In amongst the sailing boats, skeletons, swords and other sea faring ephemera, that form the current exhibitions at the National Maritime Museum (NMMC), are three or four small, easily overlooked boards which pose some very interesting questions about how we view the world and the academic processes that document and display the animals, plants and objects within it.
How we name things tends to influence how we think about them subsequently.
Therefore, it’s important that we trust the people who name things and the ways and means by which they come to their conclusions.
Consequently, it’s important that museums and scientists are true to processes of academic rigour and that facts are checked and re-checked before opinion is delivered. By this means, such institutions acquire trusted status. Following on from this, when museums then take exhibits and put them on public display, the same objectivity needs to be applied.
For the NMMC, this is interesting, as its current blockbuster exhibition, Monsters of the Deep, includes a big section on Cryptozoology, a pseudo-science which seeks to use documented historical folklore as evidence for the existence of cryptids such as the Loch Ness monster.
In fairness to the NMMC, this part of the exhibition sits next to a ‘counterbalancing’ area devoted to the means of scientific research. I’m sure kids loved the thought of cryptids on the loose in the ocean, but does the inclusion and prominence given to Cryptozoology in this exhibition give it a legitimacy over and above the accepted methods of scientific research backed by direct observation and data recording?
If you were curating objects for a museum, what would you choose and how would you make decisions about what to include? Ultimately, wherever there is choice, there is the risk of bias or lack of objectivity.
Add to this, other issues respecting collections which contain objects from other parts of the world and the ethics of retaining or displaying these items.
Clearly, collecting, curating and exhibiting is a minefield.
The NMMC responds to these issues by concluding that museums are not neutral spaces and that their role is to provoke thought and debate.
I think it’s been successful.