Digital Museum Fictions

I’ll give a spoiler alert for this post because, although I have no intention of giving away important plot elements, I am going to talk about Interstellar and I don’t want it to be ruined for anybody here!

I really enjoyed the film on many sci-fi levels, but I was surprised to come across a museumified house in the later part. The house was very much like a heritage centre with screens showing video interviews with contemporaries of the house and the era it was meant to represent. What I thought was interesting was that the portrayal of this house was so easily recognisable as a museum.

The house which formed the museum was recognisable as a 21st century house (in the film a late 21st century house, perhaps) although the museum was present in a 22nd century context. The intention may have been to demonstrate a particular museum style to a 22nd century audience. There are current examples of this, such as the Victorian gallery at Salford Museum and Art Gallery which attempts to display its artefacts and artworks as they would have been arranged in a Victorian context. This cabinet of curiosities approach is an interesting way of showing us how museums used to be, but it does run the risk of invoking all the power structures and biases of (in Salford’s case) the Victorian era; without adequate explanation, the visitor will find their engagement with the exhibition limited to a bygone representational context, preventing alternative perspectives on the artefacts or multiple interpretations.

The Interstellar house museum is surprisingly low-tech. Video screens are pretty commonplace today and of course there are a number of more sophisticated media options now available. If Christopher Nolan orchestrated that museum representation specifically then it would seem that his message is that museums will not use much in the way of digital technology in the next few decades. It seems more likely that the museum representation had less attention paid to it than the rest of the film  and, as such, perhaps we can say that perceptions of museums from outside the heritage industry are that museums are not actually very progressive. What does it mean if it seems realistic to a Holywood production team that museums of the future will not incorporate interactive screens, holograms of previous occupants or virtual tour guides?

On the other hand, there is much to be said for the phenomenological aspect of the museum in the film. The house is there to be experienced; walked through, smelled, heard, seen. Nonetheless this is quite traditional, with rope barriers reminiscent of National Trust houses. The interpretation, I feel, is closed and restricted by traditional museological approaches. The subjectivity of the video interviews on display seems to offer little when the subject matter of the house, and its significance to its previous owners, isn’t expressed or interpreted beyond simple display.

It seemed to me that the absence of digital media engagement was a signifier of how far we have yet to go for people to feel digital technology has a legitimate place in museums.

What do you think? Is it just a film?