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Warehouse 13 as a Museum #7: Science – Wonder = Terror?

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.

Artie realizes that the alternate Warehouse is using artifacts to experiment on people, much like his parents' experience in Russia.

Artie realizes that the alternate Warehouse is using artifacts to experiment on people, much like his parents’ experience in Russia. (photo via Syfy)

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.

The planets are formed from dust, via Fox

The planets are formed from dust, via Fox

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.


Helpful Hints for Visiting Washington, DC


Summertime is fast approaching here in the northern hemisphere, and Washington, DC will be swarming with visitors. What can you do to get ahead? Here are some helpful hints:


1. Take the Metro.

No, seriously, take the Metro. Although it is costly (up to $5.75 one way, if you’re coming from one of the farthest stations), you’re saving time and energy. DC is not an easy city to drive in (especially during rush hour), and walking, especially with kids, isn’t always feasible. And parking is not plentiful here.

2. When you take the Metro, make sure you have enough money on your farecard/SmarTrip.

I have seen so many people get stuck in the Metro because they don’t have enough money on their cards. Add up the cost each way for your trip (there are signs above the ticketing kiosks), and then add at least $2 to that. You can’t exit the station with under $1 on a SmartTrip anymore, and you have to add $1 to a farecard from the listed price. I basically go by the rule of thumb of having $20 on my card at the beginning of my trip, but that is with a regular commute (I pay $11-$16 a day). As a visitor, you probably won’t be going at peak fares, but it still helps to have extra in the long run. When you’re done, you can give your farecards to friends or relatives traveling to DC, so you know that they’re being used.

3. Use a map to find the closest stops.

Seriously, do that. I used a stop that was very far out of the way for my relatives once, and I have regretted it ever since. Plan your trip around the museums that are closest to the stop.

The Smithsonian:
1. Visiting a museum "on the mall"? Don’t enter through the Mall-side doors

Did you know that many of the Smithsonian museums have multiple entrances? Natural History and American History have entrances on Constitution Ave. Exit the metro from Federal Triangle or park off of Constitution to cut security line times.

2. You cannot do the Smithsonian in a day.

The Smithsonian is a large system of museums, and its on-the-Mall museums are huge. Rushing to see everything in every museum only hurts you.

3. Go early or go late.

First thing in the morning, there are no lines for popular exhibits, security, and food. A number of the Smithsonian museums also have evening extended hours. They’re really great, and much quieter.

4. Plan out your visit before you get there.

The popular exhibits get very crowded very easily. Make sure you hit those before the crowds hit. Map out what exhibits you want to see, and when.

5. Go off the Mall.

Like art? Head to the Portrait Gallery/American Art building at the Gallery Place Metro station. Like history? The Postal Museum is another Smithsonian museum that is never crowded and is a sweet little museum. It’s also right next to Union Station, which has food, shopping, and transportation.

6. Go to the zoo (but be prepared for crowds).

The zoo is extremely busy during the summer. So busy, in fact, that all of the above hints apply to the zoo, too. Go early to catch the outdoor animals as they come out of their indoor enclosures, hit houses like the Panda House, Small Mammal House, and Reptile house early, and visit the Think Tank, Invertebrates. and Amazonia, the quietest exhibits, at the peak hours.

Off the Mall

1. Museums off the Mall aren’t always free, but are sometimes quieter.

There are a few well-known non-Smithsonian museums off the mall (the Newseum and the International Spy Museum), and a few lesser-known but good ones (National Geographic). Adult admission costs anywhere from $11-$30 (I wish I was joking) for the museums, so be prepared for admission prices. National Geographic and the International Spy Museum are small, with a limited number of galleries. I’ve been to National Geographic, which has two ticketed exhibits under a general admission price, and a free exhibit in its M St building. I have been to the original iteration of the Newseum, and enjoyed it.

General Info

1. Do your research!

I know, I know, you don’t want to have to do research for your trip, but it helps so much to have that information in your back pocket.

2. Make sure your guidebook is up to date.

Guidebooks are notorious at my museum for passing on wrong information. Make sure you use both the guidebook and the internet for the most up to date information.

3. Pack your lunch.

Eating out is fun, but expensive museum food plus a crowded cafeteria is stressful! You can spend the money you saved in the gift shop or at a ticketed museum or for your Metro fare.

