Should museums provide opportunities for humour, satire, and irony?
I would argue that – under the right circumstances – they can and should!
Recently, one of my characteristically tangential conversations hit upon an intriguing idea; what if there were a temporary exhibition based on satire? More specifically, what if we created an exhibit centred around subtle humorous anachronisms, where nothing was quite what it seemed? It would not only be fun to create, but could also raise important questions about what we desire from visitors, and what the public expects from museum experiences.
I have encountered several museum spaces dedicated to the history and culture of comedy; the House of Humour and Satire in Bulgaria, the 2012-13 Carrying on “Irregardless” exhibition about humour in Aboriginal art at the Bill Reid Gallery in Vancouver, and Harlekinäum in Germany, a small gallery displaying works of humour and irreverence.
But what if humour were the fundamental curatorial philosophy behind an exhibit? Rather than observing, analyzing, and displaying comedy, could an exhibit become a satire about itself? Museum curators, educators, and interpreters already include opportunities for silliness and play for younger visitors – why not for adults too?
Comedian Jeff Wysaski recently played an April Fool’s joke on bookstore patrons by replacing book jackets and shelf tags with his own satirical versions. The prank was subtle enough to go unnoticed by less observant customers. What if museum curators and educators could use the same subversiveness and irreverence to promote better visitor engagement in their exhibits and encourage the public to give all displays more than just a cursory glance? My first idea for a potential satirical “artifact” was a beautiful illuminated manuscript with incongruous text, such Wu-Tang Clan lyrics or an instruction manual for a vacuum cleaner (the more unexpected, the better). On first glance, the manuscript would be indistinguishable from the medieval originals, and would require closer investigation to notice the joke. Thus, the exhibit would not only explore the role of satire in museums, but also encourage curiosity and closer observation among visitors. A virtual museum would be another great medium for this experiment, such as the Tumblr-based Gluten Free Museum I recently shared.
In her blog post on the subject, Nina Simon writes that most museums are “laugh-impaired” because humour inherently undermines authority and relinquishes interpretive control. Moreover, many of the topics presented by museums are of a serious or sensitive nature. Yet in the right circumstances, I believe a well-designed satirical exhibit could go a long way towards improving visitor engagement, inclusivity, and empathy – all of which are major challenges for many museums.
Should museums have humorous or satirical exhibits? Have you encountered any? I would love to hear your thoughts!