Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Torture museums and public history

When I posted recently on the use of scold’s bridle in early modern England, a number of you commented that you felt as chilled as I did when contemplating the role these devices played in the brutal enforcement of gender and class order. Several of you also mentioned you had seen these devices in museums in the UK and Europe, and that set me off on another train of thought.

On the one hand, it’s essential that museums, as educators and interpreters of public history, tell the full story about the past even when it’s unpalatable for the tourists. But on the other hand, I can’t help but be disturbed by the gruesome voyeurism and the titillation that is sometimes enabled (and even promoted) by museums. It seems that as cash-strapped museums struggle to make themselves more appealing to the tourists, the temptation to go for the sensational in the quest to make a buck may just be getting to be too much for some of them.

Something like the London Dungeon is probably an extreme example that, judging by the way it promotes itself, happily blurs the line between museum and ghoulish entertainment. The Dungeon urges schools to “Put aside the textbooks, bring the past to life and give your class a history lesson to remember with a visit to the Dungeons! … Our teams of live actors blend carefully researched historical fact with outstanding special effects to provide your class with an exciting, educational and unforgettable journey into the depths of history that is, above all, seriously scary fun!” Not only that, but with the Dungeons Resource Pack, teachers can “Take history's horrible bits back to your classroom and allow your pupils to build on their new found knowledge and enthusiasm. …Combine the Dungeons' usual dose of interactive fun and gore with national curriculum topics of study.”

The London Dungeon’s shtick promotes a vicarious experience of London’s ‘dark underbelly’, complete with the usual relish in displaying medieval instruments of torture and recounting the ‘fun history’ of sexual sadists like Jack the Ripper*. As another example, the organisers of this major touring exhibition of historical torture devices don’t baulk at promoting the titillation factor, promising, “Students too, will have the chance to satisfy their curiosity on … Tortura’s more flashy and fleshy attraction.” Can you imagine if this same sensibility - or rather lack of it - was applied to museum representations of more recent history? Say, Cambodia’s Killing Fields or Srebrenica? No? So why does it seem perfectly acceptable to make slick ‘multimedia entertainment’ out of it just because the victims and perpetrators lived in the ‘distant’ past?

I hate seeing topics like the European witchcraft persecutions and the Inquisition treated in ways that cynically exploit our seemingly insatiable desire for images of violence and torture as entertainment (images that are often sexualised in highly problematic ways)**. I certainly don’t believe museums should avoid or sanitise topics like this. But whether they succeed in making people think more deeply - both about the past and the present - or merely give passive viewers a cheap thrill depends very much on how things are presented. Put into their wider social, political and cultural context, such subjects can be powerful prompts to question the forces that shape individual lives and wider society, both historically and in our own time. But too often, these types of exhibits never rise above gratuitous displays of torture implements, presented shorn of all context and achieving little but to elicit gasps of voyeuristic horror.

As museums begin to utilise new technologies to make their exhibits more interactive and engaging (read, more effective at competing for the tourist dollar), I think this is going to become a much more sensitive issue. When you replace dusty old glass cases and typewritten index cards with fully sensory, 3D experiences, the line between education and entertainment is bound to get even more blurred. I think that is going to make it even trickier for museums to deal
appropriately with the dark side of history.

** As an aside, Judith Walkowitz’s The City of Dreadful Delight does a fine job of locating the Jack the Ripper episode within its much broader and more complex historical and cultural context of class conflict, sexual politics, racism and the role of the media in Victorian England. It’s a scholarly work (careful footnoting of sources, full bibliography etc.) but Walkowitz’s clear and dynamic writing style also makes it very readable for the layperson.

** Do a Google image search on ‘inquisition museum’. I rest my case.


Academic, Hopeful said...

I hadn't really considered this properly. Thanks for the post. I avoid grizzly museums and ghost tours etc I guess because I find myself not being able to engage with them. I just look at the artefacts and scan the text without actually attaching them to any story or schema in a meaningful way. I find myself terribly bored. I rush through and can't wait to get outside again. This post made me think about the experience in another way.

RPS77 said...

I'm not sure whether I should find the picture with the Museum of Medieval Torture Instruments sign directly above the McRib sandwich sign very funny or somewhat disturbing.

