Mystique and the computer in the museum

Everyone’s favourite Reasonable and Interesting yet Mildly Controversial classicist, Mary Beard, has said something else Reasonable and Interesting and Mildly Controversial. She reckons computers should be banned from museum galleries.

But actually that’s not the important part. In fact, the “computers should be banned” bit is just the throwaway remark that got it into the Telegraph. She approves of some of the things museums have done to attract children, like sleepovers in the mummy room at the British Museum which she thinks would have excited her as a child, but the main nub of her complaint is this: “Part of me, a very very tiny part of me, thinks that some of it’s a bit patronising, and some of that old mystique and glamour of the museum has a little bit been lost with too many bloody labels and buttons to push.”

So really I think she is talking about directed learning for children as a whole, whether it happens to be via an elementary computer program or a pasteboard of text. Hence mummy room sleepovers are in, words on screens are out, even though both emerge from modern approaches to museum curation. I’m not an educator or a cultural heritage professional of any kind so please correct me, but I imagine it is not controversial that directed learning is different from whatever internal process you might go through when staring unprompted at an object. You can, of course, stare at a parsimoniously labelled pot in a spartan, tech-free gallery if you like. But whether you do so as a dumb mammal wondering what the splodgy red bit is or a post-processualist reflecting on the social life and cultural perpetuation sequence of which the pot is a part depends entirely on how much knowledge you have prior to arriving at the glass case.

Is Beard really in a position to state, from her own vantage point on the latter shore, that it’s a good idea to maroon children on the former? What’s wrong with a bit of “mystique” while you’re young to draw you in to a subject, you might say. Well, “mystique” is another word for “wonder”, and I have many reservations about how useful wonder is as a quality for a museum to curate, especially given the variable starting points of its audience. Do children really value mystique the way we think they do? Mystery does not seem to be a commodity in short supply for them. Everything is baffling and mysterious, the meaning of the road sign and the intentions of the fluffy chick as much as the provenance of the Roman pot, which is why they ask so many bloody questions. If they don’t get answers, whether from a computer, a label they can read, or an interested adult, they’re likely to move on to something else. In the absence of any of those things (and we all know the third category are unevenly distributed), you risk losing them altogether.

Surely it’s adults who truly value rudderless wonder. This is because for the most part we’ve forgotten how to do it, and we like being presented with things that give us a little of that sensation of being six years old again. We have context for it, and we know we can, on very slight investigation, escape its frustrating state. Mystique is one of those things that’s fun in retrospect, a bit like it’s fun to be a pagan animist now that we don’t actually believe the forest is out to kill us, or the early uncertain stages of love are fun to think back on when you’re giggling at Downton Abbey with a takeaway. I suspect there is limited utility, for younger visitors to museums at any rate, in the curation of mystique.

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