in reinstallations of old taxonomic collections and animal dioramas, the Mus�e National d�Histoire Naturelle in Paris being the prime example. Throngs of visitors again. Clearly the city has rebounded since 9/11a and visitor numbers are back. No photographs were allowed anywhere in the USHMM, not in the public spaces and not in any of the exhibitions, but at the NMAH the Hall of Mammals and the dinosaur gallery were prime photo ops, particularly given the dramatic opening vistas, which prompted visitors to pose for their pictures, against the backdrop of the animals, adding themselves to the collection of mammals. The caption to the tiger image on the museum's website reads: "The leaping Bengal tiger greets visitors as they enter the new Kenneth E. Behring Family Hall of Mammals in the National Museum of Natural History."
Having just come from Deadly Medicine, I was struck by the resolute evolution theme here: "Featuring 274 exciting taxidermied mounts and a dozen mammal fossils in a variety of environments�from polar to desert regions and from dry to humid environments�the exhibit tells the story of mammal evolution through adaptation to changing habitats. This message is reinforced throughout - 'You are a mammal; meet your relatives, past and present; all mammals evolved from a common ancestor and share common characteristics; as the world changed, mammals became more diverse; come find out how.'� Evolution offered a way to take advantage of a rich taxonomic collection without presenting it as such (except in a few vintage displays of shells).
Clearly oriented to children, the message is clear and simple (all mammals share three features (hair, ear bone, and breast feeding), though the subject is complex. Welcome to the mammal "Family Reunion" and "Come meet your relatives" are a cute premise for the multimedia show about the evolution of mammals. This show underscores an idea that both anthropomorphizes the animals, drawing on circus traditions of trained monkeys, and allegories the story of biological diversity, which is explained primarily in terms of adaptation to various environments. Those environments are treated cinematically in the exhibition, as backdrops to a small number of spectacular taxidermic specimens--animals shown in a striking pose--rather than in tableaux and dioramas.
Here the the story of evolution is a celebration of diversity without hierarchy (one big happy family of mammals), which is never reconciled with the narrative of survival of the fittest, whose worst case scenario can be witnessed in Deadly Medicine.
Last stop was the for-profit International Spy Museum. I wanted to see the museum, which I could do any time, but had to seize the opportunity now to see the special exhibition, The Enemy within: Terror in America, 1776 to Today, which concludes with 9/11. Quite a place to end on a day that started with Deadly Medicine. Price of admission: $17 for a combined ticket (entrance to the museum as well as the special exhibition), with a $1 discount for AAM members. The museum was created by The Malrite Company (Beachwood, Ohio), which was founded by Milton Maltz, a successful Cleveland business man. Maltz founded the Malrite Communications Group in 1956 and was its CEO until he sold it in 1998. In contrast with the MCG, which focuses on the entertainment industry and especially radio and television, The Malrite Company creates for-profit museums. Maltz was instrumental in the development of Cleveland's popular Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum. With his Maltz Family Foundation, he just created the Milton and Tamar Maltz Museum of Jewish Heritage (Cleveland), which focuses on the Jewish experience in Northeast Ohio. Anna explained his winning for-profit museum formula: a popular theme, museum on the lower floors, condos on the upper floors, a highly successful gift shop, cafe, and destination restaurant.
I started with The Enemy Within. The audioguide (included in the price of admission) asked me to pretend that radio existed in the 18th century so that history from then to the present might be narrated as a series of eye-witness reports from the scene. In a series of rooms with low ceilings, the exhibition combined serious content with a somewhat tacky, if endearing, installation style. What struck me was the way the topic of terrorism was tackled, given that we are in the midst of an unending war of terrorism precipitated by the defining events of 9/11. First, the subject is configured as the "enemy within," which is ambiguous enough to include not only "enemies" (of the state) hidden in our midst throughout American history, but also how responses to that danger threaten our civil liberties--note the shattered Statue of Liberty as the exhibition's icon. This gave the exhibition a surprisingly edgy quality, a subtly but perceptibly progressive message, though somewhat less so in the handling of 9/11, where Daniel Pipes was a prominent talking head.
The permanent exhibition on spying was geared to all ages, with ducts through which children could tunnel and spy on visitors in the galleries. As in a theme park, visitors waited in line for an elevator to take them to the opening gallery of the exhibition and watched videos while waiting. Each person was asked to assume an identity and was provided with various covers from which to choose. Our task was to remember the details--name, birthplace, occupation, destination, purpose of travel. Here, as in the USHMM and elsewhere, the exhibition establishes a subject position for the visitor and scripts an experience in which the visitor has a defined role, in this case a spy or undercover agent. Then, an introductory film, after which double doors open into the exhibition proper.
The exhibition was quite rich, organized thematically around the nitty gritty of espionage, before treating the subject historically and culturally--the spy in literature and film, for example. The museum takes its subject seriously, but treats it with a light touch. This museum, I am told, is very popular. There are timed tickets to control visitor flow through the modestly scaled spaces.
Posted by BKG at May 24, 2004 10:01 AM
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