4. If you can’t, eat at the National Gallery of Art or the National Museum of the American Indian.

They have the best food. Seriously. The best food. I’ve eaten at most of the Smithsonians, and I can tell you that it’s the best food. And NMAI has gluten free options.

5. Ask the staff.

We’re here to help, and we want to help you. 🙂

Anything else you want to know about DC? Ask in the comments below! I’m also hoping to turn this into a page up above, so keep your eyes open for that.


Warehouse 13 as a Museum #6: The Best Gift

Hi all. Long time no see.

A lot of this has been happening in the past few months, leading to some pretty crazy schedules.

The good thing is that I got a lot of me time, but not a lot of museum time!

I actually wanted to write about this thing, though:

What is it? Why, it’s only the best gift!

It seems silly that a tv show prop replica/keychain would mean so much to somebody. It’s a simple thing, metal, made from a mold. It’s a bit hefty, heavier than my rodents, and has sharp sides. Its tv show story is unusual, as it is the cause of both joy and pain.

The keychain is based on an artifact from Warehouse 13 (of course). Although they never fully explain the origins, the medal depicts a Phoenix. The Phoenix saves those who hold/touch it if they are killed by fire, but kills another person off instead. It is the crux of the main plot of the first season: it the reason why they have a villain (he used it to help himself, causing a rift between him and Artie), and it is how one of the characters (my favorite) is saved.

I don’t just love it for that, or the fact that my little sister gave it to me. I love it because it represents something to me: the wonder and magic that was instilled in me through Warehouse 13 that I find whenever I look at an object in a museum. Everywhere I look, I see a story — maybe not just the background of that object, but what it could do if we let it.

That’s the risk we face in museums — how do we balance our fragile artifacts, art, history, and science, with the human need for story? How do we show, inspire, and instill values but at the same time use our collections that only hint at a world we once knew as a culture, but have never met as individuals?

It seems silly that a little keychain based on a television prop is a reminder for me, but it is. I hold it, and remember its story, and remind myself that everything I see has a story.

Isn’t that the greatest gift of all?

Warehouse 13 as a Museum #5: Using Artifacts to Heal

We all become attached to things for different reasons. I love the television show Warehouse 13 because it engages me, it has an amazing emotional capacity, and it has spoken to me as a museum professional.

In an earlier post (Warehouse 13 as a Museum #2: Can History Hurt?), I spoke about how history can be painful and how we have a tendency to lock away the “harmful” parts of history (sometimes in museums).

Inside the Warehouse…

The Warehouse does something special, though, for the characters. It is through their jobs, working with these painful artifacts, that they heal from previous wounds.

One of the things that ties all of the Warehouse agents together is loss. At the opening of season one, Artie lost the agents he was responsible for, Myka lost her partner/boyfriend Sam, and Pete lost his dad. Claudia (introduced in episode 4), lost her parents and brother (that’s a bit more figurative; he was caught in an artifact), and Steve Jinks (added in season 3) lost his sister.

It is through the collection of artifacts that the Warehouse agents find peace with their pasts. Artie watches his charges learn and grow, Myka makes peace with and resolves the mystery behind Sam’s death, Pete finds a father figure and makes peace with his mom, Claudia finds a father figure and a brother, and Steve finds a sister and makes peace with his mom. Wait, this is starting to sound like a trend.

Myka’s story, in particular, is interesting, as she was in DC originally to escape the past. I would say that she was living in the present at the time of the pilot. It was through her trips to the “past” through the artifacts (Pete had a semi-literal journey to the past to deal with his loss), she was able to heal and think towards the future. The Warehouse Agents don’t know what the future holds for them, but they still rescue the rest of the world anyways so everyone can have a future.

This isn’t a blog about Warehouse 13, though. This is a blog about museums.

Here is a theory of mine: Just like the Warehouse, a museum can be a place where we can process our grief and heal.

We build museums to heal. Think about the Holocaust museums, the Titanic museums and exhibits, the graveyards that have become museums, and the battlefields that have become museums. We call roads that pass through historic sites a Journey Through Hallowed Ground. Each is meant to be a memorial, a way to recognize and heal from the past, to inform the present and ensure a future.

Of all of the goals that a museum can have, I believe that this is one of the most honorable. Sometimes it is difficult, because it can elevate certain people or groups too high, but sometimes, after facing disaster, that is what people need to heal.

Have you found healing in a museum?

Found Things Friday: Catch-Up Edition

Hello! I am so sorry that I haven’t been able to blog for the past few months. Between life, work, and a government shutdown, everything has been one big crazyrandomhappenstance after another a bit crazy.

