I’m sorry that I have not been around much recently. My work environment has been through some major changes, so I’ve been under a lot of stress.
Instead, let’s get talking about the tv show that keeps me dreaming about museums: Warehouse 13!
Has anyone else been enjoying season 4.5 of Warehouse 13 as much as I have? How amazing is the current theme of grief and recovery? It’s timely for my family, which is recovering from the loss of my teenage niece.
Warehouse 13 has inspired a lot of my work in museums, and I believe that it has the potential to teach us a few things.
Let’s get started!
1. Who I Am is Who I Am
One of the amazing things about Warehouse 13 is that certain things a lot of other tv shows turn into plots are mentioned as parts of the characters, but never used as plot devices. Steve Jinks (my favorite addition to the original cast) is gay, but that doesn’t come first in his description. If I was going to describe him to you, his Buddism might come up as well, but really, his main identity (as represented in the show) is as big brother/partner to Claudia and Warehouse agent. Claudia is the techie-hacker teenager (now young adult), but everyone sees her and allows her to be seen as that, but she is maturing and growing into her future role as caretaker (speaking of which, the motion comic goes into that, so play around with it, ok?). Artie is her opposite and father figure, and he, as well as Mrs. Frederic and a few Regents represent a diversity in age. The leaders (the Regents) of Warehouse 13 are quite diverse, representing many countries and cultures. Different faiths are represented as well. Again, many of these things are mentioned, but they do not define the character, just our many facets and labels do not define us.
What can this teach us in museums?
Just like the characters, there is/can be/should be a lot of diversity in our visitors. Some will be history or art nerds and know everything about your topic, while some don’t like the topic, but were brought there by friends and family (Myka and Pete’s relationship with the Warehouse/each other is a classic example of this). Some will be old and despise technology and some will want everything to be updated (Artie and Claudia). They will come from many faiths or have no religious beliefs (the whole team). We have to remember that one label does not fit all.
2. Embracing Movements
Little known fact: I think the steampunk aesthetic is fascinating. A little too industrial for me, but fascinating. I see its potential for embracing history nerds, and this gives me hope.
Warehouse 13 did not start out as an overtly steampunk series, but recently it has embraced it more and more. Why not? If there is someone who is a potential, albeit specialized group, why don’t you reach out once in a while to embrace it?
This may seem like I am going against the previous thing we can learn, but I’m not. Warehouse 13 doesn’t say “this is a show for steampunk fans” or “this is a show for history nerds”. It uses demographics and interests to its advantage, but does not let them define it.
What can this teach museums?
Sometimes I see museums focus so much on their identity (or neglect it) that they can’t appeal to anyone. Our local city museum is so focused on our local history that they’ve forgotten that they stopped teaching city history in the county schools.
National Geographic Society does this right. It’s a geographic society, but its goal is go share the world and all that is in it without becoming exclusive. The magazine addresses many topics, and definitely moves towards certain movements (anti-fracking, climate change), reaching towards certain interest groups. Is this a bad thing? No, because just as Warehouse 13 reaches towards steampunk, steampunk is not its identity.
Why not have an exhibit or an event that appeals to a certain community but has broad reaches? Nina Simon has recently addressed it on Museum 2.0 (http://www.museumtwo.blogspot.com),and I highly recommend that you check it out.
3. If You Can’t Do It One Way…
Time travel. Everyone seems to be doing it now, and Warehouse 13 is no exception. What I like about Warehouse 13 is how they treat time travel. It could become overused on the series, but instead they’ve used variations on the theme. The first instance of time travel was not physical time travel, but mental (using H.G. Wells’ time machine), where the characters inhabit the minds of someone from the past for a limited time. Recently Artie was the only character that time traveled (well, rewound time), but there were serious repercussions (and not the usual “saw himself” thing, either, but unleashing a horrible evil), and in a recent episode, Pete and Myka “time traveled” by getting stuck in a book from the 40’s. Each instance was unique and pretty awesome, minus Artie unleashing evil.
What can museums learn from this?
Variations on a theme are always important in museums. Nobody is going to enjoy the same content in the same way, so why not change it up? What if you had multiple programs on the same topic in an exhibit, but each was tailored to different learning styles? What about mini-talks in the exhibits based on related topics? There are so many variations on themes that are possible. Ask your staff for opinions, even the people you don’t see very often. They might have the best or most unique insights.
4. Endless Wonder
Warehouse 13’s catchphrase is “Endless Wonder”. It promotes fascination with history, always being open to new ideas, and of course, a sense of wonder.
There is always something new around the corner at the Warehouse, and the show embraces it wholeheartedly. Even stories that are revisited have something new to explore. Endless wonder is a chance to see the world and all that is in it, the good and the bad.
What can this teach museums?
Embrace endless wonder. It is as simple as that. We cannot and will not know everything in our lifetimes, so why not promote wonder, which is the springboard to learning?
The other day a coworker told me that he (agreeing with most of my coworkers) thought that first person historical interpretation was “hokey”. My first good experiences with history were through first person interpretation. Those experiences were my springboard of learning. I wanted to know so much more from those moments alone. My first experience, by the way, was when I was six. I had met endless wonder and embraced it. What about your next visitors? Will they wonder, or will they be lost in the information?
5. Stick With a Theme
Ok, a moment of bias here — the fourth season of Warehouse 13 is my very favorite season. It’s the longest at 20 episodes (the first three seasons were 13 episodes each), but they have managed to keep it consistent with a single over-arching theme (death, loss, and grief). Warehouse 13 has always done a very good job at having consistently themed individual episodes, but when they tie a whole season together, it’s amazing. Also, they had a gigantic seven-month hiatus and villain change in the second half if the season, and the season is still ridiculously strong. The current arc (mostly the past two episodes) has Myka dealing with her own mortality while competing against a group of “villains” that are immortal but yearn for mortality. Meanwhile, everyone (minus the ingenious evil bad guys and their progeny) is still recovering from the death of Leena in some way, tying the story together. This keeps me involved in the story. I want Myka to be ok and for the villains to find their peace. I want the Warehouse agents to grieve the loss of their friend in their own time. I want to know what happens in the next season because there are only eight episodes left of the whole show and this theme has got me tied to it like a gerbil to a sunflower seed. That is the impact of theme.
What can this teach us in museums?
When an exhibit is episodic and does have a theme tying it together, it can really suffer. An exhibit I work in right now struggles with the connections between the stories because the common theme is both abstract (the organization and the world) and specific (individual mini-themes). With no common story, I struggle to connect the dots. This does NOT mean that the exhibit is not strong. It is. It just has nothing universal to tie it together.
My favorite museum exhibits (Written in Bone and Birds of Paradise) have individual episodic sections, but have a general, tying theme. For Written in Bone, it is both the topic (human remains) and the time period (colonization of the Chesapeake Bay in the late 17th and early 18th centuries) that tie together the individual stories. It also helps that the stories are presented in the same way. Birds of Paradise (now in Traverse City, Michigan) ties every space together with two common themes: the adaptations of the birds and the scientists that studied them. Stuffed birds and photos do not just appear in the Victorian Era or Photography sections, but run throughout the exhibit. The same wood paneling is used throughout the individual sections and stand-alone cases, tying the whole exhibit together. The themes hold the multi-faceted, sectional exhibit together, making many sections a giant whole.
As you go throughout your week, think about how other pieces of popular culture teach us about museums. I know Warehouse 13 is not the only one. You might be surprised.