Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Site 6: Museum of London

July 14, 2008

"What do you think of when you hear the word, 'prehistoric'?"

That's the question that Jon Cotton, Senior Curator in Prehistory at the Museum of London, poses to visitors. His answers run the gamut, from dinosaurs to images of cavemen (club in hand, loin cloth strategically placed), to fictional -- i.e. Fred and Wilma, as in Flintstone. Rarely do people suggest what Jon hopes, prehistory referring to a time before written records.

I must admit that when I think on the term "prehistory," I am not on Jon's wavelength, but Steven Spielberg's, unfortunately; watching Jurassic Park a million times at the age of eleven will do that. But even without the aid of Hollywood special effects circa 1993, dinosaurs have been linked to the very idea of prehistoric. And it's arrogant to think so, I know, but I hold these thoughts nonetheless -- history has always seemed to begin with us. As a human concept.

Even Jon concedes, however, that prehistory is a relative definition. It depends on where one is, in place and time, to be treated in a specific context. Ancient Egypt relied on stylistic pictography, Hieroglyphics; but for Australia, formed several hundred years later, prehistory is everything before Captain Cook. And if we are to view prehistory in the sense that written records determine history, what do we then make of places such as Hawaii and greater Polynesia, oral cultures? Did English-speaking missionaries bring, along with religion and language and a much stricter dress code -- did they bring history to these islands? There is no simple answer, neither should there be, and I'm afraid I must move past my pondering.

Back to Jon Cotton, everyone. He has much more interesting things to tell us, and it's too early in the morning for philosophy anyway.

Jon greets us at the entrance to the museum, which we found our way to by walking up a staircase and crossing a bridge, leading us to a large, mirrored sign: MUSEUM OF LONDON. (I am highly gratified by very large signage, something I've never stopped to appreciate before, and something which the British appear to despise.) It's clear at first glance that the Museum of London is the most modernly designed building we've seen so far -- "modern" being determined by the fact that it's made of glass and clean lines and no plaques stating its Tudor/Georgian/Victorian origins (I'm no architecture buff, it's no secret). Inside, we're ushered into the Learning Room, where a PowerPoint presentation is at the ready.

After spending the past week breathing in the dust of ancient tomes, it's a bit weird to be back at a "regular" lecture. But easier on my feet, certainly. Jon's lecture isn't my typical presentation, however, and he is different from every other scheduled guide -- in the fact that he is not a librarian, and he is not showing us a library collection. As the senior prehistory curator, he's learned more than a few things about museums; and we as budding librarians, aren't so far removed from what knowledge he has to impart.

Most visitors, Jon begins, are interested in three time periods: Roman London, Tudor/Stuart London, and Victorian London. Curiously enough, prehistory hasn't cracked the top three, maybe even five, but Jon has plans to change people's perceptions, one exhibition case at a time. He wants to replace the "caveman image" with something more positive, something tangible, and perhaps, something even accurate.

We're shown an image of a man. He has a lot of facial hair and anguish going on. But apart from a few suspicious facts we're privy to, like that he's been frozen for 5,000 plus years, he could easily have been mistaken for a mountaineer within the last century, his frustration born out of having run out of trail mix. The caveman image, that indeterminate time between creeping out of the primordial sludge and drinking it in the form of corporate coffee, isn't so pronounced. This man could be anyone, from any time. He's had his battles, to be sure; the tools found with him, as well as the five types of blood found on him, oh, and the arrow struck in his back -- these give a greater, if still mysterious, backstory. Prehistory isn't so hard to picture when we can see it, and come to think of prehistoric peoples as individuals.

Putting history out there on a personal level is what Jon sets out to do, especially in his exhibit "London Before London." On the upper level gallery (the ground level being closed for renovation -- swiftly eliminating the Tudor/Stuart competition! Oh, and for the good of the museum, I suppose), Jon takes us to the start of story. We've seen the PowerPoint on it: the Museum of London, having grown from a private museum attached to Kensington Palace, then moved to Guildhall Museum for the city of London itself, finally standing in the city for which it holds its history. The museum houses London's history as well as prehistory -- half of a million years of human activity before the Romans even set foot ashore.

The Thames River, more than a natural landmark, is and has always been London's defining trait. Used for travel, for sustenance, for religion, for political intrigue or fashion, the Thames stands as evidence of the power of place. The effect landscape has on the way people organize themselves as a society. Using the Thames as a running theme in the exhibit is such a perfect creative move, it seems the only choice that could be made. (This is one of those times that, in the face of something so right, any trace of coherent articulation leaves me. I'm just glad Jon and company are the ones in charge to think of the smart ideas.)

But -- and there almost always is a but -- ideas are one thing, and execution another; the consideration of space, and how to work with what's available, makes the need for creativity to some extent, bend to its will. The space Jon was alloted wasn't terribly large (nor was the budget), but design and organization make the finished product flow. Key pieces are chosen to display: a video at the entrance, artifacts found in the river, examples and models of dwellings, interactive stations for tool-making and quizzes, et al. Being panel-dominated, the exhibit requires visitors to do the work (i.e. read). An inventive choice was hiring a design firm which normally works for retailers. Repeating a storefront experience in a museum is a subtle piece of change, not only to transition visitors into learning, but to transform museums too, and the way they teach.

So, after all my typing, the big question remains, and it has nothing to do with prehistory (I promise). What, for all Jon Cotton's words of wisdom, does this relate to libraries? While in a different way, and dealing with different objects -- although some of them just as fragile and rare -- libraries want to share and display our collections too. We select books to recommend, we come up with themed events, we make our libraries spaces where people feel welcome to study and learn, and to appreciate. Presentation is key in very much the same vein. When we put ourselves in our patrons shoes, what do we see, what do we expect? Do we think dinosaurs -- or do we think, maybe cavemen deserve another shot?

The Museum of London homepage
London Before London exhibit

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