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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?

Warehouse 13 in the Museum #2: Can History Hurt?

This past week, news broke that the Historic Jamestowne dig and the Smithsonian (through the National Museum of Natural History) have discovered a chilling find: evidence of survival cannibalism. Not just cannibalism, but cannibalism of a child, an English girl about 14 years old nicknamed “Jane”.

Jamestown is going to be remembered differently from now on. Every time I mention Jamestown to someone now, they could easily remember the new findings. They might not see the facial reconstruction or know why this happened (worst drought in that region in hundreds of years, horrible relations with Powhatan empire because the charters set the colonists up to rely on them, and relatively inexperienced leaders/men/etc), but there will be a negative association attached to the colony.

Warehouse 13 addresses this issue head on. The negative associations with history, the points where history hurts, are hidden because this is what the Warehouse exists to do: protect the world from history that hurts. Every artifact has its downside with its gift. Even historical figures, like H.G. Wells, have a capacity to hurt. Fairy tales even have the capacity to hurt (Cinderella and Pinocchio were the worst, as the former turned people into glass and the latter basically created an evil villain that destroyed the Warehouse).

Many of these stories were altered so that there was an element of evil to them, but sometimes they weren’t. On the show a pair of binoculars from the Enola Gay turned people into fiery shadows, hearkening back to what their user witnessed, and a board from one of the Titanic’s lifeboats gives the holder hypothermia.

The goal of the Warehouse agents is to collect these things. They snag them, bag them, and tag them so they can hide them away to be forgotten by history, diffuse them so they can’t harm anyone else, and essentially save the world.

The thing is, we can’t do that. We don’t have a magic warehouse to store painful history in (do we?). The current season is dealing with this topic head on. Artie saved the Warehouse, but unleashed evil in himself. Now there are two historic figures out to harm each other (and most likely at the expense of the rest of the world). From the perspective of the show, history can hurt, but what can we do about it? We can lock it away, but that can be just as harmful.

Sometimes we do hide painful history. The Real Pirates exhibit was cancelled in its initial location (Tampa, Florida) because it never mentioned the fact that the ship started as a slave ship. The Korean war is mentioned twice inside of the Price of Freedom exhibit on American wars in the National Museum of American History.

Sometimes we don’t. We have a Holocaust museum here in DC and a number of exhibits talk about the price of dropping the atom bomb. There are now exhibits on slavery at the homes of the Founding Fathers. The Real Pirates exhibit has now added a section on slavery and the Whydah’s history as a slave ship.

History can hurt. As we discover more about our past, we either try to hide it or exhibit it.

But what if… by keeping it in a museum, we’re doing both? Objects can be put in storage or taken out of storage. Important figures can be purposefully forgotten and purposefully remembered. “Unimportant” figures can be forgotten and then rediscovered. Whole passages of time can be completely ignored while others are remembered. We don’t just do this in museums, we do this in our classrooms and in our own daily lives. There is so much “good” history to explore that we don’t always feel the need to explore the bad. Should we always focus on the good history, though? Should we always focus on the bad?

No.

We used to have an exhibit on the Titanic at “my” museum. I struggled with the exhibit for a long time, because it had both “good” history and “bad” history. Everyone was so focused on the story and the fascination of the “tragedy” that I realized that we actually forgot about the real story. The sinking of the Titanic hurt because it was on so many minds. It was the most luxurious, had all the millionaires and was supposed to be the best ship ever. Then it sank, taking nearly 2000 people with it. Young, old, rich, and poor. Entire families gone. The word Titanic has become synonymous with sinking ships and big movies and tragedy and England and the United States, but until I did my own research, I never knew that people were immigrating on the doomed ship. People who were Norwegian like my great grandparents, Italian like my friend, and French like my sister’s friend. This is the tragedy of the Titanic — we remember the horrible story, study what happened and ask why, but we forget that there were real people on a very real ship. Good things came from the sinking as well. The Titanic has saved other lives. We now have more lifeboats required on ships and actual lifeboat drills. We now know what sea life does to a sunken ship. Archaeological understanding has grown. By focusing on the tragedy and the story, we forget the good. By focusing on the good, we forget the bad. By forgetting the bad, we are allowing our history to hurt us.

This is one of the many reasons why I watch Warehouse 13. It looks at history as something that can help and something that can hurt. The Cinderella dagger turned its user into glass, preventing her from harming anyone again. The H.G. Wells character, female in the series, tried to destroy the world in her grief over the loss of her daughter, but in the end saved the Warehouse Agents when the Warehouse was destroyed, allowing them to save the warehouse and the world. Now they are able to heal and forgive.

