September 19, 2011

Out Of This World

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(This is the "lecture" I gave to the Arts in London class about the British Library Summer Exhibition)

Take a moment and think about your first science fiction memory. Is it Stargate in and of its three inceptions? Terminator? Honey, I blew up the kids? Men in Black? Lost in Space – either the original television series or the movie? The Twilight Zone? Battlestar Galactica – original or re-imagining? Sea Quest DSV? Buffy the Vampire Slayer? Futurama? The X-Files?

These are only a small portion of what has been created for view since the 1950s. The history of sci-fi goes back as far as at least the ancient Greeks and while it may seem that Britain and America have the monopoly on sci-fi many examples can also be found in France, Germany and Russia. Some of these examples pre-date what has been produced from Britain and America (Ashley 7).  So too does the ‘fan-fiction’ commonly associated with many mediums today. The Bronte’s, and their early stories, reflect popular characters of the time in new situations and new universes, outside their original cannon. This is only one example of ‘fan-fiction’ as numerous others can be found online with a quick Google search.

Sci-fi, as a term, was coined in 1929 by Hugo Gernsback as a way of increasing the public’s knowledge of what was scientific fact and what was visionary (Ashley 6). According to Roger Luckhurst, the sci-fi movement continues to become more and more mainstream compared to twenty years ago. Even so, sci-fi faces continued stereotypes of smelly, pimply teenagers in unfunny t-shirts who live in their parents’ basements and communicate in Klingon and Elvish.

Joe Cornish, responsible for Attack the Block (2011) notes “we’ve (the British) never been able to really do sci-fi movies with quite the same consistency that Americans do” even though Britain has produced Shaun of the Dead and 28 Days Later which, is aiding a revival of the medium. Admittedly, this is contradictory to the statement from Ashley; however, flux is a natural part of the medium. Cornish adds, “there is something particularly great about British sci-fi partly because you simply don’t expect it”.

“One of the key legitimations for science fiction is said to be its power to extrapolate, offering thought experiments in taking one scientific or sociological element of the present and speculating  on the futures that might develop from it” (Luckhurst). This placement of sci-fi can essentially be said to correlate well with the socially inclusive museum. Museums, also including libraries and art galleries, but from here, referenced singularly as museums, face greater pressures to re-characterise themselves than previously. Museums promote study; contribute to spiritual interest, and engage communities with social and civic values and the response of museums then, needs to be both compatible and appropriate. As Sandell (2002) argues, museums act as potential catalyst for self-determination within the community environment.        

Appadurai and Breckenridge (1992) examine the idea that museums, libraries and art galeries have the ability to create their own cultural biographies. Often though, these biographies are overshadowed by the conglomerates of cinema, sport and arena style entertainments. Individuals continually desire more information, more knowledge, and greater chances to transform their understanding of the world around them. This works well with “Out of this World” because it endeavours to be “populist rather than purist” (LC). The exhibit itself is extensive and does not restrict itself to any narrow confines but manages to prove a history and a context without being too academic about it (LC). Museums exist in a unique position, able to examine the preservation, suppression, distortion and demeaning of cultures. “What we wanted to do was avoid as far as possible the really pervasive images and look for things which would be relatively new at least to some of the people who came to see it” (LC).

Sci-fi on many levels is dependent on technology levels available, which then influences human action, choice and institutional change – ultimately, sci-fi is arguable about freedom (Vargish 323). What we need to remember, as participants, is “technology usurps and empowers simultaneously. It usurps authority at precisely the moment of empowerment and this paradoxical effect means that all serious discussion of technology must involve a discussion of values (Vargish 323). This space, occupied by technology and sci-fi, begins to define, in anthropological terms, the ways in which, we all villanise the ‘other’. This space leads us to create perversions, technological dystopias and a means of oppressing. George Orwell’s “1984” is an example of this. Throughout the book, little facets of what was beginning were inflated; CCTV, the one, all-powerful State. Elements of fear via lack of control of person and life were triggers leading to a new group of thinkers who desired to challenge this trajectory; much like others historically had done before. Can humans and technology work on a neatly duality of alliance and conflict. Will fear of technology influence the way we envisage our freedom and autonomy? (Vargish 324).

The idea of using Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” as an example is not new. Many previous examples exist, which examine the numerous tenants of humanity the story raises. An amazing accomplishment for Shelley who found inspiration for the book at 19 and saw it published at the age of 21. Would Shelly have wondered if, in the next century her book would be part of the undercurrent of popular culture, the developing technologies would aid her work in being produced on scales beyond those available in the early 1800s. I believe she knew her work was powerful, but whether she knew of “Frankenstein’s” continued popularity, is a ‘what if’ so popular and fascinating in sci-fi.

