False military origins
Posted: 22 February 2018 08:34 AM   [ Ignore ]
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Yesterday I visited the newly rebuilt and re-displayed National Army Museum in London. Knowing as I did that it was redesigned by a “museum person through and through with no military background” and that it had finally managed to achieve its long-term goal of shedding everyone on the curatorial team who actually had any specialist knowledge of the subject (I’m not joking; in the New Museology, specialist knowledge and interest in a museum’s subject matter has fallen so far out of favour as to be considered a positive strike against a curator) I didn’t expect much in the way of accurate and insightful captioning, so wasn’t unduly disappointed.

I was a bit taken aback, though, to see a display panel about ‘how much army life has contributed to our everyday language’ in which, among the 29 words and phrases listed, were these 6 doozies:

Plonker: a shell landing in a trench
Scoff:  Senior Catering Officer Field Force
Souvenir: French word picked up by soldiers in World War I
Thingamajig: a baffling technical device
Wimp: Whinging Incompetent Malingering Person

and finally, our old friend:

Whole 9 Yards: kit laid out for ceremonial occasions

There’s simply no excuse for those, since a quick look at the OED blows all of them out of the water. Should they be attributed to the work of CAMMO (the Campaign for Artificially Manufactured Military Origins)?

[ Edited: 24 February 2018 06:07 AM by Syntinen Laulu ]
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Posted: 22 February 2018 06:45 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 1 ]
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Agreed Syntinen!

It’s so exhausting to trace these idiocies down.

Good on ya!

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Posted: 23 February 2018 05:52 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 2 ]
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Awful! I expect such things out of the mouths of museum docents, who are usually volunteers and have to fill up their spiels with something, but having such idiocies appear as part of an actual exhibit is inexcusable.

[I moved this thread from meta to general discussion.]

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Posted: 24 February 2018 06:05 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 3 ]
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[I moved this thread from meta to general discussion.]

Ah, that’s why it took so long to appear! Sorry, I don’t know how I managed to do that.

Awful! I expect such things out of the mouths of museum docents, who are usually volunteers and have to fill up their spiels with something, but having such idiocies appear as part of an actual exhibit is inexcusable.

Sadly, on account of the said New Museology, it is increasingly common in the UK. These days the ‘old model’ of museum display, which was predicated on the idea that the curators knew something about the collection and should select and arrange items from the collection in order to inform museum visitors, is now not merely old hat but actively decried as elitist; the idea now is that curators shouldn’t try to disseminate knowledge, rather the museum simply gives visitors an ‘experience’, to which they can ‘respond’, and draw from it whatever they want, and that their ‘responses’ to the displays, and what they make of it, is as valid as anything else could be - even if what they make of it is demonstrably factually incorrect. And if that is your thinking, how could it possibly matter if your own display panels contain demonstrable untruths?

If you think that is overstating the case, try this article in today’s Times:

Birmingham Museum defends exhibition of ‘evil’ British Empire

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has defended an exhibition that has been accused of giving the impression that “the British Empire was unfailingly dreadful and uniquely evil”.

The museum said The Past is Now was a “test laboratory” with outside activists allowed to decide the “tone of voice” of the presentation. The curators include Abeera Kamran, a graphic designer, Sara Myers, a cultural activist, and Shaheen Kasman, a textile designer. They wrote the information boards that say that the “relationship between European colonialism, industrial production and capitalism is unique in its brutality”. Another panel takes to task Joseph Chamberlain, one of the city’s most famous 19th century sons, who “is still revered despite his aggressive and racist imperial policy”. One board blames Britain’s “hasty” departure from India in 1947 for “trauma and misogyny” while another states that “capitalism is a system that prioritises the interests of the individuals and their companies at the expense of the majority”.

Janine Eason, director of engagement at the publicly funded Birmingham Museums Trust, said it was no longer possible for museums to be neutral. “In the past we have attempted to give a neutral voice but given that people’s histories are different that is very difficult and, I would argue, it is not possible for a museum to actually present a neutral voice, particularly for something as multifaceted as stories relating to the British Empire,” she said.

One visitor, Ross Fenn, a gallery owner, said that the “public want to keep their trust in museums by believing they are being given unbiased information. You wouldn’t want an exhibition on evolution with curators who were creationists or a Holocaust exhibition if the curators were all Holocaust deniers.” The overriding impression given was that the “British Empire was unfailingly dreadful and uniquely evil”, he added.

Ms Eason said she was trying to “find ways to democratise the museum”, to “find new ways of engaging and serving the young and multicultural population of Birmingham which essentially owns the collection we care for”. She said it did “intend to provoke”, adding: “We don’t want people to be hurt or upset but there is an argument that people might be upset about how stories were presented in the past”.

I would write to the NAM and point out the errors (not that I suspect they would care much, for reasons aforesaid) but I don’t feel I can, because my husband is a museum curator in London (though not an exponent of these principles, I’m happy to say), and any waves I make might make life difficult for him if anybody connects me with him.

