Teaching the manatee to leap

Manatee_1 I am on Vancouver Island, visiting my sister.  Yesterday we went to the Royal British Columbia Museum in Victoria.  What a pleasure.  Somehow they found a way to make the manatee leap.

The RBCM is full service museum, bugs to rugs, natural history, history, and anthropology, all at once.  The historical creations of 19th century British Columbia are particularly good, as the visitor walks through mining sites, train stations, saloons, street scenes, all wooden, scaled down and in every respect accessible.  It is an unapologetic exercise in artifice.  We are not asked to suspend disbelief.  But the past returns to us with many of its tell tale wrappings in place, and this really do help us to understand what it is we are looking at.

And when you start to examine RBCM artifice, you see how masterful it is.  This museum can "scale"  from exquisite minatures and object constellations en bas, to rooms, buildings, and landscapes above, with a precision and agility of those + and – buttons on a Google map.  The curatorial story does not scale quite so beautifully.  But it’s close.  Light and sound are wonderfully manipulated.  The dioramas are eye-popping.  The "animating ideas" are really animating. 

Mostly, what you see here an absolute devotion, intensely hard work, real intellectual and manual effort, and as sincere an investigation of the curatorial possibility as I think I have ever seen.  Having worked in a museum, I know how hard it is to summon and sustain this level of professionalism.  The museum is strewn with opportunities for bloody mindedness.  There are the gold plated incompetents, the too-sensitive-for-this-world curators, the status hungry adminstrative staff, the union louts, the work-to-rulers, the cowardly and risk adverse.  If a great sports team "always finds a way to beat you," these institutions always seem to find a way to lose.  ("And they call Alabama the Crimson Tide.")   There is no real competititon.  There is no real punishment for second best.  There is just a long slow descent into mediocrity. 

To find a museum this good  suggests an X-files episode.  What in God’s name can have happened here?  What mystery virus or extraterrestrial intervention?  But no, the signature skill and intensity of this institution is everywhere on display.  It can’t have come all at once or from afar.  It’s built right in.  This means that this museum found a way to bring in the right people, to give them the right resources, and to protect them from all the ways a museum can manatee its way through the world.  Remarkable.

What makes this really heartening is that too often museums seem like Canada in little.  Canada now endures gold plated incompetents, the too-sensitive-for-this-world, the status hungry, the union louts, the work-to-rulers, the cowardly and risk adverse.  This is a nation that specializes in passive aggression and bloody mindedness. 

Museums, that is to say, seemed to capture the spirit of the nation but not at all in the way intended.  This is the Museum as Dorian Gray portrait, showing the worst of the nation, not its best.  But here at the RBCM something remarkable is on display, and I left with new hope for the nation.

2 thoughts on “Teaching the manatee to leap

  1. dilys

    IMO the most interesting question of our time. What is the environment, the script & presuppositions that drive real life in the real world under stress and demand to perform with excellence, creativity, and stamina? When there are so many incentives, or at least no penalty, to go numb and perform badly.

    It’s clear to me the obverse, in most government undertakings (including public schools), is in wide-screen display. So that more pay, perks, even prestige, wouldn’t allow the creative and excellent to flourish very long.

    A smart, busy, personable, public-spirited man of my acquaintance was willing to run for a community college board. After a couple of exploratory meetings, he sadly reported the dynamics and other players were deployed so that nothing useful would be accomplished.

    On another, funnier note, I just heard that a group of nuns administering a major enterprise in my city have a way of getting rid of bad employees: they hide a St. Michael medal in the non-performer’s office, in homage to the Archangel’s having driven the bad angels out of heaven.

    Better than some Human Resources measures. Maybe the museum has a mojo-emitting object for that purpose.

  2. Grant

    Dilys, oh, that’s perfect, driving the bad angels out of heaven, let’s get this on the corporate agenda. And people said there was no place for religion in the boardroom! Thanks, Grant

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