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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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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!

Wonder

[Post edited to add missing content]

Pete: What is that?
Mrs. Frederic: An invitation to endless wonder.

Warehouse 13, season 1, episode 1, “Pilot”

When Mrs. Frederic invited Pete Lattimer to join her team of Warehouse agents in the first episode of the television series Warehouse 13, I don’t believe that she was describing the job, the stress, or the hours. I don’t believe that she was talking about the artifacts (objects) that could influence minds and effect bodies just because of their previous owners. I don’t believe she was describing the team that would develop through Pete’s influence. I don’t think she was even talking about the somewhat magical, somewhat creepy Warehouse 13 interior.

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I believe she was talking about the essence of Pete’s proposed job — finding those magical artifacts. The act of finding things, learning something new, fills us with wonder.

This is what I believes draws us to museums.

Saturday, 1/12/13, 10:00am

He was about seven or eight years old and was wearing a hat pulled down over his ears and a dark coat. His skin was a chocolate brown, and his voice was soft and sweet. His first question was “Will we be able to see the man fly and listen to the inventors on the phone this time?” His mother told him and his sister that they had to pay attention to the film because it was important for the context of the exhibit. I immediately liked this family, especially the boy who asked the questions. He wanted to know all about what was going to happen. He was preparing for endless wonder, and he hadn’t even started the exhibit.

I ran into the family again when I moved into my new position within the exhibits (I rotate every hour). Although I was not required to, I had decided that it was the perfect time to start one of our family programs, or drop-ins. I let all of the families in the exhibit know what I was going to do and started.

My young friend and his sister were the only ones paying attention. It soon became the three of us talking about the important parts of maps, although my new friend had decided that he really wanted to know about astrolabes. Soon, it was just the two of us. My friend gave me another fact about astrolabes, and I decided to tell him a secret: I had one in the back closet, and I was going to go get it to show it to him.

“Rule Number Four: Never lose your sense of wonder,” Laurie R. King’s voice of Sherlock Holmes states in her short story (and companion to her fabulous Mary Russell series), “Beekeeping for Beginners”. Wonder is the only word that can describe the little boy’s first sight of the astrolabe. I let him hold it, and we talked a little while about it, but most importantly, I listened. When he (reluctantly) left, I gave him a homemade quadrant we used in our programs. We had more, and I had made that one myself. Others could be made and found. I walked away from the experience also full of wonder. All I could hear in my head was Why don’t we do one-on-one work more?

I don’t work in a school. I don’t work in a library, or a camp or a church. I work in a museum.

My museum is unique. We don’t have a permanent collection and we don’t have educational staff. I work in visitor services, and most of my job consists of giving directions (in particular to the bathroom) and selling admission. My goal is to work with children like my young friend, who I realized early on was probably on the autism spectrum, given his lack of personal space, eye contact, and absorption in a single topic, who might not learn well in classrooms but might learn well in museums. I want to bring children and adults who can’t access education normally to our museums. I want our museums to be open to their needs.

The little boy that I worked with didn’t need an educational program like the one I was supposed to be doing (lesson and craft). He was smart and his mother was amazing at guiding her children through the museum. What this child needed was a friend to listen to him and ask him about his favorite topic. No judgement, no pressure for a right or wrong answer. What if friends like this were found at every museum? I’ve seen and interacted with a number of boys and girls like this. One boy told me about a train wreck that he knew about. I later guided his parent towards museums that did have trains that he would enjoy. It wasn’t part of my job, but I did it anyway. I also spoke to a young man that was very curious about my thoughts on the Titanic movie. It was a regular conversation to me, but when he walked away, I understood the look of joy on his mother’s face as she watched us from a nearby corner. Her son was physically disabled. I never saw anyone else interact with him that day outside of his family. I broke the trend, just by doing my job.

The original museums were called cabinets of wonder. They held objects collected from all over the world. What if we used our museum collections in the same way, as collections of wonder? What if we shared our wonder with others, as the three visitors shared their wonder with me and I shared mine with them?

I am a typical “new” museum employee: a female, 20-something WASP that wants to change the world.

And then I meet children like the little boy who preferred astrolabes to GPSes, and I am reminded of what brought me to museums in the first place: wonder.

When I sell tickets to our visitors, they do not know what they will see. I don’t know what they will get out of our exhibits, our objects, or my coworkers. Instead, my only hope is that when they enter our exhibits, they will see what my little friend saw: endless wonder.

Let me invite you, as Mrs. Frederic did, to join me on a journey of endless wonder.

Good luck, and welcome to the museum.

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