Anyways, here are five things that I’ve found in the museum in the past few months:

1. Add books, and children will read (or ask to be read to). One of our newer exhibits has a mini library at the end that contains children’s books my company has published. They’re bright, colorful, and factual. I think the books are the #2 favorite section for children in the exhibit (following the XBox Kinect game). Not only do the books get a ton of use, but they teach a valuable lesson : museums are for learning. My favorite experiences with the books so far have included a little girl loudly begging her father to read a book on ants to her (and he did) and a mother tucked in a corner on the floor with her young son reading a book (or two, as they were there over an hour!). Best easy interactive EVER.

2. Age is fun to guess (when it’s not a person). We have some excellent nighttime photography from the early 20th century in our exhibit. Last Saturday, I ran into a group of kids/preteens oohing and ahh-ing over them. I thought I’d have some fun, and asked the kids what year they thought the photos were taken. It was a lively discussion, and they really got a kick out of it (I did, too). Asking age is a perfect segue into understanding how long something has been around, learning the differences between objects through time, and relative age to other pieces of the collections. I used the technique a lot when I was interning at the National Museum of American History, and I’m happy that I can use it at my current museum.

3. A smile goes a long way.
Last Saturday was the busiest day we’ve had in a long time. It was exhausting, but fun. One customer was frustrated — he was in line but didn’t know what he was in line for. I answered his questions, frustrated myself, at first. When I started to explain our exhibits, I felt myself start to smile. I smiled. I continued to smile. I let my love for my museum seep into every action. It helped. Sure, the man still walked away frustrated, but I had cured my own frustration.

4. Parents sometimes annoy me.
I like love seeing child visitors enjoy our exhibits. Want to know what I don’t love? When parents don’t engage their kids! I have seen so many parents walk through our exhibits and never ask their children what they are thinking, point out cool things, or even talk to their kids! I understand the “quiet contemplation” paradigm of enjoying exhibits, but the example for learning isn’t set when kids aren’t engaged, an example of “museums are quiet places to be quiet” is set. How boring. One dad was really great with his daughter in our new photography exhibit. They were quiet, but he asked her at different points if she wanted to move on, what photos she was enjoying, and pointed out a few of his favorites. This helped teach her not only that museums can be a place for quiet contemplation, but that they are for learning. A teacher engaged me the other day mentioning this exact thing. She didn’t want to engage a child that wasn’t being engaged because she didn’t want to seem weird (this makes me sad), but she saw a missed learning opportunity. Compare this to the reading section, and it’s like night and day. Wow!

5. Museums can be safe places in times of unrest. Two weeks ago, when the government shut down, our museum became free for a day and government workers were free through the rest of the shutdown. A number of federal employees engaged me, thanking me for the opportunity to come to the museum. Our conversations turned from the museum to their positions, and what I saw gave me hope. What we did gave people hope. How wonderful! What a message this sends!

I hope you have a hope-filled week. See you soon!

Watch This Space!

Hey, all!

Keep an eye out for a new post (or two) coming soon to a blog near you!

(High five/fist-bump fail moment (#1) brought to you by Warehouse 13)

Warehouse 13 as a Museum #4: Warehouse 13 Inspires My Job

Here is a quick post on Warehouse 13/my job. Life blew up again, so posts will be few and far between for a while.

Why Warehouse 13 makes me love my museum job:

1. I have created elaborate artifact stories (what they do, downsides, etc) behind every artifact in our exhibits. This means that I apply an emotional and factual understanding of our history when I give tours. This is needed to fully engage with the meanings behind many of the objects/stories in our exhibits. I’ve heard one visitor say that our Titanic exhibit was sad in the six months it was open, and it is a really sad story.

2. When we have replicas or don’t have artifacts in the exhibit, I can blame the Warehouse. I don’t to visitors, but it makes me think a lot more about why we have replicas vs real artifacts.

3. Whenever something breaks/is moved/flashes in a creepy way, I blame it on the artifacts. Why not? Our pirate exhibit is really creepy. Blaming it on the artifacts makes it a funny kind of creepy.

4. Every episode reminds me why I love history, and I carry that back to work with me. The pirate episode made me really think about our own pirate exhibit and why I am fascinated by it (it was also one of the best episodes of the season, so there’s that, too).

<strong>How does something you love help you in your job? Comment below!</strong>

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