As I mentioned earlier, part of my summer offline involved going to see two different pirate exhibitions, the Real Pirates show currently at the Field Museum in Chicago, and Pirates, Privateers and Freebooters at the Pointe-à-Callière in Montreal. When I went to both shows, I expected to get a better feel for what I was writing about, maybe learn something that I hadn’t come across before I started writing the novel, and otherwise just immerse myself in items piratanical as part of the fun of my vacation.
What I hadn’t expected was an observation of curatorship in scale demonstrated as explicitly, or some telling warnings about what our museums may look like in the future.
To preface this, I went with both the Lovely and Talented Susan and Darling Son Jamie to both shows. I was hoping to share some of the interest and excitement I had in my work with them, to give them a better sense of what compelled me to start the novel. Oh I admit, they certainly have been and are supportive of the venture, but every writer who inhabits a milieu always feels that if they can bring someone into their work the way the ducking-stool brought respect of the law to the 17th Century, they take the chance no matter how horrifying the image of the first half of this sentence; God, I need a better simile…
Anyway, we went to both shows:
The Real Pirates exhibit lived up to it’s billing as the most complete collection of artifacts that could be directly attributed to a pirate vessel. Everything you could expect from a show of this nature was here, from sacks of booty to raised cannons, laid out in order from the Whydah’s first few voyages as a slaver ship (complete with lots of attention to the horrors of the Triangle Trade which in many ways made piracy an inevitability during the period) through her sinking in 1717 and recovery starting in 1984 (and still ongoing today).
What actually got the biggest reaction from me, however, were the personal effects of John King, the young man who willingly went on the account with Bellamy. Seeing his shoe and shin bone alongside the ship’s bell gave a tactile reality to everything shown before that point; the adage that a pirate’s life be merry but short doesn’t quite resonate the way it does when you have the bones of a boy close in age to your son before you. This brings home everything that none of the three pounders nor muskets ever could about the sweet trade, hammering home the potential costs these mariners were willing to wager against while pursuing their lifestyle. And the great bromide Twain gives in LIFE ON THE MISSISSIPPI about being a pirate if one is good faces a daunting challenge against real pirate bones belonging to a buccaneer you can sympathize with.
(Mind you, the skull of a complete bastard like Francois l’Olonnais would probably not be as touching if they brought that to the surface…)
Come port of call Montreal, and we found ourselves in an exhibit pieced together from over 20 different collections, most of them Canadian, showing articles that would have been in the hands of pirates (as opposed to verified as actually having been) while discussing piracy in general, from the 1600s through the 1800s and in particular Canadian experiences with piracy. There was plenty of text and images on Pierre Baptiste and Robert Chevalier, and some of the materials pulled up from the quest for treasure at Oak Island. No, no mention of Michael Geist here…
My own reaction was, for a show put together about a currently hot topic, the curators did an OK job of assembling the artifacts, laying out the presentation and organizing the collection in a satisfactory manner. I probably could have appreciated it more had we not had to fight two groups of day campers being given a tour by an interpreter who got underfoot in some tight spaces, but I felt the folks who put it together did a decent job in presenting the assembled collection.
Susan and Jamie, however were less impressed. And when asked about their reaction, it came down to the same answer:
“The other exhibit was better.”
Straightforward, no allowances, no nuances.
Frankly, comparing the Montreal assemblage to the traveling show underwritten by big corporate money like that is a little like pitting in a straight fight a launch against the Queen Anne’s Revenge. (By the way, if they do confirm the wreck that was found in North Carolina is Blackbeard’s infamous ship, the exhibit for that would put the Whydah artifacts to shame. Just saying here…) I might be more open to accepting the head-to-head comparison without question if both shows came together the same way, but that’s just not the case here.