To understand that past is to heal from it. Without recognizing that with the price of the Titanic’s sinking, more lives have been saved, we will never be able to continue to save lives. Without recognizing that the Jamestown settlers had such a great need that they were compelled to consume the flesh of one of their own, we will never be able to recognize and understand other instances of survival cannibalism in our own history and others’.

In the future, if Warehouse 13 has a fifth season, I wonder if they will mention the story of Jamestown. Will they mention the history we have selectively remembered, like Pocahontas and John Smith and “cannibalism”… or will they talk about the reality of those horrible early years, including the drought, horrible treatment of the people that already lived in that area, the first slaves, and “Jane”, and at the same remember the reality that Jamestown was not only the first surviving British settlement of the New World but the first home of a small democracy on the New World’s shores that would later lead to the United States? I hope they do.

I will never be able to look at Jamestown the same again. The brass luster that has always been on it is now a bit more tarnished. History hurts… but we can’t hide it away in a warehouse. We can’t place an object on display and never mention its significance — both good and bad.

History can hurt, but without addressing it, we will never heal. We will always look back, and then look away quickly with our hands over our eyes and ears, preventing them from being open to help. If we cannot help, we cannot heal. If we continue to hide away from the pain of history, how will we be able to learn from it to help our future?

In the future, I will visit Jamestown and the Written in Bone exhibit and see “Jane”. I will learn from my nation’s history. It’s going to hurt. I’m going to be sad, but through tear-stained eyes, I will open my eyes, ears, mind, hands and heart for the good.

History can hurt, but we need to heal from it, not hide it away. Like the Warehouse agents, I will recognize the downsides, accept that risk, and continue on for the greater good. History demands it.

Warehouse 13 as a Museum #1

It’s no secret that one of my favorite television shows is Warehouse 13 (just read my first post, Wonder). It is smart, funny, has a heart, and often leads me down the history nerd rabbit hole. Warehouse 13 has an interesting way of presenting history — it does not always adhere to actual fact, but uses an empathetic fact and object lessons to help viewers feel the historical emotional truth that lies underneath.

Warehouse 13’s first episode starts off with an introduction to its two leads, Myka Bering (Joanne Kelly), and Pete Lattimer (Eddie McClintock), “coincidentally” inside a museum. They both work for the Secret Service, and are there to protect the President. I don’t want to spoil the whole story, but I will tell you that the events send the two agents to a new job — working for Warehouse 13.

The Warehouse is a repository of objects that have been effected by the historical people and events that they are connected to. From ancient history to modern history, from folklore to literary figures, if you like a period of history, it’s probably been mentioned in the series. Every object has been collected because it does something weird. From a chair that makes people act out their deepest (angry) desires to a teapot that puts people inside of video games, to a kettle that grants wishes (or creates ferrets), every object does something. Artie, the agent in charge of the Warehouse, describes it like this: imagine giving Thomas Jefferson a radio. What would he have done with it? Artie says that after studying it, Jefferson would have probably locked it away. This is what the Warehouse agents do: snag (collect artifacts), bag (diffuse them) and tag (basic accessions), the unofficial catchphrase of the series.

This leads to a few of my own wonderings about museums.

When we put objects inside of our museums, why are we putting them there? To protect them? To protect the story they tell? To retell their story? To share them with the public (obviously not what the Warehouse agents are doing)?

What do you think? What is the function of the museum in this day and age?

Warehouse 13 Returns Today!

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Warehouse 13 Returns today, so I am going to do a weekly post series about how the series talks about museums! See you later in the week!

Friday Finds (#7)

1. Visitors Helping Visitors

Today I saw two great moments where visitors encouraged other visitors. The first was a family where the kids wanted to play with a game in the exhibit, but the parents wanted to move on. The parents told the kids to keep playing, as they were both old enough and the adults were four feet away in an open room.

2. Follow the Pirate Flag!
Sometimes we have to adapt or create activities for visitors on the spot. The other day we had a small group of preschoolers in an exhibit that is kinda scary (we did not expect this reaction from kids until it opened), so I decided to lead them through one of the scariest parts. We marched through while I waved a “pirate flag”, a pink, zebra-striped bandana. It worked!

3. A Change of Scenery
We have a new ticket desk! We used to have a temporary movie theater-like booth. It is amazing to see how visitor interactions have changed now that we have a booth (they still think our exhibits are movies, though).

4. The Best Questions
This week I’ve gotten the best questions from visitors. Last Friday, when we opened the pirate exhibit, I had two young visitors (under 10) ask me about cannon. One had been reading the exhibit text and wanted to know where the letter A was on the trunnions, and then asked what a trunnion was. I didn’t know, but was able to tell him later. My second young visitor asked me how cannon are fired. It was AWESOME. I don’t get to hear questions from kids that often (one dad even discouraged his daughter from asking me a question the other day because I “don’t know anything”.) so I love every kid interaction I get. And if you engage the kids, the adults then follow. We also had an event where tour guides from an area company visited the museum. It was fabulous. I got so many great questions!