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Posted: 24 February 2018 06:56 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 4 ]
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Janine Eason, director of engagement at the publicly funded Birmingham Museums Trust, said it was no longer possible for museums to be neutral. “In the past we have attempted to give a neutral voice but given that people’s histories are different that is very difficult and, I would argue, it is not possible for a museum to actually present a neutral voice, particularly for something as multifaceted as stories relating to the British Empire,” she said.

Neutrality isn’t necessarily a desired goal. What should be desired is objectivity and accuracy. Take a hard, cold look at the facts, as best as they can be determined, and then develop an interpretation and presentation based on them. If people challenge the interpretation, that’s all to the good—that’s where diverse voices and viewpoints come in. But if they challenge the facts, somebody has made an error.

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Posted: 24 February 2018 09:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 5 ]
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Syntinen Laulu - 24 February 2018 06:05 AM


I would write to the NAM and point out the errors (not that I suspect they would care much, for reasons aforesaid) but I don’t feel I can, because my husband is a museum curator in London (though not an exponent of these principles, I’m happy to say), and any waves I make might make life difficult for him if anybody connects me with him.

Someone else might want to do it—and possibly include a reference to this thread, if the thread participants agree. Whether or not it is included, it might well turn up in a subsequent Google search by an employee of the institution assigned to ascertain the facts of the matter, so I’d advise you to edit your post if if it’s decided to notify them.

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Posted: 24 February 2018 12:44 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 6 ]
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I thought for one moment that this was a new title for the old Imperial War Museum but I see to my pleasure that the IWM is still thriving, I have fond childhood memories of it, as also of the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the BM itself. London is certainly blessed in its museums.

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Posted: 25 February 2018 12:46 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 7 ]
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I thought for one moment that this was a new title for the old Imperial War Museum but I see to my pleasure that the IWM is still thriving, I have fond childhood memories of it, as also of the Science Museum, the Natural History Museum and the BM itself. London is certainly blessed in its museums.

It survives, yes, but has not been unscathed by the New Museology, either. It also has had a massive revamp, in the course of which the new director suggested getting rid of the two 15-inch naval guns outside the entrance, though fortunately a public outcry put a stop to that. However, they have done what all modernising museum types do to a military museum - take half the objects (and 95% of the uniforms) off display, and jumble the objects they do keep on display up together, not separating items from different eras or theatres of war. Then don’t caption them - or rather, put a little panel of captions in the middle of the room, so that if you want to know what something is you have to walk right away from it to try and work out which of the captions on the panel refers to it. This is to discourage you from seeking actual information, and allow you to “respond” to the object.

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Posted: 25 February 2018 06:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 8 ]
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Good lord, what an appalling situation.  Presumably it will pass like all earthly things, but will the museums outlast it?

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Posted: 25 February 2018 09:12 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 9 ]
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How do people relate to non-sequential history? They get it all wrong.

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Posted: 25 February 2018 11:24 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 10 ]
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I reckon the whole thing is an artefact of post-structuralism plus left-wing levelling. If by definition there is no absolute truth about history, then Joe and Joanne Public have as much right to decide what the subject is ‘about’, and what the exhibits ‘are’, as the professionals; and all the professionals should do is create a stimulating “experience” with a good café and child-friendly spaces, and let the visitors “respond” and “create their own meaning”.

The problem is that they haven’t really explained this to Joe and Joanne Public, who still go into museums obstinately presuming that the curators have an in-depth knowledge of the subject and the objects (quite untrue; these days curators expect to move every few years, and in right-on museums an excessive interest in the subject matter is seen as downright unprofessional) and that the captions will generally be true in so far as the truth is knowable.

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Posted: 25 February 2018 08:29 PM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 11 ]
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I reckon the whole thing is an artefact of post-structuralism plus left-wing levelling. If by definition there is no absolute truth about history

This is the popular and wrong description of post-structuralism. That school of thought* doesn’t deny the existence of objective truth; it only states that we always interpret that truth through the systems of knowledge that have been created to study it. Only by studying both the object and the systems of knowledge surrounding it can we effectively study the object in question. In other words, our knowledge of history is conditioned on the interpretations of the historians who have come before us. Derrida, Foucault, et al. weren’t advocating doing away with those systems of knowledge—they would have thought that silly and impossible, not to mention counterproductive—they just said we had to recognize and understand those systems.

But that doesn’t mean the new museum curators aren’t bonkers.

* = “school of thought” gives the movement more organization than it actually had. It’s really a set of loosely related ideas.

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Posted: 26 February 2018 12:30 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 12 ]
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Pretty sure that denial of objective reality is the domain of the political Right these days…

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Posted: 26 February 2018 06:38 AM   [ Ignore ]   [ # 13 ]
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It’s not anyone’s exclusive domain.  T.S. Eliot had us pegged:

Go, go, go, said the bird: human kind
Cannot bear very much reality.

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