It’s that time of year again: Warehouse 13 time!
I watched the season premiere last week and one moment (technically two) really hit me as a social commentary. And yeah, it was about museums.
On Warehouse 13, their catchphrase (especially in season 4) is “Endless Wonder” — starting from the first episode, when Mrs. Frederic “offers” Pete Lattimer the job as a Warehouse agent, calling it an “invitation to endless wonder”. Last Monday, in “Endless Terror”, they decided to ask the question “what if you remove wonder from the Warehouse?” The result was scary.
Paracelsus (real historical figure with a twist) turned the Warehouse into a scientific facility. It’s clean, sterile, has an artifact-helped superhuman army, and does human experimentation using the artifacts.
Like I said, it’s scary. There is no wonder, no “magic”, and no steampunk (the best line of the night was “I’m sorry about your steampunk, Artie”). The artifacts are all hidden away instead of being on open shelves. There is no history, no sense of place. In essence, it’s what happens when you take the “wonder” out of everything.
The earliest museums were called wunderkammer, or “cabinets of wonder”. They stored objects that people didn’t know much about, like fossils and art from other cultures. Many were science-based, focusing on natural history. Wonder has been in involved in museums since the beginning. What happens in a museum when you take away the wonder?
For one, there is little motivation for inquiry. On Warehouse 13, this was represented with two scientist characters from previous episodes, but instead of having “wonder” with their professions, they are forced to do “science” (torture) because Paracelsus has their children. With no wonder, there is no motivation for more research. The wonder is replaced by fear.
Have you seen the recent Fox/National Geographic reboot of Cosmos? The series is full of awe-inspiring images of the universe. The main goal? To educate and entertain, and hopefully to inspire future scientists. How? Creating a sense of wonder.
What if it was presented like many exhibit panels we see in science (or history) museums? You know, the ones that are three miles long and are full of 5+ syllable-long terms? Or a lecture, with slides that only had text?
How do you feel when you see panels like that? I don’t know about you, but I feel intimidated, and yeah, a little scared. That world is unfamiliar, and it takes something away from the object that is supposed to be the focus.
I think this is what Warehouse 13 was commenting on, in its own way. The artifacts in the Warehouse are supposed to be dangerous, but that does not mean that the dangerous artifacts should be locked away without wonder. Without wonder, why would anyone pick up an artifact unless they knew how it worked?* Wouldn’t that then cancel out the need for history and science and everything else we study?
What do you think would happen if we removed wonder from science, history, and museums? Have you ever been in a wonder-less exhibit?
*”You don’t know how a radio works, right? It’s like magic. What would happen if Thomas Jefferson got his hands on a radio? He would lock it up until it could be explained. That’s what we do here.” — a paraphrased quote from Artie in the Pilot episode of Warehouse 13.