History museums are in the business of helping people make meaning out of the past, often through historic objects. Stories and personal connections in history help people feel the emotional meanings of objects, engaging with the past in a creative and intimate way.
Supporting the historical imaginary, though, could mean tolerating, supporting, even promoting stories that are not accurate. For museums, whose brands rest on their authenticity, alternate histories can be a minefield–but I’ve been seeing a clear trend toward them. Should we develop these kind of experiences? Or do we have a moral duty not to? Can museums make space for the historical imaginary? How can we make space for visitors to dream themselves into the past? Can museums support the whimsical and untrue while making clear what we have evidence for, and what we don’t?
The Ghosts of a Chance alternate reality game at SAAM is a great example of the way alternate stories can coexist with the real objects and stories in the museum. In the ARG story, young curators are haunted by restless spirits whose demands visitors need to discover and propitiate through the making of objects related to SAAM’s collections and other tasks. The story was told through the web and the museum, and despite the this-is-not-a-game epistemology of ARGs, it was clearly an alternate story (ghosts, curators in their early twenties with myspace profiles, the bodybuilder at ARG-fest-o-con). If the Smithsonian can support alternate history storylines, can your museum? Or is the Smithsonian’s perceived authenticity so high that something like Ghosts of a Chance can’t hurt it? And is it easier for an art museum to support an alternate history story than a history museum, whose mission is to research, preserve and interpret the past?
Recently the museosphere has been talking about the Powerhouse Museum’s clever Odditorium, where the writer and artist Shaun Tan was given the opportunity to write fictitious labels about some curious objects from the museum’s collections. The “real” labels for the objects (the label text is headed “what they actually are!”) are all put together in a separate area in the exhibit, while Shaun’s labels accompany the artifacts. Visitors are also encouraged to write their own (Balderdash-type) labels for these interesting objects, and visitor participation has been enthusiastic.
Nina Simon recently posted on the project, and suggested that this kind of space for play and alternate or subversive meaning-making should be “tucked into the corner of every collecting museum.”
In the Odditoreum, you know you are being given a little space to have fun and poke at the rest of it all. The rules of the museum still exist, and it’s more powerful to subvert them in little bits than to throw them out altogether.
If an alternate history space is clearly but not didactically set aside, as in the Odditoreum, I’m more optimistic about the mission fit of such a space. For instance, I’ve been thinking about how to encourage steampunk enthusiasts at my museum, and this might be an interesting model.
History is stories, of course, not just one narrative (one museum recovering and telling a true narrative different from the canonical one is the National Museum of the American Indian), and a history museum, to do good public history, needs to tell its stories responsibly.
Instantiating alternate history at museums can do a disservice to objects. Some of the Powerhouse’s curiosities considered for the Odditoreum, like the 2nd-best collection of barbed wire in Australia, are strange true stories. Museums like the Mutter in Philadelphia arguably tell as unusual, unbelievable and unfamiliar stories as the (entirely fabricated) Museum of Jurassic Technology. Maybe one compromise tactic is bringing more curious and wonderful objects onto the floor, ones that resist conventional interpretations.