marcus westbury

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Titanic the blockbuster exhibition: salvaging history?

June 21st, 2010 by marcus

THE Titanic: The Artefact Exhibition that arrived at the Melbourne Museum last week is the museum equivalent of the summer blockbuster in more ways than one. This Titanic show has more in common with a Hollywood movie or a Celine Dion concert tour than the obvious connection to the bloated boat blockbuster and the most irritating song of all time.

The exhibition — brought to us by the Victorian Major Events Company, Museum Victoria, Michael Gudinski’s Frontier Events and Premier Exhibitions USA — is one of many new corporate for-profit museum shows that walk a very fine line between museum exhibition and theme park. While great for attendance figures, they can raise some complex ethical questions for our public institutions.

Titanic is not alone. Now or recently touring the world, you will find another show from the same company featuring plasticised human bodies, two Tutankhamun exhibitions, a Princess Diana experience and so many Leonardo Da Vinci shows I’ve lost track of them.

All are the product of companies — in partnerships with everyone from cable TV networks, deceased estates, rock promoters, museums, and established collectors — which live and die by their ability to pull a crowd and the money that goes with it.

I have no doubt the Titanic exhibition will do that. It is a compelling experience. The combination of objects collected from the seabed, historical photographs, recreated elements of the ship and the personal narratives of passengers has a powerful impact. I was holding back tears at the personal stories behind a tragedy that has too easily become a cliche.

For museum attendances, it’s a positive. It is great to see that a museum can be both engaging and informative. It is great to see that a show such as Titanic can attract to a museum an audience inspired by a blockbuster movie.

A visitors’ book full of comments about Jack Dawson (aka Leonardo DiCaprio) indicates where the interest is coming from.

Yet the Titanic show in particular raises a deeper question about striking the balance between integrity and marketing, particularly when presented in public institutions. The commercialisation of the tragedy is a little uncomfortable — the sheer volume of tie-in marketing, souvenirs, and paid photo opportunities is designed to wring the last dollar out of the unwary Titanophile. But there are also some genuine concerns for the integrity of the show and the museum itself.

In packaging up the story of the Titanic, it appears as though the last crucial piece had gone missing somewhere. While the exhibition lauds the efforts of the company RMS Titanic (a subsidiary of Premier Exhibitions USA) to collect and preserve relics of the ship, the history of those actions is controversial.

Back in 1985, when Robert Ballard’s team originally found the wreck, they consciously chose not to disturb nor claim salvage rights. They urged all nations to protect the integrity of the site and to leave it undisturbed as a memorial. Only later did RMS Titanic step in and claim those salvage rights — a claim that was the subject of much controversy but was later upheld in court.

One Titanic survivor, Eva Hart, went so far as to accuse the company of “insensitivity and greed”, calling its officers “fortune hunters, vultures, pirates”. This last chapter in the Titanic story doesn’t rate much of a mention anywhere in the exhibition.

I don’t know if I share Robert Ballard’s and Eva Hart’s view about the salvaging. It’s a complex matter and there are plenty of precedents on both sides. What concerns me is the missing chapter. I would expect — at the very least — that the Melbourne museum would engage with and acknowledge that complexity. Every curator I’ve met is mindful of how artefacts come into their possession, and yet there’s no sign of that here. Unchallenged, self-justifying explanations about its “conservation program” are to be expected from a promotions and event company, but is less than I expect from a serious museum.

Blockbuster shows may bring huge numbers of tourists to Victoria and through our big institutions but would sit much more comfortably if there was not a niggling concern that we are stretching our integrity to accommodate them.

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4 responses so far ↓

  • 1 Esther Anatolitis Jun 21, 2010 at 10:39 am

    Absolutely. Thanks for this piece, Marcus – it crystallises a lot of my concerns about the role that agencies of government play, and the messages sent via their programming choices.

    Melbourne Winter Masterpieces is a large-scale marketing exercise to attract mass audiences to experience the imported work of artists with mass commercial appeal, or long dead, or indeed both.

    Commit that level of marketing spend on the richness and diversity of our independent arts, and what we’d see instead is a transformation in people’s perceptions and understanding of contemporary Australian art and culture from the Victorian standpoint. As well as investing in the sustainability of real working communities, current artistic practice and cultural development.

    With Titanic, we have public money fuelling the global circulation of the manufactured spectacle – an uncomfortable one at that. Why does the Melbourne Museum need to participate in this, and then present that spectacle as nothing but? It doesn’t make any sense – and nor will I be visiting to understand it for myself; I can’t conscionably fork out the ticket price to fuel that economy any further.

  • 2 Michael Jun 21, 2010 at 11:41 am

    As the opening paragraph notes on the exhibition website, the artifacts are from the debris field, rather than the ship itself. A particular of maritime law/lore, explored well here: http://www.anmm.gov.au/webdata/resources/pdfs/research_guides/ethics.pdf

    The other issue to note is that they have recovered approx 5,500 artifacts, two-hundred odd are in *this* exhibition. The remainder are in other duplicates of this exhibition. During the early part of the Melbourne run, there were 3 other versions of this exhibition running simultaneously. (Las Vegas, Ohio, Connecticut, and Dublin, San Juan and Louisville closed in the weeks/months just prior to it opening here).

    I don’t mind a bit of razzle-dazzle, and replicas/recreations are a vital part of contemporary interpretive technique, but once things start become somewhat cookie-cutter…

  • 3 jessedziedzic Oct 21, 2011 at 4:32 am

    I couldnt agree with you more…

  • 4 hello Nov 4, 2011 at 1:19 am

    This makes great sense…