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Bypassing Museums: New Blockbuster Mill in New York

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Tut Staircase at the 2007 showing of “Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs” at the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

Who cares if the Metropolitan Museum turned down on principle the chance to take on Egypt’s Tutankhamun and the Golden Age of the Pharaohs show?

So what if the Field Museum, citing financial belt-tightening, decided not to take Ethopia’s Lucy’s Legacy show, which includes the 3.2 million-year-old “Lucy” fossil.

Edutainment entrepreneurs are rushing in with evocative atmospherics and glitzy extravaganzas, where conventional museums fear to tread.

Just when serious, scholarly institutions have been obliged to cut back on big blockbuster loan shows due to the recession, along comes Discovery Times Square Exposition, a 60,000-square-foot space in the former NY Times building, masterminded by two for-profit partners, the Discovery Channel and Running Subway Productions. They will bring Lucy and “Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition” to their newly renovated digs beginning June 24. They are hoping to bring Tut to New York next year.

What is Running Subway Productions? It’s the local New York City promoter of Bodies…the Exhibition, the multi-venue corpse show produced and owned by Premier Exhibitions, Inc. Last year Premier agreed to a settlement with the NY State Attorney General, halting what the AG called the company’s “practice of using bodies of undocumented origins….All prior visitors to the New York City Bodies exhibit are eligible for a refund of the price of their ticket….The grim reality is that Premier Exhibitions has profited from
displaying the remains of individuals who may have been tortured and
executed in China.”

Here’s how Running Subway Productions describes its “philosophy”:

Running Subway re-imagines iconic entertainment properties with
universal appeal, thus capitalizing on strong brand equity and built-in
PR value.

I’ve written critically about previous incarnations of the misbegotten blockbuster-mill concept that refuses to die—briefly for Slate and at length for Art in America magazine.

When the Metropolitan Museum declined to be a venue for the currently circulating King Tut show, the museum’s then director, Philippe de Montebello, declared:

This is an exhibition being circulated by a group of artifacts arrangers, a commercial for-profit group [Anschutz Entertainment Group]. It is an exhibition that is dominated by lucre and the need to make make colossal sums of money for the…circulators and for the Egyptian Department of Antiquities.

As a business plan, in terms of what it would have involved for
the Metropolitan Museum to do the show, it would have involved making
an exception for reasons that we did not think were cogent enough—a
rule that we believe is right of not charging for special exhibitions.
We also like to have a certain degree of control and curatorial
oversight…and, all the way around, decided that this was not the
right thing to do.

According the the Discovery Times Square Exposition’s press release, the new 60,000-square-foot space in the former NY Times building will present objects “in dramatic immersive environments.” Alluring artifacts and scholarship just aren’t enough. Bring on the “interactive experience of learning through iconic subjects.”

We can only hope that the exhibitions’ labels and wall text, if any, make more sense than this statement in the press release by Tom Cosgrove, COO of Discovery Channel:

As the number one non-fiction media across the globe, Discovery Times Square Exposition provides a strong growth opportunity for us to extend our reach to the streets of New York City.

What does it mean, we wonder, to be “the number one non-fiction media across the globe”? I’ve always preferred to regard museum exhibitions as educational and cultural experiences, not “immersive environments” and corporate “growth opportunities.”

I just hope the new venue’s “exclusive retail shop” carries those must-have Tut Tissue Boxes!

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Speaking of crass commercialism, would someone please click my “Donate” button? CultureGrrl has lately reverted to no-profit status. I may soon resort to creating the CultureGrrl Merchandise Line—the poison pen, the hot seat?

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