The first time I was stupefied at what qualifies as a museum was when I visited the vomit-inducing Health Museum in Hyderabad and was surrounded by decomposed foetuses begging for formaldehyde. Two decades later, I read that the place was still running without power supply, stinking of sixty-year-old decomposed bodies and the artifacts were accumulating dust mounds and grime. It sounded like the perfect place to observe how bodies putrefy over time! Over the years, I have stretched my definition of a museum, but nothing has challenged my finer feelings as much as this Health Museum! I am inclined to think, the Living Dead museum in Pennsylvania is more happily dead.
In fact, the museums that I find positively mind-boggling these days, such as the International Spy Museum in DC, the Homeless Museum of Art in New York, the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts, may never qualify as museums in Hyderabad. There is also the Museum of Toilets in Delhi that sounds irresistible.
I am happy to note that exhibitions in museums are progressively becoming dramatic art forms. They are as much about the exhibits on display as they are about artistic expression, storytelling, and immersion. Few days ago, I was in the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec, where I travelled to La Belle Époque in Paris. The music played on the headphones, and the narration spontaneously changed depending on which boulevard I found myself in. I walked into playhouses and cafes, explored the circuses and theatres, visited les salons d’artistes, and climbed to the first level of the Eiffel tower to catch the view of the city during Les Expositions Universelles! The exhibition, Paris en Scène (1889-1914), has over 250 artifacts on display, from theatrical costumes to photographs and film clips, and posters and paintings, and sculptures, and artistic technology and automobiles. But, as I stopped to look at them, I disremembered that I was in a museum. I was window-shopping in a real city!
This brings me to my present rumination on what constitutes as a museum. In my view, the sole purpose of museums is to immortalize ‘ideas and objects’ (artifacts). Immortalizing is not just about collecting and preserving artifacts to eternity, but is about making them larger than life. This is done by weaving narratives around them, and by simulating and augmenting their reality in our world through presentation. In a museum, I see what I cannot see anywhere else; or I see what I see everywhere else in a way that I can only see in a museum! As it often happens when one interprets the world to induce awe and wonder, one either creates or uses an art form or an artistic tool!
The Ultimate Dinosaurs exhibit in The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto has some of the rarest dinosaurs and prehistoric animals from South America and Africa. When the dinosaurs are viewed through a tablet or phone, their bones suddenly appear covered with flesh and skin, and they move as if they are alive! The PaleoLab in the Carnegie Museum of Natural History in Pittsburg lets us see how dinosaur fossils are prepared for exhibit! One can also pretend to be a preparator and remove fossils from rocks, and clean and repair them using the hammers, chisels and brushes that scientists use.
Apart from the Paris exhibition, the Musée de la Civilisation also has a Game Story exhibition showcasing video games from the 1950s to our times organized by historical periods (some spanning two decades, and some five or six years). The exhibition feels no different from a video game parlor, except that I was time-travelling as I played games from different eras; and the variety of games and technology, and their advancements over time felt staggering.
This brings me to my question. Is a museum a museum if most of the exhibits on display are available for sale in regular stores? The Cartoon Art museum in San Francisco has a lovely collection of new and old comic books, arranged in different rooms by themes. The display resembles the 'Recommended by Staff' sections in bookstores. When I visited it a few weeks ago, the museum was celebrating the 75th anniversary of Superman. As I waded through the various eras and delighted in Superman’s many avatars over the seven decades, I also found myself quickly adding a lot of those books to my wishlist on Amazon. For the first time in my life, I could afford to buy museum artifacts and bring the exhibition home with me. The exhibition at the museum ended day before yesterday, but some part of it is on my bookshelf for my own private viewing pleasure.