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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.

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