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Science in Museums: Museums at the Movies, Pop Cultural Partnerships

Posted by Phillippa Pitts on April 10, 2013 in Science in Museums |

by columnist Kacie Rice

We’ve all seen our fair share of movies that happen at museums (museum professionals around the country are surely tired of being asked if their jobs are like Night at the Museum or The DaVinci Code) – but what about bringing the movies to life in museum exhibits themselves?

Beginning May 23, Thinktank, a hands-on science museum in Birmingham, England, will be hosting The Pirates!: In an Adventure with Scientists: The Exhibition, based on the 2012 animated movie of the same title. The movie, released last year in the U.S. as The Pirates: Band of Misfits (some speculated at the time that this change was due to Americans’ perceived inability to think of “scientists” as a fun crowd – though I’d ask anyone who believes this to join my pub trivia team just to prove them wrong), is a stop-motion comedy from the Aardman Animation team (Wallace and Gromit, Chicken Run) that follows a group of pirates as they accidentally get tangled up with Charles Darwin’s search for the extinct dodo (I’d highly recommend checking it out if, like me, you’re into evolution humor). The movie manages to be at once funny and surprisingly smart – when was the last time you saw the H.M.S. Beagle namedropped in a kids’ movie?

The exhibition, funded by Sony Pictures Animation, will do double duty, both advertising for the movie and educating kids about piracy, filmmaking, and evolution. It features many of the clay puppets and sets from the movie and uses them as a jumping off point to teach kids about steering a galleon and using blue-screen technology. The museum will also be displaying a recreation of a dodo specimen from the Oxford University Museum of Natural History to link the exhibition to natural history and evolution themes.

I’ve noticed exhibits like Pirates cropping up sporadically for the last several years. The Perot Museum of Science, Dallas’ brand new flagship science museum, boasts a Tyrannosaurus rex scale model used in the 1993 movie Jurassic Park. The American Museum of Natural History in New York has hosted a series of events and exhibitions coinciding with the release dates of the popular Spider Man franchise of movies. These have included exhibitions on live spiders in 2007 and 2012, the latter of which was highly publicized and attended by Spider Man himself, Andrew Garfield.

These pop-culturally relevant exhibits hold huge potential to attract audiences to museums – but do they do this at the cost of weakening a museums’ mission? I have to admit, when I first read about the Pirates exhibition in Birmingham, my first thought was that it seemed too commercial. The museum is using the props from the film to sell the exhibition and get bodies in the door – the question is: will they center the exhibition around these props to the detriment of real learning, or will they use children’s initial interest in the movie to really get them involved in history and science? Even more concerning: will the funding from Sony Pictures Animation force the museum’s hand in making an exhibition that promotes Sony’s profit-based interests over the museum’s educational interests?

I wondered if casual visitors might have the same reaction that I did – will they see an exhibition like this as a sign that the museum is “selling out” and weakening its educational mission? Will audiences place less trust in a respected cultural institution if it commercially associates itself with popular media? These questions echo fears raised in the 1990’s, when Chicago’s Field Museum partnered with McDonald’s and Disney to raise money to buy Sue, the famous T. rex fossil. Many in the museum field felt that this association would imbue the fossil and exhibition with dangerous corporate messaging that could derail the museum’s educational content. Fortunately, McDonald’s and Disney anticipated these fears and presented their gift as purely philanthropic – while a cast of Sue did travel to Disney World, the travelling exhibit was entirely educational and served to promote the museum’s mission across the country. In this case, the museum’s partnership with popular media corporations paid off: though the corporations did hold naming rights for the exhibitions (see: the McDonald’s Fossil Prep Lab), The Field Museum retained all intellectual rights and had the freedom to teach about Sue in a way that would not have been possible without the funding partnership (for more on this story, including the dramatic legal battle over Sue, I’d recommend Steve Fiffer’s fantastic 2001 book Tyrannosaurus Sue).

Does it benefit museums to use media corporations to capitalize on pop cultural trends and events? Many people decry popular media as devoid of substance, but in the examples above, movies have opened the doors to a variety of academic topics: piracy, technology, paleontology, and entomology. As funding grows increasingly scarce, do you think we’ll start to see museums like Harvard’s Peabody partnering with Paramount Pictures to create an Indiana Jones Hall of Archaeology? Do you think a trend like this would help museums or hurt them in the long run? I’m on the fence about this – while I believe that these kinds of exhibits would bring people in (I’d be the first in line for the Indiana Jones hall!) and provide much-needed funding, I also think they could make the public assume that the museum’s exhibits aren’t academically rigorous, weakening their trust in traditionally esteemed institutions.

As the Pirates exhibit won’t open until May 25th, we won’t know how Thinktank’s relationship with Sony will play out until the reviews start coming in. Until then, my hopes are high that kids will go in hoping to see their favorite pirate characters and come out wanting to read about Blackbeard, Mary Read, and, of course, the dodo.

 

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