Sunday, December 14, 2008

"Book" That Exhibition! (But Only if There's a Movie or TV Tie-In.)

When I saw the recent notice that a 10,000 square foot exhibition containing the "iconic" props and costumes from the Harry Potter films will premiere at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, I didn't know whether to laugh or cry.

I'm not sure how much "science" is in the exhibition, but I have to admit that Warner Brothers is very "industrious" in getting major museums to shill for their films and licensed merchandise. As far as I can tell, this exhibition is nothing more than a gigantic three-dimensional ad for the Harry Potter franchise.

So what is The Harry Potter exhibition doing gracing the halls of MSI? To quote from the exhibition's press release, “The Harry Potter series has captivated the imaginations of children and adults throughout the world,” said David Mosena, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Museum of Science and Industry. “We are delighted to be working with Exhibitgroup/Giltspur and Warner Bros. Consumer Products to bring this wonderful exhibition to life as it embodies our Museum’s mission of inspiring the inventive genius in everyone.”

No news yet on all the items available to "inspire" visitors in the inevitable Harry Potter themed gift shop(s).

This is just the continuation of a trend for museums turning popular books into exhibitions --- but only after the books have been turned into a movie or kids' TV show with major marketing machines behind them. (In the children's museum world, Arthur, Clifford, and Magic School Bus are a few examples of book properties that have been given the traveling exhibition "treatment" even though the books themselves may have been around for decades before their TV shows, and exhibitions, emerged. But they're all on PBS, so they must be educational, right?)

On one hand, it is incredibly shrewd for museums to piggy-back (piggy-bank?) onto big-money advertising campaigns that come attached to movies and TV shows. But it would be much more satisfying if the resulting exhibitions were better, and the reasons for museums hosting the shows were more honest --- "It doesn't really have anything much to do with our core mission, we just want to boost admissions numbers and revenue with a "name" that will draw visitors in."

A current example of the pretzel-logic that museums will employ to justify mounting certain exhibitions is the Teacher's Guide for "Narnia The Exhibition" based upon the C.S. Lewis books, but more importantly, the Disney movie franchise based upon Lewis' books. Who would have thought that "Narnia" is actually an exhibition about science, including "climate science"? You might as well claim that the Curious George exhibition is about saving the rainforests.

Are there museums able to present books as the subject for temporary exhibitions without sacrificing artistic quality or institutional integrity? Definitely! Recent examples of familiar children's books characters and/or authors being turned into very popular exhibitions include "From The New Yorker to Shrek: The Art of William Steig" at the Jewish Museum, which also included interactive elements and immersive environments based on several of Steig's award-winning books. "Drawing Babar: Early Drafts and Watercolors" at the Morgan Library has also been an extremely successful exhibition, in addition to racking up jumbo admissions and attendance numbers.

What do you think? Should temporary exhibitions directly relate to a museum's mission, or in these tricky economic times, is any topic that spins the turnstiles fair game? Sound off in the "Comments" section below!

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  1. As I expect a lot of people do, I have really mixed feelings about tie-ins with popular culture and exhibits, especially when they are exhibits designed by for-profit companies with more marketing than education in their mission. (That doesn't mean I didn't visit and thoroughly enjoy the Lord of the Rings exhibit when it was at the Boston Museum of Science, or the Star Wars: Science Meets Imagination one, whose saving grace was that there actually was a lot of science in it.) If a popular set of references, including a fantasy universe, can actually inspire a dialogue about current events, scientific issues, or an interpretation of history, I'm all for it. But I think that tossing the mission of the museum out the window in favor of an irrelevant blockbuster cheapens the museum experience as a whole. Incorporating your own elements into the exhibit, programming, or associated exhibit halls that do support your mission could make the blockbuster a more rewarding experience for both staff and visitors.

    On the more temporary side, I think doing pop-culture tie-ins for programming works very well, and have done it repeatedly. "Superhero Science" that uses Spiderman to talk about polymers, the Invisible Girl and Romulan cloaking devices to talk about invisibility and camouflage, or our upcoming "Discovery Wizards: Science of Harry Potter" festival are all ways to tap into a set of common references to bring new and exciting information to your audience in terms they already like and understand. Programs are also faster to develop and can tap more immediately into a wave of fan support, without the expense of developing an entire exhibit.

  2. I was never a fan of pop culture exhibits but after having put up a few, it is amazing to see how much many visitors like them. Movie props look very cheap when you see them in person.

    I was working in a history museum at the time and believed that many people confuse history with nostalgia. I still need to get my head around that. Nostalgia is warm and fuzzy, history is not. I am not sure if there is a parallel in the science world.

    Thanks for your blog Paul, its in my RSS reader even if I don't comment very often.

  3. Thanks for your comments!

    I love exhibits with pop culture tie-ins that actually fit the museum and mission. (Star Wars and the science in it pleasantly surprised me.)

    It's that aspect of "cheapening" the museum experience that Meg mentions that really gets my goat.

  4. Having worked on my share of pop culture-related exhibitions, I'd like to reaffirm what others have said and amplify it. Pop culture is a great tool, but only a tool. You can use it to interest visitors in mission, or you can use it to generate revenue, or you can do both if you try really hard.

    With our Star Wars exhibition, we worked long and hard to make the real world content as powerful as the movie content. Thus far, it's been successful, but it's been successful because we planned it that way from inception to opening.

    If you've got a mission, and you develop a pop culture-inspired exhibition to serve that mission, it can be every bit as appealing, and immersive and (insert marketing buzzword here) as anything Premier or AEI or Becker Group is currently renting. The trouble is that it's a lot more work, and that means it costs a lot more. I don't think the big exhibit companies' business model can tolerate the added expense of developing the kinds of exhibitions we *want* to book, so they're left to try and find enough venues willing to gamble.

    What I find discouraging is that companies continue to develop these gigantic exhibitions with no educational goals, and assume that museums will take them anyway, and either "add some content" to make them less inappropriate, or take them as is and hope the public doesn't mind. As long as enough institutions are willing to take the risk in the name of generating revenue that we will remain stuck in this dynamic.