I’m not embarrassed to admit that as a kid I adored museums, much to the delight of my parents, who never had to coerce me too hard into exploring the latest exhibition, or participating in whatever mad summer activity the National Trust had dreamed up that year (I have a vague memory of water divining rods). Growing up in Norwich, I was constantly enthralled by the Castle Museum, where suits of armour stood shoulder to shoulder with Egyptian mummies, stuffed lions and (for a magical month in 1995) humungous dinosaurs. I was interested in everything, amazed by the smallest piece of trivia, and in love with the seemingly boundless world of the past.
Though even then this film was too twee
When I read Toby Wilkinson’s recent article in the TLS, I think it was this kid in me who blew a huge raspberry at the man who bemoans ‘patronizing’ family trails at exhibitions, while also claiming museums don’t try to amaze and inspire in the same breath. He reviews two current exhibitions on Ancient Egypt: Ancient Lives, New Discoveries at the British Museum, and Discovering Tutankhamun at Oxford’s Ashmolean, ultimately criticising both for choosing the ‘crowd-pleasing’ topic of Tutankhamun, and the British Museum’s use of crowd-pleasing touch-screen technology. As far as I can tell, what really gets Wilkinson’s goat is the idea of style over substance, that museums are sacrificing stimulating intellectual enquiry to the gods of commercial success. He gives us a little manifesto for cultural institutions, which should all aim ‘to amaze and inspire, to extend the boundaries of knowledge, to present the world in new and challenging ways’. At this point, the academic in me hushed the raspberry-blowing kid and gave an unwavering salute.
Because let’s face it, for an Egyptologist like Wilkinson, wandering round exhibitions that ask ‘can you find his last meal?’ or ‘how can we tell his age?’ has got to be a fairly exasperating exercise. But his academic calibre makes him a fundamentally unsuitable reviewer of museums, whose main responsibility is to stimulate the curiosity of the general public, not necessarily provide a cutting-edge critique of a niche subject. Wilkinson complains that, in foregrounding CT scans and interactive, exploratory technology, the British Museum misses some of the more subtle truths about Ancient Egypt, but he himself misses the function of the exhibition: to engage children and adults in an ancient world they might otherwise stroll past, and showcase the impact that our own impressive technology can have on new discovery. This kind of summer holiday exhibition is a first step, a flint to strike the spark of inspiration and open the door to further enquiry through the museum’s impressive library and expert staff.
The thing is, Wilkinson’s world of Oxbridge academia actively pits itself against populism – it’s part of its job description – because the mainstream isn’t home to the ideals of research and innovation that the institutions stand for. Academics are a bunch of intellectual hipsters (hey, both are known for their amazing beards) which is a wonderful and inspiring part of their job, but it doesn’t put them in the best position to judge an exhibition whose purpose is to enthuse and inspire the general public. After visiting the permanent King Tut exhibition years ago in Dorchester, it’s not the subtle intellectual conclusions that have stuck with me, but the darkened chambers, the soundtrack of Carter’s pickaxes and the excited voices as each visitor discovered the tomb for themselves. The museum had used every resource at its disposal to bring to life an impression of Ancient Egypt, which let my imagination draw its own conclusions.
Namely that this guy was the coolest
Since Dorchester’s Tutankhamun Exhibition, (and Norwich Museum’s fibreglass dinosaurs that I marvelled at nineteen years ago) technology has become vital to education, almost to the point where using a category as broad as ‘technology’ seems a bit meaningless. From mobile learning apps for infants to tablets in classrooms, digital media are seeping into curricular and extracurricular learning, and the reason for this is simple: children, teenagers and adults alike are enamoured with the latest technology, making it a perfect asset in any educator’s toolkit. Take a chapter from a grammar textbook, remake it as an app or interactive puzzle and the lesson becomes that much more effective. Gone are the days when the classroom was walled off from pupils’ hobbies and interests; now, new technologies have enabled a much more holistic approach to learning. When embracing these new possibilities, we want to avoid homogenizing all our experience into one techy mush, but what we do have is a vast array of tools to engage, amaze and inspire.
While academics may sneer at the power of public engagement consultants in our museums, the responsibility to engage the public is increasingly important: to create an exhibition that can be challenging and exciting for all ages. Wilkinson puts it nicely when he says ‘intellectual adventurousness and popularity are not mutually exclusive, nor are they easy to combine’. At the end of the day, museums don’t exist to categorise ideas, but to create them, and whether you’re running round a dinosaur exhibition or marvelling at the nation’s history in the National Portrait Gallery, I see no reason why the wonders of technology can’t be a fantastic lens through which to explore the past.