Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Article repost - Theme parks with old stuff

Theme parks with old stuff
Leigh Dayton
From http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/printpage/0,5942,18226303,00.html (Higher Education)

HERE'S a quick question. What appears in your mind's eye when you recall a childhood visit to a natural history museum? Dinosaurs, an Egyptian mummy? Maybe a moon rock or a case filled with creepy crawlies?

For me, as a southern California kid, it's sabre-toothed tiger skulls at the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. They're quickly followed by visions of dusty dioramas at the LA Natural History Museum which displayed stuffed animals alongside spear and basket-wielding Indians.
Dated? Yes. Tacky? Unquestionably. Effective? You bet. When it comes to grabbing the attention of children, there's nothing like the real thing. That holds true even in today's world of interactive experiences. There's something compelling about an honest-to-goodness object that can never be replaced by hi-tech gimmicks.
Of course, yesterday's displays need rethinking. What's new, scientifically? How can the significance of this fossil or that ancient tool be better presented? Can old objects stir new meaning? Can collections and expertise shine light on debates, public or scientific?
Still, rejuvenation isn't an excuse to lock away objects in the 21st century equivalent of a 19th century cabinet of curiosities. After all, that's what museums are, collections of curiosities, objects that are studied and displayed. Museums show us our world and help us consider our place in it.
Even those ageing cabinets and antiquated presentations are part of the story. Look at the Victorian cabinets and galleries of the country's first natural history museum, Sydney's Australian Museum. They reflect a 19th century passion for collection and observation that culminated when Charles Darwin boarded the Beagle.
And speaking of Darwin, old exhibits can sometimes tell a new story. The AM, for instance, recently dismantled its evolution exhibit, Tracks Through Time. The plan is to make way for a new dinosaur exhibit. Nothing wrong with dinos. Nothing wrong with spring-cleaning. But look at the timing.
The long-running exhibit, widely used a teaching aid, was ditched just as American-style creationism in the guise of intelligent design is gaining ground in Australia.
Surely, the exhibit could have been rejigged to good effect. After all, last year even then federal education minister Brendan Nelson muddled scientific theory and religious belief, deliberately or otherwise.
"Students can be taught and should be taught the basic science in terms of the evolution of man," he said. "But if schools also want to present students with intelligent design, I don't have any difficulty with that. It's about choice, reasonable choice."
Choice? The mind boggles. The point here is that the out-with-the-old attitude can be a tempting siren to new administrators, anxious to make their mark. It also fits neatly with another plague on our houses of science: bottom-line leadership. You know the buzz words: benchmarking, accountability, external funding.
It's the type of thinking that turns museums into products, ones that must compete for the entertainment dollar. Long gone are the days when a museum visit was a public good, paid for from the public purse, and knowledge had inherent value.
Frankly, I'm weary of politicians whose penny-pinching ways are forcing museums to become razzle-dazzle fun houses, places where cash and customers are separated at the ticket wicket, gift shop and in-house cafe; where visitors are encouraged to make donations and take out memberships; where galleries are hired out for functions, catering included. Where's the wonder? Where's the science? For that matter, where are the scientists? Right now, the AM and the University of Sydney's antiquities and natural history museums are getting a shake-up that leaves researchers at other institutions wondering if they're next. The cause of the anxiety is a well-meaning, but misguided exercise in managerial best practice.
For instance, new brooms at the university museums are sweeping staff out the door, while AM bigwigs are squeezing research scientists into administrative pigeonholes, regardless of their expertise and reputation. If, say, your work on trilobites doesn't contribute to museum-wide goals, it - and possibly you - won't be supported.
Surely, this kind of thinking is back-to-front. We're talking creative institutions here, places where people are as much a treasure as are collections of skeletons, beetles and bronze figurines. Scientists, as with collections, may have been acquired in an ad hoc manner, but if they're good so what? A museum isn't a theme park. It's a place of ideas and inquiry. It's a cultural institution. It's part of an international web where quality counts. Back the best and you'll reap rewards. It's obvious.
Or is it? In January, Dennis Tourish wrote a piece for the HES headlined Management Bent On Worst Practice. Although he was writing about Australian university management, it could easily have been a piece about the new crop of museum bureaucrats.
Tourish's point was that managerialism - defined as "the wholly unreasonable conviction that those at the top always know better than those they manage" - is creating problems, not solving them. How true.
That's why leading universities - and museums - build organisational structures to serve their people, not vice versa.
Case in point: the La Brea Tar Pits. The haphazard display of my childhood is gone. Visitors now enjoy sophisticated exhibits, a gift shop, gardens, theatres, the lot.
But best of all, scientists are still pulling sabre-toothed tigers out of grubby pits of oozing tar. It's fantastic and it's free.

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