Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Slowing Down Real Life

This is my first blog entry. I’m going to write about the stresses… and joys of creating exhibitions.

Maybe there are only a few of us ‘exhibition geeks’ who think that what we do might interest others. But I hope that the strange world in which questions like ‘how do you simulate French fries?’ and ‘can you mould a slug?’ are commonplace, might be of some interest to others.

Our business is unusual. There are few professions that stretch so far between art and science, academia and showbiz, business and pleasure. In fact, are there any? Indeed, the very way we develop exhibitions seems to be fraught with paradox – is it science or art… education or entertainment?

I’ll try to focus on projects that we are working on right now, and give a glimpse of the magic and the confusion of this work.

I’m going to start with an exhibition called Royal BC Museum: Behind the Scenes. It opens on June 25. In it, we turn ourselves inside out to expose the work we do… behind the scenes [quelle surprise!]. Part One will run for more than a year and focus on the work of our Natural History staff. Part Two opens in 2011 with a focus on Human History.

How odd that for this inaugural post on the topic of contemporary exhibition challenges, I turn to one of the most traditional of museum art forms – the diorama. Not the great sweeping spectacles of the American Natural History Museum or the forest and coastal dioramas of our own museum, but tiny dioramas starring slugs, goldfish and mosquitoes! (Image below: Colin Longpre’s simulated French fries are a hit with starlings!)

A few years ago, I learned a big lesson from a small museum. Dioramas don’t need to be epic in scale. In fact, being tiny can sometimes focus the attention. The Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles is a lesson in the power of great storytelling in miniature.

I think dioramas are exquisitely interesting. They are low tech in a world of digital showiness. And yet, there is something compelling about them, even in the digital age. They are masterful representations of life in the original 3-D. Visitors love them for their clarity, their apparent reality and for the skill of the diorama artist. And maybe in a world where life is fleeting, transitory, and intangible, the diorama provides a welcome respite. Dioramas let us slow down and wonder. (Image below: Kate Kerr does a little miniature farming.)

To the challenge at hand – Behind the Scenes will feature a special presentation on the topic of invasive species. Our curators presented a menu of 30 invasive species as the focus. Now… we have a very talented and resourceful exhibitions team, but I have to say that the first reaction as they got their assignment was less than enthusiastic. Let’s face it… sometimes the subject of the show is not exactly movie star material... slugs, mosquitoes, starlings, goldfish… I mean, come on! But this is where the magic comes in. The creative process sometimes needs a few days of gestation… and before long our wonderful team of Exhibit Arts Technicians had started to mock up a whole series of scenes... miniature snapshots from life. I think the mundane nature of the topic became the very challenge. What I love about what they have done is how they resisted the temptation to use media and accepted the challenge of creating a world in three dimensions. And I love that the scenes are not the pristine visions of nature that the old dioramas represent… but rather they are about nature and us… starlings and French fries.

Tim Willis

Recommended reading and other links:

Great article: Diorama-o-rama by Jesse Smith

Great book: Windows on Nature: the great habitat dioramas of the American Museum of Natural History, Stephen Quinn

Great visit: the Museum of Jurassic Technology, Los Angeles