5. Bringing History to Life Through Craft
I found the American Duchess blog in my freshman or junior year of college through the first project, an 18th century inspired owl costume. I’ve followed the blog sporadically since then, but I love how it brings history to life through scholarship and craft. I know I’m not the only one that loves the new trend focused on vintage and “what’s old is new” and with a little steampunk thrown in there, too. I love this trend because I see the potential for history education inside of it. Plus American Duchess sells really awesome historic reproduction shoes. And I normally don’t care about shoes at all, so this is high praise coming from me. Granted, I haven’t bought any, because I don’t do costume work, but if I did, I know where I’d go.

What have you been finding in museums?

My Museum Story

It dawned on me the other day that I haven’t told my own museum story.

I grew up in museums, parks, and nature centers. I have memories of the routine I had when we visited the National Museum of Natural History here in DC: dinosaurs, prehistoric ocean, discovery room (had to find the bats in there), insect zoo, mummies. This was all before I turned four. I remember showing my grandpa the prehistoric ocean exhibit when I was about seven, and I know that by then I knew a good part of the museum by heart.

My parents both loved history and natural history. It rubbed off on me pretty quickly. By the time I entered elementary school, I knew most of the parks, nature centers, and museums already. My favorite time period was (and still is) the 18th century.

Museums started becoming an occasional thing when I reached middle school and through high school. I was a counselor and a nature center volunteer. My favorite animals were owls, and I was considering wildlife biology as a college major.

College started off with almost everyone I knew telling me that I needed to major in something useful. Instead I took classes in the Honors Program that were interdisciplinary and amazing. I discovered owl symbolism in Bosch paintings and went to NASA and museums. One field trip in particular changed everything. First we went to the Smithsonian African Art museum. Then we went to the Natural History museum. After I helped us find our way, my professor turned to me and said, “Wow, you know this place really well, don’t you?”

That was my turning point. I knew museums. I loved museums. I realized that maybe there was a job for me in museums.

A semester later, my adviser introduced me to her friend, a museum educator. We talked about her discipline, and I found a map to a place I never knew existed. I was required to volunteer at a nonprofit for a class. I volunteered at a museum. By spring I declared my majors (art history and history) and I applied to intern at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History. I didn’t have a specific department, all I knew was that I wanted to help people find history the way I did.

I was accepted. I was going to work in visitor’s services. I’m very shy at times, so I was very worried. My first day I was given the object that changed my career path: an “Ask Me” button. When I wore it, I wasn’t shy. I worked on my skills, but I didn’t need to work hard. I found my niche.

Three years later, I’m a visitor’s services rep in a medium-sized museum. I love my job. I wake up happy to go in, and I go to bed exhausted but happy I was there.

Let’s talk about the myth of the “useful major” for a second. I was going to be useful to society when I started college. I planned on majoring in education, both elementary and special ed. After each semester, I used to volunteer in a family friend’s classroom. The teacher needed an extra pair of hands, and since no parents were able to come, I was those hands. The emotional weight of what those little kids were going through was too much. I worked in the best school system in the state and one of the best in the country, and we dealt with hunger, homelessness, parental drug abuse, and overcrowding. Going home every day in tears is not healthy. I want to help stop everything that is wrong in our school systems, but maybe interacting with the kids outside of school is just as important. So I didn’t major in something “useful”, and of my friends with “useful” majors (mine was the only unuseful one), I’m one of two with a paying full time job in my field. I know education majors that still don’t have jobs because we have too many teachers. I greatly admire what they do because I cannot do it. I give people directions and get kids excited about their world. I’m pretty sure that that means that my job is useful, right?

So that’s my story. It didn’t take much to get me into museums, but it took a little more to convince me that it was ok that I decided that helping the world is more important than my pay grade.

Friday Finds (#5)!

I have had a very rough week in my personal life, so this will be short, sweet, and to the point!

1. Singing in a Bird Exhibit
We have an exhibit on birds right now, and it’s great. Unfortunately, it’s not great for kids under 5 without a LOT of adult supervision. We had 60 under-5’s visit today, and it was soon a mess. I led the kids in singing songs about birds, and we went on a “bird hunt”. It was fun, but I really, really need to reacquaint myself with my under-5’s materials.

I highly recommend keeping songs in your back pocket for circumstances like this one.

2. Keeping Magic Alive
Have you seen this video from the National Museum of American History? I love the way that they keep magic alive and have tie-ins to museum objects and careers! What a fabulous project!

My boyfriend and I went to the Botanical Garden (next to the Capitol Building) yesterday and found fairy houses in a hallway. They’re intricate and beautiful and subtly magical.

What have you found in your museum his week?

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