Tuesday, August 11, 2009
Personae and Voice at the Smithsonian
Last Friday I took the Metro from Maryland into D.C. to visit some spaceships and dinosaurs. We don't have free museums in Chicago, so I wanted to get my fill of gratis peeks into the past and the future before heading home to the land of the $12 admission charge. I wish I had thought to bring a notepad. But I was only in the market for some gazing at gnarly bivalve shells, nasty-looking trilobites, and graceful crinoids. I didn't expect to find a museum wing full of little illustrated texts, or rather, one big text. An installation text, if you will! (You don't have to.)
The paleobiology wing was divided into not ages or epochs, but acts, like a play. The personae dramatis were introduced as if they were taking the stage, and at the end of each act we said goodbye to the extinct heroes of the previous epoch. The little plaques flowed together nicely across the millions of years, all keeping with the "play" package, but never stooping to cheesy references to the structure itself.
Even more impressive than the clever format was the clarity, surety, and overall voice of the prose. The first longer plaque I read gave me a tingly feeling, like it was something I would try to write if I knew anything about ancient coral species. Not that my prose is worthy of being preserved at the Smithsonian, but my point is this science writer (perhaps a scientist, perhaps a writer, maybe both) could write unlike a scientist, and unlike a museum collections manager. He or she wrote like a writer.
So seldom does one find a real "voice" behind those plastic descriptive squares that I was quite taken aback. Someone was telling me the story of how oysters learned to cling to their shells, and how nautilus formations evolved to prevent snails from being washed across the sea floor. The writer even used simple literary devices like repetition and alliteration to keep the descriptions fresh and readable. Bivalves burgeoned, grazers were greeted, and snails refused to become "backsliders."
I was charmed and enthralled by this little drama, and I found myself looking at those empty shells, saddened by their pending doom in the tale, and trying to imagine what it was like to be a snail 100 million years ago. Then I realized that sea animals don't know when they're living, and I tried to imagine being an animal without time. So well written did I find this semi-creative text, that exhibits which would normally only hold my interest for a few moments, and which I would look at in no particular order, had me riveted and engaged in the story, wanting to know what happens next.
The voice was speaking scientific facts. I took this into consideration. Can a voice speaking conjectures, emotions, or ideas have the same kind of quiet conviction? The descriptions at the art museums seem to point to "no." Every one of them attempts a criticism of the art it is describing, almost always unsuccessfully. (See, I keep talking about the description as doing the work, because it doesn't even seem like a human wrote it!) Perhaps if the art writers stuck to the closest things they have to facts (materials, dates, schools, contemporary issues), they could weave a better tale about the blobby Twombly painting or the Jeff Koons bathtub monstrosity. Or maybe not. Art begs criticism. Whereas the science writers only need to talk about what they know to overwhelm the visitor with true information, the art writers have to add some widely held critical views to fill up their plastic squares.
I have always found museum descriptions of paintings, specimens, dioramas, whatever, to be tedious. The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History's Paleobiological wing was an amazing departure from mediocre writing and a creative way to present a huge volume of specimens that span unthinkable time periods.
Now if only the "description writers" at the art museums would take a cue from this kind of museum work, and make their collections more approachable and intelligible to a skeptical public by weaving a tale, or at least writing a little better and refraining from bad criticism. They like art -- you'd think they would have thought of a creative way to put a collection into a text before the scientists could! But I'm confusing art and literature again. Leave it to the art curators to sort the paintings. Perhaps, once that's done, they should call in a writer to describe them. (Wait -- is the description even necessary?)