Relative Time – Why I love The Space Museum

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Image Credit: Philip Halling (CC BY-SA 2.0, Geograph)

Image Description: The National Museum of Wales

By Melissa Beattie

I’ve never been one to experience what some of my friends and colleagues have referred to as ‘museum overload.’ I have happily spent days wandering round museums all over the world and I’ve studied them as both an archaeologist and a media studies academic. So it probably comes as no surprise to you that I very much enjoy the First Doctor serial The Space Museum. While my favourite aspect, really, is Vicki getting to be quite Doctorish in helping start a revolution primarily in her/the TARDIS team’s own interest, I think what I’d like to draw your attention to, Dear Reader, is how the museum and the discourses surrounding it in the serial are presented. These fit broadly into three categories: time, colonialism and the ethics of display.

The first episode in particular involves the TARDIS team inhabiting a liminal space as they are offered a glimpse of the (near) future on a planet that is ostensibly dead but with a name that is very close to a word with temporal associations in several Slavonic languages. They can see but not hear or touch the various things and people they encounter. The one exhibit that has an infoplaque just gives its name and provenance; there is no context being given in the museum itself, the Daleks at the end of the serial notwithstanding. One can read this as an example of the limitations of many museums. Visitors see items in display cases but they are de- and recontextualised. An ancient amphora that was the equivalent of a modern tin is artificially promoted to an objet d’art in a museum because of the prevailing views about antiquity and rarity equalling cultural and monetary value. But this also objectifies the people who created and used the items, as well as any bodies who are included. When the Doctor says that those who ran the museum ‘thought we were worthy people to put in their space museum’, that can be taken in that sense of objectification and cultural/economic value.

This brings me to the next idea. The museum’s materials all relate to the conquest of a galactic empire and is on a colonised planet– the ‘achievements’ of their civilisation, according to the governor. The governor and his staff all wear white to the rebels’ black – the rebels being the now-adult slaves from a peaceful world whose parents were killed in the conquest and who were due to be shipped to other planets. This is a very thinly disguised metaphor for European colonisation and treatment of indigenous populations, something that writer Glyn Jones, a South African, would know only too well. That the museum itself is run by the governor, a ‘scientist’ who dehumanises everyone, reinforces this reference. Given that the serial aired in 1965, not long after the sun had finally set on the British Empire, and while current and former colonies were struggling in Africa and elsewhere, the symbolism would likely have been even more obvious to contemporary viewers. That the Doctor encourages the victorious indigenous population not to turn their backs on science, by destroying all of the items in the museum can be read as relating to this as well. This, however, positions the colonisers as a civilising force, with the association of science and civilisation, which does, unfortunately, express the fallacious European colonialist viewpoint that indigenous societies are less ‘advanced’ than European ones. Tor’s statement that such devices don’t ‘belong’ on the planet is also problematic, in that it suggests a reactionary xenophobia. While this can see to be the case in some former colonies, the reality is far more complicated than a reflexive rejection.

This idea of colonisation as expressed in and through a museum brings up the last point: the ethics of display. The coloniser showing off what amounts to war spoils is an expression of power and, as here, a way to constantly remind the conquered populace of that power; inculcating a learned helplessness in the conquered. This expands the recontextualisation which happens purely from a temporal remove into something that can be considered obscene. Showcasing the dead, embalmed bodies of the vanquished is, as Barbara notes, horrible. This is something that more modern museum studies tries to take into account, especially when there are living descendants of a given group. Accurate context of items, provenance and, critically, honest accounts of earlier dehumanisation and trying to humanise people of other cultures in the museums are critically important. The ideal way of doing this is with the consent and assistance of any living descendants – the case of c̓əsnaʔəm, in Canada, is a wonderful example of a collaboration between museums and a First Nation to contextualise materials within the Musqueam culture. While this serial does not go so far, that they illustrate the point that museums contain the remains of actual people (in this case, our friends in the TARDIS) does reinforce the point.

Thus The Space Museum expresses many of the contemporary discourses surrounding museums, colonialism and the British Empire. In many respects it anticipates much of the academic discussion in museum studies and related fields about how best to contend with a past we cannot touch, speak to or hear; one that we have, more often than not, badly mishandled.  A museum is always a liminal space where visitors can get a glimpse of different places, peoples and time, mediated through the present moment. The interpretation of the past is, as always, far more dependent upon the present than anything else. Time, after all, is relative, and many of those in museums now still have living relatives. To avoid museum overload, of anyone for any reason, museum staff need to be mindful of their displays. The Space Museum gives a great lesson in the necessity of doing just that.

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