Museum Frames Strangeness Strangely
Call me an exoticist; it’s not enough for me to fly to some foreign land on a jet carrying domestic markings. I need more. To feel like I'm really encountering difference, I’d ideally be flying between one foreign land and another on an airline sporting the markings of a third. And even then, I know that all this exoticism is largely a sham: “the staging of difference against the scenery of standardization and globalization,” as theorists of the postmodern would put it.
A couple of years ago, for instance, I happened to find myself on a plane between Japan and Thailand. It was an Air India plane, a Boeing 747 customized with Taj Mahal-esque shapes appliquéd—in a clear attempt at exoticism—around each window. There were, I calculated, three levels of “otherness” on that flight: the Japanese passengers, the Indian staff, and the Thai destination. Disappointingly though, the in-flight movie was a 1990s Hollywood epic. Then I remembered that I’m British and that this is the 21st century: ‘90s Hollywood is exotica too!
Actually, perhaps there were even more levels of otherness than that. The plane was an old one, a 1970s model 747. And the Air India regalia, the “exotic” decoration, had a ’70s feel too. So: Japanese passengers, Thai destination, Indian staff, American film, 1970s graphic and industrial design. Exotic enough yet?
And yet, behind all this difference lurks standardization in the form of the familiar processing routines and etiquettes of airports, planes and passengers. The rigid, regulated forms required by international jet travel allow for a playful, symbolic articulation of cultural difference. But they also negate difference by making us all the same, reducing us to passenger-units traveling through space at 600 miles per hour, 30,000 feet up, watching a movie and eating food.
Even knowing that modern global experiences mostly negate difference, we can still be devotees of the multi-layered symbolism with which they’re staged in a standardized world. Personally, I’m drawn to slightly run-down museums for the same reasons I’m drawn to slightly run-down airlines. What they lack in authority or reliability they make up for with atmosphere.
Take the American Museum of Natural History, for instance. During my last New York visit I went there twice. Like that Air India flight, a typical room at the Natural History Museum contains at least three levels of difference. Typically, you’ll have a room depicting something that’s remote in time, remote in place, and framed with the design language of a remote decade. One moment you’ll be in an expensive, freshly-designed series of halls telling the story of the dinosaurs with slick cut-away multimedia graphics, the next you’ll find yourself in a neglected cul-de-sac featuring Maori masks from 19th century New Zealand, all framed with sans serif typefaces, dry transfer lettering, salmon pink display cases, green carpeting and walls that meet the floor with rounded corners—design signifiers from the early 1970s.
What’s so wonderful about the Natural History Museum is the way its narrative is always portraying differences (and differences, often doomed ones, are very much the theme of any museum or zoo, a place, like Bedlam, where we come to see the Other rendered as a kind of Freak Show) differently. A lack of funds, thank god, prevents the museum from refurbishing the whole building at the same time, or placing, heaven forbid, one superstar information designer in charge of the look of the whole place. As a result, the Natural History Museum (like some other eccentric museums—London’s Horniman comes to mind, or Edinburgh’s National Scottish Museum, or the ethnographic museums of Berlin’s Dahlem district) speaks “in tongues,” its presentation areas each colored by a unique “accent.” For me, it’s poetry.
Displayed in a darkened room containing stuffed animals in dioramas, hanging next to some ancient relief maps, I found a framed, hand-inked scroll dated 1930, the year the hall was opened. “The American people,” it read, “are indebted for these lifelike groups of South Asiatic Mammals to Mr Arthur S. Vernay and the late Colonel J.C. Faunthorpe of Great Britain. From 1922 to 1928 Mr. Vernay and Colonel Faunthorpe made six expeditions into India-Burma and Siam to collect and later donate to the Museum this collection.”
The notice then credits James L. Clark with the layout of the animal groups and the architectural setting. There’s even space, in tiny letters at the bottom, for the name of the designer of the notice itself, Arthur E. Sanford. This notice is unusual, not only because museums tend to leave their designers uncredited, but because, by drawing attention to named individuals who’ve laid out the displays in a “lifelike” way, the museum explicitly frames its own framers of difference and gives us a glimpse into its wiles. Undermining its position as an objective, impersonal authority, the museum risks revealing itself as something of a theatrical impresario, a master of lights and sleight of hand. And it tells us all this in the “accent” of 1930s calligraphy, speaking to us in the voice of a crusty, old actor, only to adopt, a room or two later, the tone of a 1960s swinger.
Whether we encounter endangered differences via an airline or a museum, they’re likely to be staged with a fascinating blend of science and showbiz—and all taped together with the grammar of ... well, whatever design tropes were current last time anyone could afford a revamp. Those of us who find a certain poetry in otherness of presentation as well as otherness of content—who spot the streamlined metallic lettering designs of 1947 with as much excitement as we spot a stuffed giant panda chewing bamboo in a synthetic forest—can only hope that the Natural History Museum remains poor enough to stay rich in strangeness.