There was some sadness expressed this week after Auckland Museum announced the finale of their longest running exhibition – Centennial Street, also known as Auckland 1866. Historical streets in museums often evoke cherished museum memories – sometimes the most vivid or only memories. There is something extraordinary about these re-creations of times and places we can no longer access any other way. For many of us, being close to historical objects, absorbing a facsimile of historical space, or being encapsulated in an historical frame, however limited, is the closest we can get to time travel. My earliest museum memories include Whanganui Regional Museum’s Edwardian street, and if they ever decide to pull it down I will most likely throw a full tantrum.
But museums can’t stop evolving, even for the most beloved of exhibits. Centennial Street has been at the museum almost 50 years, and they’ve decided the time has come to develop the space in a different way. Though delightful, if the same kind of exhibit were installed today, it would be done with quite different objectives, materials and technology. And, at a practical level, the exhibit probably needs conservation work. It’s hard to ignore the response, however, which includes a petition and over 200 comments on Facebook, showing just how extraordinarily emotive our connections to museums and their exhibits can be. People really love this exhibit, and they’ve been sharing stories about it, and that’s got to be good news for anyone worried about how popular or important museums are to the public.
Knowing this doesn’t change the inherent tension between Auckland Museum’s plans to make Auckland 1866 digital and the public’s response. But one thing a museum cannot do is stand still, just as people and cultures and history cannot stand still. Sometimes that means transforming something old and much loved and creating something new. If it’s done well, it will evoke new emotions.
I do think we, meaning museums in general, need to be careful with digital solutions. Even though the technology used to create a virtual Auckland 1866 exhibit will be top notch, it is unlikely to evoke the same emotive response for visitors. It’s worth wondering whether children will come away from the experience with indelible memories of their heritage, or whether the exhibit will be stored in the same place that contains all their other digital experiences, to be sifted among so many other screen time moments. The same questions have been asked about Te Papa’s strategy under new boss, Rick Ellis, although it’s too early to tell what that will look like.
These questions are particularly interesting for us right now at Wellington Museum because we are right in the middle of an exhibition install, and it isn’t just any exhibition, we’re installing a whole floor. I have to contain my glee every time I drop into the Attic for a look. That’s a technical term you know: museum glee. We’ve taken quite a different approach to our new floor. You might say we’re going old school. Really, really old school. Like pre-digital, pre-museum, curiosity cabinet style mash-up old school.
In doing so, we’re not disavowing digital technology, but using it in the service of the taonga or objects, which seems to me to be the way things should be. The digital elements should not be invasive, or overpowering, or stand-in for the most valuable experience we can have in a museum, where:
… objects are imbued with their own power. That power might simply be a kind of archaeological and historical patina, or it may be the inherent power left by the makers of the objects, otherwise known as mana and tapu. To some, these museum artefacts carry the stories of everything that has happened to them and their people. A kind of nexus is therefore possible between the museum visitor, the object, and the people who long ago created and used it. A quiet walk around the gallery might create in the viewer a sense of awe. In this, there is a kind of magic.
(From the upcoming anthology Tell You What II, Auckland University Press).
We have to be careful that in our efforts to get our children excited about heritage, we don’t overlook their ability to interact with taonga as they are. Kids get it. In fact, they are hungry for it. In a digitally enhanced life, where screens are as ubiquitous as roads, museums will be as important as national parks: one place where we can have a different experience, get away from it all – touch wood, literally. If we build them that way.
See Part Two for a photographic journey through the last couple of months of exhibition prep, and some more about our collections staff, who are doing the hard slog of cleaning / fixing / building / conserving / mounting / installing. But be warned: we’re saving some of the best stuff as a surprise for our opening in November, where we can certainly expect to get a wee bit emotional…