by columnist Tegan Kehoe
This weekend, I went on a creative retreat of sorts, an annual event that I love. Two and a half days of intense time in a community I care about, several hundred friends and strangers in a hotel, being silly and collaborative, telling great stories and sharing what we’ve made. It’s one of the few points of connection I have with how I spent my non-work time before grad school. It’s a convention for Live Action Role-Playing, or LARP, which is a little like what those murder mystery dinner party in a box games would be if they weren’t so often thin and hokey.
In the past several years, LARP has gotten more attention — even media coverage — than ever before, although the genre that is most talked about is a bit different than the kind I know and love. I like seeing my hobby get more attention, because it’s aways nice when people other than friends I’ve made at the conventions get to share in it, but some of the attention feels a little uncomfortable. There was an article in the Metro about LARP a while back, and it felt weird seeing something I love get the same sensationalist treatment the Metro gives celebrities’ tweets. At its worst, media about subcultures and hobbies can exoticize, taking the tone of an expose about people’s lives.
My hobby life would intersect with museums, too, if I were a steampunk enthusiast, a model shipbuilder, a maker, or a quilter. All of these groups have been tapped into by museums with a common interest, as part of a growing strategy to connect to our communities and people’s daily lives. This is great! It can also wander into some questionable territory, such as when the model shipbuilder himself (or herself, but model shipbuilding tends to be an old boys’ club in my experience) is on display at work on the craft. I have never heard of a museum taking one of these collaborations too far, in terms of making a hobby into a spectacle (hobbies that are about show and spectacle are an exception, of course!). I do wonder, though, whether museums ever try to build on the harmony between their collections and a niche interest and find that groups shy away because they are concerned about being in the spotlight.
It’s rare for me to suggest that museums should not be actively recruiting community partners. However, maybe one way for museums to ensure that the spotlight works on the community group, hobbyist, and niche interest tie-ins is to invite proposals rather than inviting groups. What if a museum put out an open call saying, “Collaborate with us! Do you do something related to what we have in our collection? Do you make things with a similar aesthetic? Tell us about it and we can come up with programs together!”