The first part of the second part of my first day (the first part of the first day – great naming conventions, I know, can be found HERE) was dedicated to exploring the ethnographic / anthropological collection which turned out to be one of the most engaging and emotional exhibit spaces that I had been in for quite some time.
For the sake of brevity I will go through the exhibits in blocks and discuss some of the elements which really stood out to me.
The Staircase of Evolution
As you traverse down the stairs towards the archaeological exhibits you come up close and personal with “The Family” – incredibly lifelike sculptures of Lucy, a Flores Hobbit and a Mesolithic woman to name but three. Punctuations in the railings allow you to wind your way between these reconstructions – an oddly personal and involved experience which instantly alerts you to the fact that this museum will be about humans, their stories and the objects they created rather than simply a showcase of the objects alone. It is this way of setting up and weaving narratives which are based in the diversity of the human story that links so much of the museum together and really sets it apart from many other spaces or exhibitions which I had seen.
Above the staircase are viewing glasses which allow you to gaze at members of “The Family” – turning a knob on the side starts a camera path, initially zooming in on the reconstruction in its museum environment, before slowly elements of a reconstructed past begin to fade in, building up to a full reconstruction from which the camera zooms, pans and tracks around important elements of the scene before flying back out to allow the museum to fade in once more. This process of showing each of the hominids as an individual person, who has a story, that is part of a wider ecological, economic and intrapersonal entities is masterfully done and incredibly powerful.
These figures from the prehistoric era are joined, at the top of the stairs, by living relatives – Stephen Hawking (British Physicist), Paul Gurromurruwuy (Aboriginal Australian) and usually Galina Ainatgual (Chukchi), though at my time of visit she was being refurbished! These three modern humans offer their thoughts on what it means to live and die on this planet – three stories which are hugely diverse, but linked together through the shared human experiences of life and death.
Ethnographic Exhibit Space – The Life of the Dead
The ethnographic exhibit starts with gases dedicated to the death and ritual masks of Papa New Guinea – the dark space is filled with a faint, omnipresent drumbeat which is superceded by the occasional rattle of a higher toned percussion or the barely audible chant – these intermittent noises fade in and out in time with spot-lighting around the exhibit cases, directing your attention and disrupting your gaze as you move around the space. It’s uncomfortable and unnerving at times to be disrupted and directed in this way – though as you work your way around the exhibit, reading the information panels, the theatrical and on-edge nature of the space begins to make sense – the objects you are engaging with occupy the contested, frightening and transitional space between life and death, warding off the evil to protect the good. In other words – the exhibit itself reflects and supports the contexts and uses of the objects on display in an incredibly embodied way.
As you shift to another cultural zone the entire feel shifts too – to a brightly lit Christmas setting, celebrating and commemorating loved ones in the Australian Aboriginal community, to the individualised houses (a workshop, a garden, a sewing room and a disco floor) commemorating and exploring personal Danish responses to the passing of loved ones, to the vibrant world of the Day of the Dead. Each of the areas was expertly crafted to contextualise the objects on display to the humans they were important to and the stories they were trying to tell.
In the Day of the Dead section you engage with the sugar skulls, feasts and altars before being invited to dance with the dead – a hilarious, uplifting and enjoyable experience which differs so significantly from the preceding room where the experience of death was much more intimidating and confusing. A room further down and you come face to face with a 3D scan of an artists head, on one side filled with life, the other exposing reconstructions of her skull and brain, taken from a CAT scan. The room here is covered floor, ceiling and walls with mirrors, allowing you to reflect on the artists memento mori as well as the parameters and expressions of your own mortality.
I am a self-confessed museum hater – my general perception being that they tend to be graveyards for “stuff” rather than places of impact, engagement (other than via forced fact-based learning) or emergent meaning. The former not being problematic per-se but (in my humble and very pessimistic opinion) being easily attainable through a screen, page or plain tutorship thus negating the need or enjoyment of such establishments. I am also really awful and awkward with people, meaning my enjoyment of anthropological or ethnographic material is usually rather low. But both of these prejudices and barriers flew out the window in the Danish “experiences” room in the ethnographic exhibit at Moesgaard – to the point that I had to seek a few minutes in one of the beautiful “break-out rooms” to wipe away a couple of unexpected face-leaks (tears)and contemplate my own experiences and understandings of the objects, themes and most importantly – the people – who I had encountered in this space.
My moment of reflection came as I walked through one of the metal frames and began listening (in Danish so I admittedly only understood every 2nd word, which was enough to get the gist) to the story of the house which was told through an embedded audio speaker – the young woman began talking about her memories of her (maternal) grandmothers (fascinating tit-bit of linguistics is that the Danish actually have a word for identifying which grandma or pa you are talking about, in this case the mormor) house and the way which she felt she lived on in the objects and stories she had left behind – in turn my attention was directed to the texture of the carpet, the position of the windows, the smells of the oak dresser and the soft recordings of her grandmothers favourite songs – each of these acted as anchor points to talk about the emotions, memories and stories associated with them. As she spoke I began to realise that the metal frame I had walked through was a house frame and all the details – the wood smells, the textured carpet, the minutia of the house was what I was standing in, looking at, smelling and touching. There was a profound sense of connectedness – that whilst I would never truly be able to understand her experience, I could – through standing here in this house, through touching these things which were so important and through listening to her talk – share her moment and empathise. Each of the houses highlighted how different our lives can be, whilst simultaneously providing a platform which bound the museum patron to the speaker in the house through the shared experiences of life and death, meaning, memory and narrative.
Concluding Thoughts For The First Part Of The Second Part Of Day 2
Everything in the museum is linked through shared themes and experiences – shifting the focus from the standard gaze on the objects to the humans, stories and experiences which created, cherished and lived with them. Parts of the exhibit were unnerving, parts were celebratory and parts were contemplative. It was an experience which offered learning and engagement through the theatrical and the personal rather than through the normative or the attempted objective. Whilst I agree that not all museums need to take this approach I did find it a thoroughly refreshing, engaging, emotive and connecting exhibit.