The Real Pirates show is a major traveling expedition, mounted by National Geographic through AEG Live. As you can see at the link, these folks are a major corporate entity, one that in addition to mounting museum exhibits (including the Tutankamen exhibit also visiting museums today) does a large amount of business mounting concert tours that play at the 32 venues. If the name sounds familiar, it’s these folks that were going to host Michael Jackson’s return at the O2 in London (one of their halls, BTW), and are now trying to recoup their investment by mounting a traveling exhibition of his memorabilia.
Which means in this case that Sam Bellamy is being repped by the same folks who are displaying Michael’s artifacts, as well as putting Britney Spears on the road and giving Bette Midler her stand at Caesars Vegas. Simultaneously.
And while the exhibit showed considerable thought and conveyed real learning, there’s still the undeniable fact that the show was made possible by a corporation that thought there was a profit in this. And that if Jerry Bruckheimer had not turned a ride at Disneyland into a successful film franchise, that the bottom line under this show might not have made the organizers share these artifacts with the public.
Compare that with the Montreal show, mounted by a single institution where most of the resources go towards the main mission of the institution, in this case unearthing the foundations of Montreal in the basement. In all likelihood the exhibit was mounted by either a small team of curators or a single professional with a staff, contacting each institution where items came from by themselves, worrying about the costs for transporting and mounting each loaned item, tying together the best show possible given their limitations.
In other words, operating under the same strictures that most museum shows assembled during the 20th Century had. No, no one’s getting rich here, but is that the primary mission for many museums?
This raises all sorts of questions as to what this means for curatorship in the future: Can a single museum mount a show as best as possible in the face of corporate competition? Would one even bother to if the institution knew that a corporation was willing to park their show in their building if they played their cards right?
And if this is the future, what happens to centers of learning like museums? Do they try and support their permanent collections as best as possible and pray for a good pre-packaged program to come along and fill the water tanks to keep them going until the next mobile blockbuster rolls in? For that matter, what if the organizers decide to ask the museums to walk the plank like a (fictitious, playing to the crowd’s expectations) pirate might? Already, Discovery Communications has an exhibition center in Times Square, where artifacts that might have gone to, say, the American Museum of Natural History uptown, now end up in a corporate-controlled space where the sponsor has complete control over how the floor space is allotted, as well as 100% of the gate and all net from concessions (food and gift shop sales).
And what does this do for how we teach kids and share our knowledge with all people in the future? Do our artifacts, our exhibits, the tactile connections we have with what we are trying to learn, are they all now commodities? Does our ability to learn through contact with the past and the wider world, away from books websites (sorry, showing my age…), depend now on someone’s quarterly reports being in the black? Do we lose contact with these artifacts if they don’t move enough mugs and scarves at the gift shop and get replaced with another exhibit that might turn a quicker dollar?
A little while ago, I came up with a scenario of pirates in the future prompted by an io9 posting. After this trip, I could add a second pitch:
By the end of this century, corporate control of our artifacts had closed down or bought out all museums around the world. To see the Mona Lisa, one has to wait until it’s rolled out every five years in a random city; the T-rex skeleton of Sue was now available for corporate meetings (allow five weeks notice for assembly at the site); and if you were lucky, you could get a combo ticket to see the collected Renaissance masters if a boy band you could tolerate was willing to share venue space on a joint tour.
But there’s word of a band of hijackers, the “Black Flag Curators,” who stage daring raids on the warehouses and shipping containers containing these treasures. Rumor has it that they pilfer these items, collect them in hidden bases, then direct through clandestine communications groups of kids and their concerned guardians to come for a show mounted temporarily, free to the attendees but brief lest they be caught and tried for piracy.
These Brethren of the Museum mount their shows for brief times, then usually leave a tip for the authorities as to where they can pick up their loot once they escape. Some get greedy and try to keep their ill-gotten exhibits, but few of them stay free for long when their possessions weigh them down. Travel light, impart the knowledge you can through ‘borrowed’ exhibits, and keep a step ahead of the corporate goons: That be the life of a Black Flag Curator!
And hey, you can’t deny the role monarchical greed played in spawning the Golden Age of Piracy, so who’s to say historical patterns may not come into play again…?