Thursday, October 30, 2008

Life In The Freezer

Back to Christchurch, then.
We dropped the car back at the airport, surreptitiously standing right in front of the newly-formed dent in the back of the bumper where Louise had reversed the car into a wall the night before.
Standing in front of the golf ball-sized stone-chip in the windscreen, however, wasn't an option, as this would have meant splaying myself across the front of the car like a starfish. And that kind of thing just attracts attention.
Fortunately, the Antarctic Centre was only stones-throw away from the drop-off point, although by that point if anyone had have mentioned the words "throw" and "stone" to me, I wouldn't have been best pleased as the broken windscreen ended up costing me $350.
So, The Antarctic Centre then. Now I've visited a lot of museums over the years, so wandering round I felt an overwhelming sense of "same old-same old" wash over me. You see the centre succumbed to a few of the banal museum-cliches. So, cue the Fluff Freeman music pop-pickers, for here's what Museums do wrong.
What Museums Do Wrong........
10. In at 10, the misapprehension that putting things behind glass automatically makes them more interesting. To make them even more fascinating, why not shroud them in darkness, and have visitors press a chunky button to illuminate the exhibit?
"Ooh I wonder what it is" (presses button) "Oh, a sepia photo of a quarry. Wow, didn't see that coming!"
9. New entry at 9 - shonky Marks and Sparks mannequins half-heartedly dressed in appropriate/period attire like some pikey Madame Tussauds, whilst an out of work "ac-taw" hams it up via concealed speaker, opining on the subject of wiping Edward II's arse or something, with a BBC special effects LP clattering in the background like it was recorded in an airing cupboard. Grrr.
8. In at 8, walls and walls and walls of writing. No one has the time or inclination to read what amounts to a chapter of history book. If they did they'd go around nailing Simon Schama books to the wall.
7. Down from 9, it's out of date technology. Flashing LED lights, green screened monitors, chunky Acorn Electron-style keyboards all seek to reinforce the fustiness and anachronistic nature of the exhibits. Anything that looks like the set of Blake's 7 is not good.
6. In at 6, barely-audible looped VHSs, burning themselves out on a 1980s TV in a deserted corner of the museum. People always miss the start, and are not exactly compelled by the bloke with big sideboards and leather elbow patches wandering through marshland pointing, whilst Dr Who-esque primitive synthesiser music buzzes in the background.'ve run out, but you get the general idea.
The Solution
We live in the information age. The internet can provide in-depth video, audio and text for anyone interested in any subject. So the museum must provide more: They must provide true interactivity and real experience. They must provide sensation and immersion.
I'm not singling out the Antarctic Centre in particular as, in fairness, it did go someway to addressing these issues:
First the Storm Chamber. Clad in an oversized Arctic jacket, we were ushered into a freezing frieze festooned with fake snow, where the temperature was slowly lowered to -8c, before the mighty fans started up, lowering it further, through windchill, to -18c. I felt like a freezepop, but it was an experience you would have been hard pushed to recreate in a library or sat in front of your PC.
Second, the Hagglund - a Swedish-designed, double-trailered, tank-tracked exploration vehicle. The Hagglung was advertised as providing an authentic Arctic experience on specially prepared hostile terrain adjacent to the musuem.
Better Than A Volvo
Louise sat this one out, so myself and Claire (an Auckland friend who had recently relocated to Chch) clambered in. It was only after we'd bought our tickets that we saw the warning sign saying "you must be fit enough to brace for impact".
By the time I was being rammed and slammed against the pointy metal interior and by the time the vehicle was powering down pyramidial mounds of earth at breakneck speeds, creating that stomach-churning drop felt during aeroplane turbulence, and by the time I remembered I didn't like rollercoasters, or anything like a rollercoasters, and despite the Geordie drivers alarmingly calm commentary about how explorers spent 5 hours straight in this thing spanning crevasses and tipping right over on their side, and by the time we submerged door-high in ditchwater, it was too late.
I was hoping Claire's rictus grin was also one of mild panic, echoing my own "why did I think this was a good idea?" sentiment.
But despite the fact I'd just spent the last 12 minutes violently lolling my head from side to side like Stevie Wonder in a Sherman Tank, it was an experience that could not be created elsewhere. And above all it was authentic - a window in to a different world. Literally virtual reality.
And that's what I want from a museum.

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