Anonymous said...

It's interesting to think about how old history has to get before people stop taking it seriously and either ignore it or see it as a source of entertainment. I've been thinking about war and remembrance (not the bad mini-series!) because of the time of year and blog posts about "poppy fascism". Why is it that we have to respect those who saved us from Hitler and Wilhelm II, but not those who saved us from Napoleon, Louis XIV or Philip II? I don't think it's necessarily a linear thing which declines over time, because some people in Britian seem to be getting more sanctimonious about the First World War.

With torture as titillation, I think that getting history presented more seriously is only half the battle because the meanings that people find in museums will still be influenced by their own prejudices and by wider culture. If the London Dungeon became as solemn and moving as a Holocaust museum it might just lead to a smug sense of superiority about how far we've "progressed". What might be really effective is a display which juxtaposed early-modern horrors like the scold's bridle with examples of how women's speech, conduct and appearance are still regulated by society today. But conservatives would say that was "biased" and "anachronistic".

Anonymous said...

There is a big cultural difference here too. I have a post brewing that compares Czech bone chapels (which are way off my personal comfort radar) with the furore in the USA over native American graves and also with the trouble over where the bodies for Gunther Hagens's Bodyworlds exhibitions came from; this seems very germane and I'll link it in. The edges of the taboo on death and horror are unfortunately profitable (though they'll never beat the profit margin of the taboo on sex).

Bavardess said...

Thanks for your thoughtful comments.
Gavin - I have problems with the 'remembrance industry' because remembrance seems to be getting tied more and more closely to a form of exclusionary nationalism that I find unsettling. In New Zealand and Australia, there has been a marked increase in the number of young people attending ANZAC dawn commemorations. The media generally reports this as a positive sign that 'kids are learning to respect their elders', but I think it may be just as much about trying to re-establish the boundaries between 'us' and 'them' in the face of globalisation and an increasingly multicultural society.

The London Dungeon wouldn't bother me so much if it was billed as pure entertainment - that really wouldn't make it any different from horror movies or video games. It's the pretense it makes to being educational, and even to having a role in the school environment, that gives me pause. You're right about the temptation to whiggish smugness, though. Perhaps an exhibition that includes both the ducking stool and waterboarding would be instructive?

Tenth - that post sounds interesting. I find bone chapels macabre but at the same time quite beautiful, because human bones themselves are very sculptural. The chapels (and those late medieval transi tombs, which I love) also confront us in a very visceral and immediate way with the reality of death and our own mortality, which is something many of us in westernised societies try so hard to avoid in our day-to-day lives. But as you say, there are big cultural differences at work here. For example, I think I'd be intrigued rather than disgusted by the Body Worlds exhibition, but I'm sure that's at least partly to do with the fact that I attach no religious or spiritual value to a dead body. Where people do attach such a value to bodies or body parts, I believe that needs to be respected but it's interesting to see how that gets negotiated when it conflicts with the perceived interests of science (or indeed, of 'progress' and development. But watching the film 'Poltergeist' was enough to convince me you shouldn't go around digging up old Native American burial grounds!)

Ink said...

Oh wow. What an interesting museum! I was discussing the Iron Maiden in class yesterday and secretly remembering that where I'd learned about it was at the uber-cheesy Ripley's Believe It Or Not museum in San Francisco...

Digger said...

If you call it "history" or "educational" then it makes it ok to stare at the horrors! Plus, you can encourage schools to bring their students to places exactly like the Dungeon... there is lots of $$ in school tours, don't forget each large bus holds around 45 people! Plus, they come during the weekdays, when traffic from other sources is virtually nil.

There's a fine line, I think, between edutainment, sucker-ism, and exploitation.

Bavardess said...

Ink - I remember the Ripley's from a trip to Florida as a child. At that time, they still had the 'hall of freaks' (animal, human and faked up animal-human hybrids), which gave me nightmares for months afterwards.
Digger - yep, there is way too much money to be made here for people to treat it ethically and the fine line is getting ever finer all the time.

Anonymous said...

B: Oh, yes! I was petrified by the hall of freaks! And by the torture display, too. That whole museum gave me the creeps, actually. :)

And Digger, love the coinage "edutainment"!