Before this becomes an unwieldy, philosophical debate, I want to constrain it to one area, or group. The museum, the library, and the art gallery. How can a display about science fiction be seen as inclusive? Perin (1992) writes that the construction of communication as sender and receiver in museums, underestimates the visitors’ capabilities, leading to stereotyping, impoverishment, and patronising exhibitions catering to a unitary public. Perin (1992) argues further that the communication, occurring between all participants, is not linear; messages and ideas originating in the museum are complex and the audience that views the exhibit, equally so. Visitors are not cultural blanks, untainted by information received from newspapers, movies, and nationalist political themes (Appadurai 1988).

Museums, libraries and art galleries need, then, to look at the types of visitor, age groups etc., which, are likely to make their way through an exhibit. Museums face greater pressures to re-characterise themselves than previously. The Hollywoodisation of the museum, and our increasingly shorter attention spans, means museums must work harder and smarter to keep the public’s attention placed on them
(Hooper-Greenhill 1994, 2006; McLean 2004). This re-characterisation of a museums performance could leave them in a perpetual void that is “ambiguous and indeterminate” (Turner 1977). Ideological notions of whom access should be granted to has not diminished in recent years and ideas of control and representation remain common themes and contested areas (Ames 1992). This leaves museums in a unique position, open to challenges and progression – moving away from Ames’ (1992) diagnosis of museums as ‘cabinets of curiosities’ and away from the air of exclusiveness held over the past few centuries (Bennett 1995). “We live in a profoundly museological world... our world is unthinkable without this extraordinary invention” (Preziosi 2006).    

In the context of sci-fi, the theory on visitors would be linked to the ‘nerd’ or the ‘geek’ population but it also includes men in business suits grinning at the open pages of Neil Gaimans ‘Sandman’ comics. It is the elderly gent having a ‘conversation’ with a computer – each letter carefully selected on the keyboard. It is women like me who discover they know more elements that make up sci-fi than originally thought and it is kids who think sci-fi is all Dr Who, Amy Pond, Sarah Jane, River Song, aliens and the Tardis. On this one level, it can be said, sci-fi has something for everyone.

Does this make an exhibit inclusive? At one level, the answer is yes. Museums have always been exciting places, filled with interesting titbits of history, containing the dramas, challenges, and joys of people’s lives in previous eras and act as accessible gateways for exploration and learning. Museums have also been a way to escape into romanticised versions of the past, free of the smells, diseases and other unpleasantness – a time machine of my own design. On another level, I have to say no. The exhibit is very niche and marketed at those who have an interest in the field. When looked at though, on the larger scale, the exhibit, viewed as a small part of the whole of what the British Library has on offer, the result is more promising. The last offering from the British Library, in the same space, was ‘Evolving English’; a small but exciting glimpse into the development of the language. Running in cohabitation with the current display is a smaller display on the lost novel of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – tying in neatly with the pending release of Guy Ritchie’s second Sherlock offering – not forgetting the BBC adaptation recently screened starting Benedict Cumberbatch (Atonement / Tinker Tailor Solider Spy / The Hobbit parts 1 and 2) and Martin Freemen (Hot Fuzz / Shaun of the Dead / The Hobbit parts 1 and 2). ‘Alice Through the Looking Glass’ is another favourite as are the Salvador Dali sketches, illustrating ‘Alice in Wonderland’.

Richard Sandell (2002) asks, “what kind of difference can museums make to people’s lives and to society in general? What evidence exists to support this view?” and Michel Foucault (2004) reminds us “we do not live in a kind of void…we live inside a set of relations that delineates sites which are irreducible to one another and absolutely not super imposable on one another”. Sandell (2002) also notes that some critics believe a museum cannot function outside the dominant narrative. The only way to achieve this, Sandell (2002) argues is for social and community examination of problems existent within their political realm and for the museum to ignore calls to be impartial observers as this is not a realistic expectation of them.

Where some museums and art galleries and libraries may struggle with social inclusion, like, many in Australia seem to, the British Library and others around London do not have the same challenges. It is a naïve expression to end on, but for my own personal reason, it must be said English history is so much more exciting. In the hyperbole of life and globalisation, it is the quaint, the odd, the fascinating and the scary, which will have the masses begging and coming back for.

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