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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