Where: Helms Museum
When: Until 31 January 2013,Tue-Sun 10am-5pm
How much: 6€ regular, 4€ for students
I’ve always been fascinated with archeology, and I enjoy playing with Lego (when my son entered the “Lego-obsession-phase” he took me right along with him). Thus, when I learned that the Helms Museum’s new family exhibition presents milestones of human history rebuilt with my favorite bricks, I knew that we’d soon be spending some quality time there.
Nonetheless, I did not enter the museum’s premises with a truly open mind – frankly, I had already developed the working hypothesis for this article: How accurately can science be displayed when it is plastic-wrapped (pun intended) to merge with the commercial interests of a multinational toy producer?
This question derived from two of my own preoccupations: The first is a general tendency to mistrust the motives of big corporations, no matter what they might be pursuing. The other has its roots in my former studies in Egyptology and Anthropology, which refined my awareness of historical accuracy – a common effect on students in these fields, as they have suffered many common misconceptions over the course of time. So much for my prejudices.
The museum’s advertising poster offers an initial clue about the nature of this cooperation between science and marketing: A toy Neanderthal man holding a club. You may have no objections to this, as it complies with the still prevalent conception of these Hominids. But rather than being club-toting brutes, the Neanderthals were skillful manufacturers of quite sophisticated tools. I might have been willing to overlook this lapse in accuracy, had it been an isolated case.
Alas, a report about the exhibition on Hamburg 1 provided more food for thought: Do you believe the Viking warriors roamed the seas and oceans wearing horned helmets? Well, if so, you may want to reconsider – there is not a single piece of evidence for this common misconception. The museum’s director, Prof. Dr. Weiss, is well aware of these flaws. Nonetheless, the toy specimens are equipped with these items. Concerning the Vikings’ headdress, he explains that the Lego “Viking kit” includes these helmets and the museum’s visitors are familiar with this depiction (see: here). I found this comment to be baffling. Due to the difficult financial situation of museums, I can sympathize with their need for financially beneficial collaborations and I can understand that they need to lean toward such an investor’s agenda. Yet, I consider this concession too generous – to say the least.
The main reason I deem these misrepresentations so problematic becomes apparent when seen in relation to the exhibition’s educational approach: As an entertaining “gimmick”, the builders included some deliberate flaws, e.g. a lawnmower in the Hanging Gardens of Babylon or a werewolf in the medieval forest. Some of these objects are well hidden indeed. To find them, you need to scan the exhibits thoroughly -a good way to ensure that you take in as many details as possible. I love hidden object games, therefore I truly enjoyed this and applaud the builder’s creativity. Unfortunately, under the given circumstances, this playful bonus can lead visitors to conclude that everything apart from this information is accurate and thus deepen the imprint of aforesaid common misconceptions.
While my son attended to the proffered coloring pages (which, by the way, included horns as well as clubs), I spent some time eavesdropping on other visitors. Believe it or not, my fears were confirmed multiple times: Several adults told the children in their care about the fierce, “horned” Vikings. One grandmother even explained to her grandchild how a Neanderthal man used his club to slay mammoths. I cannot picture one or several humans with a maximum height of 168 cm successfully beating a mammoth to death (approx. height: 4 m). But maybe I just lack imagination.
What I can picture too well is a gloomy outlook on the future if this exhibition marks a new trend. The public eye may find it difficult to identify something (e.g. above mentioned humans) without its “characteristic” traits, but is not part of an archeological museum’s mission to enlighten the public about the actual conditions of past times? Where, if not on a scientific platform, can historical misconceptions and prejudices be overcome? And, to place the question outside of this specific box: If cultural or scientific institutions prefer to comply with mainstream conceptions instead of up-to-date research, what effect will this have on our education?
All cultural pessimism and critique aside, the exhibition is well worth a visit. A striking example of the time, effort and dedication professional Lego-builders put into their work, it is very rich in detail. The exhibits revive the day-to-day life of bygone times and ancient cultures in an adorable way, depict the construction of important monuments, and introduce visitors to historical themes generally considered common knowledge. A handful of archeological information at the side of the exhibits allows interested minds a glimpse at something authentic and reminds the readers that they are at a museum. The improvised Lego-store at the exit, reminded me that a museum is a business.
Raphaela was listening to the album ‘Gods & Monsters” by Juno Reactor while writing this article.