A place to publish notes on exhibitions and museums. More discussion of this kind of work seems useful. Let me know if you find this of value, or if you'd like to contribute.

Sunday, July 31, 2005

Dearborn: The Henry Ford

It’s been some years since I’d been to what used to be called the Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village. The name change makes sense once you’re there—they’ve branded the whole operation, with separate experiences with names. They should have gone one step further: instead of the subtitle “America’s greatest history attraction,” why not “attractions.” Bigger claim, and it suggests that it’s more than a museum.

The museum proper—the acres of artifacts—seem tired. Three new exhibits stand out. Right in front is the Rosa Parks bus. They do a good job with this: you go on board in a group and a docent lectures you about the story. It’s sensitively done. Having the bus sends a signal that it’s not the old Henry Ford anymore. The bus will become part of a new political history exhibit, now under construction. That might provide some coherence to the miscellany of non-technology exhibits, which is a key to the museum moving beyond its narrow focus and living up to its "greatest history attraction" name

The big new show is about airplanes. It’s the most interesting design there: good figures, some of them outside the railings that protect the objects, breaking down the wall between history and visitors. (The same technique as “America on the Move” at the Smithsonian, done at the same time—clearly the new fad in manikin design!) Interactives pretty weak—a huge wasted space given to making and throwing a paper airplane. A few places to pose for pictures that might work (on bleachers watching airshow, as though you were on the wing of an airplane, sitting in various airplanes) but these mostly seemed deserted: mostly people were watching the video. No apparent overall message about airplane design or air travel—no overall message at all. It’s a series of small, well-told stories about particular airplanes. A vast improvement over the airplane parking lot, but not yet a history exhibit.

Not so new, but new to me: the Dymaxion House. A gorgeous job of restoration, but it’s not clear to me why it’s there or what their point is. Is it there as technological gee-whiz, as a critique of the capitalist system in its dealings with inventors, as a clever gimmick, as a lost opportunity? You wait in line in an area that pretends to be the showroom for the Dymaxion House at the Beech aircraft factory, where it was made. (This is all fake, but you’re not told that.) You’re led through in small groups. My tour guide was as charismatic as could be, but slipped in and out of his roles as tour guide and salesman for the house, and it was hard to tell which was which. His basic line was that the evil bankers wouldn’t support the brilliant Buckminster Fuller—that the house would have been a great success if they had not been afraid of change. “Evil bankers” resonates badly at at place called “The Henry Ford,” and it’s basically misleading. The Dymaxion House was a hand-made, and could probably have never been mass-produced; the bankers were right. In going for the “great inventor” story they miss the more interesting business story. This is a common failing of technology museums. The Dymaxion House is a lost opportunity to explore a failed invention; by blaming the bankers they miss a chance to say something interesting about how invention becomes part of everyday life.

Saturday, July 30, 2005

Seattle: Pioneer Square sites

Fine building walking tour that did three thematic tours.

National Park Service Yukon Gold Rush Site. Good movie, narrated by Hal Holbrooke. Puts goldrush in the context of the depression of 1893.

Firefighters memorial—three extremenly life-like bronze figures wearing the uniforms, including oxygen masks. Not very effective—too realistic?? Poorly sited on the sidewalk? Behind it was a broken piece of building, pieces of stone with fallen firefighters’s names… that part worked.

A memorial put up by the DAR to those who died in WWI, on one side of the stone—on the other side of the stone was a memorial to the USS Maine, destroyed in Havana Harbor—the plaque, it says on it, was made from a piece of the Maine.

Seattle: Experience Music Project

Went to see the Bob Dylan show. It’s similar to the Jimi Hendrix show—the same kind of detailed biography told through ephemera. Better video here. Lots of small sound and video booths that work well. Technical problem: the buttons don’t light up! You don’t know what selection you’re listening to. In designing these things, good to think about the person who walks up after someone has already pushed the button!..

Did a decent job of covering the cultural background, the politics of folk music. Took Dylan at face value when he said, looking back, that he didn’t have any politics. His memory at the very least needs to be challenged—which maybe it was, subtly, by the pictures in the early sections. Not much on his contemporaries—Phil Ochs, Tom Rush? Etc.

Visitors enthralled.

Music leaks out a bit but works well. In the general spaces you hear it from several directins, but in the booths you only get the one you’re supposed to. This is just right.

Songwriting exhibit had excellent use of technology to let you see what was harmony, melody, rhythm, etc.—sliders to turn parts of the music on or off, switches, keyboard to play melody…

Seattle: Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame

In building with Experience Music Project. Overall, disappointed: treated all of science fiction with same broad brush. Mostly focused on post-WWII sci fi, and so that’s not unreasonable. But by treating it thematically, it assumes it’s all the same.

First floor treats scifi as a social phenomenon. One very small time line. A section on fans which is pretty sophisticated—how fans shaped the writing. A hall of fame--well done technically, but pretty dry.

Second floor all thematic. Aliens, cities, weapons, space ships… Amazing collection. But because it’s all thrown together, nothing is covered in depth. (Cities better—three cities (Blade Runner, Jetsons, Matrix) explained—one of few sections with talking heads.

Overall not enough analysis for me. But a great collection.

The way they do books: mostly just the book on display. A Bruce Sterling manuscript, in longhand! Some good displays of covers, artwork.

Quality of writing and exhibitry not up to EMP. Pretty dry.

Visitors were deeply engaged. That’s probably common with museums that attract fans, who most of these people seemed to be.

What I would do differently: readings from books—play up the way that the written word can do imagined worlds. More politics—take a few books (say Red Mars) in depth, figure out what they mean. There’s politics in scifi that isn’t covered here—Heinlein’s libertarianism, Red Mars’ Marxism…

$26.95 for the two museums. Overall, worth it—I had my fill, and was entertained for the several hours or so I spent there.

Thursday, July 14, 2005