Museums and Not-Museums

I really, really like museums. My favorite part of museums is the fact that they have like five hundred things, all going on at the same time. There are the exhibits, then there are the stories behind the exhibits, then there are the research methods and modalities that go into the exhibits, then there is the visitor experience of the exhibits, then there is the sociopolitical reasons why some things are on exhibits and some aren’t, and it just goes on and on from there. I’ve read some good things by Donna Haraway about museums, and then I haven’t-read some things by my Facebook friend Katie King not about museums exactly, but about other things “like” museums — I think she writes about re-enactments of historical things and television specials; the library doesn’t have her book exactly but I’m almost positive that re-enactments and television specials are a “thing.” (I don’t actually know how to analyze or critically think about ANYthing. But I can usually determine if certain things are “Things” or not. It does not an easy life make.) They don’t seem to take negative views of museums and re-enactments exactly, but there’s definitely an element of “the museums weren’t actually IT. The museums are a display, or re-enactment, of things that happened.” There’s a subtext of “it’s somehow NOT actually what happened. Of course this is true, it has to be true. Putting together a museum or a re-enactment, we’d decide what was important, what to emphasize. This was most clear in Donna Haraway’s article about the nuclear families of the apes and monkeys; we like to think of nuclear families and so that is what we represent.

“What if it WASN’T a museum,” I thought, “what if it wasn’t a historical re-enactment, a television special. What if there wasn’t a curator exactly. What if no one to narrate. No explanation? A pile of things tossed into a field. What would be the difference between that and, for example, an antique store. An estate sale. What if you came across an abandoned house or an abandoned factory or an abandoned anything and walked around inside of it. So is THAT a museum. Or if not, then what?” Obviously, I had no idea what any of that would look like. Even in an estate sale there’s usually someone to put prices and histories onto everything.

If there are other re-enactments available. Other displays. What if the viewer just got raw material of some sort, or is there any such thing. Then I was on vay-cay in Whistler, British Columbia. I love vay-cay, I work so much. And Whistler is a gorgeous, expensive, little resort town about two hours north of Vancouver, BC. Most of its main development came in the 1960’s when some businessmen got together and thought it would make a fantastic Olympic venue, and got right down to work. In 2010 they got their dream. Winter Olympics in Vancouver; the sliding events and some of the skiing events in Whistler.

After the 2010 Winter Olympics, they left the sliding center open. I Youtube’d it and they’d torn down all the bleachers in the center of everything, but the bobsleigh track was still there. You drove up to a desolate mountain area and parked in a huge empty parking lot and got out and walked around the track. For $89 Canadian you could sign up for an “Olympic bobsleigh experience,” where you got 58 minutes of orientation and safety and training, and then 2 minutes of riding an actual bobsleigh, down the actual track, and then helped out at the end.

They had the announcer voice going and everything. The announcer announced it as if your team was actually a real bobsleigh team, announcing “clear the track” and announcing your team. It was just this desolate field with this haunting announcer voice, and then every hour on the hour, a bobsleigh hurtling past. On the Youtube videos, there are fantastic blue drapes surrounding the track and now, four years later, those drapes are still there but tattered and faded; up close you can see how hastily the whole thing was put together; boards and cheap metal and cheap nails. Out in the middle of the field there’s one of those winner’s podiums, you know. Where the winners stand on the tall, medium and short boxes to indicate the first, second, and third-place winners. Big yellow grasses growing all around it.  The podiums were actually all plywood and cheap metal framework. Haunting and sad. I don’t know if that’s actually the answer.

I was traveling with my mom. I usually travel with my mom, because she tolerates the strange things I’m interested in. We’d considered booking the Olympic bobsleigh experience, but then all the tickets were sold out. We watched a bright-red bobsleigh hurtling out of the chute, around the bends, and then up onto the rises that stopped them. Then the creepy announcer’s voice. My mom looked around at the track, at the dried grass, at the plywood winner’s podium thrown out into the field (it wasn’t even chained down — who’d stop someone from just stealing it?), at some tourist bobsleighers walking triumphantly down the hill after their run. “It does look fun,” she said, “but I’m not sure if it’s worth $89. I guess for the thrill of it.”

“Yeah, for the thrill,” I said.

“And for the respect,” she said. “You know. The respect. This is the actual Olympic course. Maybe people SHOULD pay a little more.”

“Yeah,” I said. Maybe…was that the thing missing? The respect? Literally they were giving tourists rides down the bobsleigh track. Even with the orientation and safety training, the tourist’s times were at least double that of the Olympians. There was something totally wrong about this whole thing, and no way to figure it out.


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