Is it ever acceptable for museums to lie?
By Jack Ashby, on 16 April 2014
I ask this question to our Museum Studies Masters students every year, and last month put it to our new Bachelor of Arts and Sciences students. Despite the difference in the age, background and interests of these two groups, the reaction is the same – anger and horror. I am playing devil’s advocate in these debates, but my own opinion is yes, there are circumstances when everyone benefits from museums lying.
The lectures I discuss this in focus on object interpretation, and I use a tiger skull as a prop for discussing how to decide what information to include in labels. The choice of a tiger isn’t important – I just need something to use as an example I can attached real facts about natural history and conservation to, but I spend the two hours talking about tigers.
At the end of the lecture I reveal that the skull is in fact from a lion. Everything else I told them about tigers is true. Did it matter that I lied?
Lying about what objects are?
Museums surely can’t lie about an object’s identification, right? But if a museum didn’t have any tigers, is it reasonable that they can’t talk about tigers? Let’s say a museum was putting on an exhibition about Indian wildlife. It would be absurd to run that exhibition without a tiger*. Why not just use a lion skull and label it “tiger”?
There are anatomical differences between tiger and lion skulls, but they are slight. Any normal visitor reading labels about tigers wouldn’t know the difference, or need to know. There is no question that a museum shouldn’t deceive an academic researcher studying the specimens, but in a display for the general public, could this lie be acceptable?
My students say that this calls into doubt everything they have been told – how can they trust anything? “Museums are supposed to repositories of knowledge” (however old fashioned you might think that notion to be).
Think of it another way. Some skulls in the Grant Museum are labelled gibbon, but we don’t know which species.
In an exhibition about Indian wildlife, would it be lying, or wrong, to use one of these gibbons to represent hoolock gibbons (an Indian species)? It probably isn’t a hoolock gibbon, but it doesn’t seem as wrong as the tiger vs. lion “lie”, does it? But it’s the same as if that skull was just identified as “big cat”.
The students say that you can still tell the facts about tigers, but at the bottom of the label say “this is actually a lion”. I think that would look very weird and confuse the visitor.
I asked this on Twitter and two responses said “If you need to lie about the object to tell the story, the story isn’t true.” I disagree.
Lying about where objects are from?
I’m not suggesting something like “This tiger was caught in Brixton” – that would be factually incorrect and misleading. What about an exhibition about British wildlife… About half the world’s grey seals breed in Britain, but what if a museum didn’t have any British grey seals?
Would it be acceptable to include a Danish grey seal? It’s the same species. How different is this to the lion/tiger above?
Both of these examples raise a question about what objects are really for in museums. People wouldn’t visit just to come and read labels without objects. The objects are the source of interest – people look at them, learn what they are (or what we tell them they are) and leave happy that they’ve seen them. They may read the text, but many wont.
It could be argued, then, that it doesn’t matter if they have seen the object; just that they think they have. This is the bottom a slippery, dangerous slope that makes me very uncomfortable, but I think the two questions above are often acceptable, and they are definitely on this spectrum of deceit.
Lying about whether objects are real?
The students I mentioned are genuinely gutted when I tell them that most of them have never seen a real large dinosaur skeleton. Dinosaur skeletons are heavy (fossils are made of stone), often incomplete and the demand out-strips the supply, so the same fossil replicas are displayed in more than one museum. Most museums use plaster casts of real dinosaurs, and most label them as such.
Nevertheless people are surprised when they are told they aren’t real (they don’t read the labels). The disappointment they feel might detract from both the awe and enjoyment they feel about them, and the facts they learn about them. Not to mention that some will doubt they ever existed in the first place.
Such distractions might tempt museums not to mention that the objects are replicas. Is this ever acceptable?
I used to say no, and certainly never when it came to handling objects, fossils or archaeology (“fake” artworks, I feel, are fraud of a different nature). But then I remembered there is a viper skull in the Grant we don’t bother to label as a cast, as it just doesn’t seem important. It’s a “Bone Clone” – a kind of cast that is essentially indistinguishable from the real thing in look and feel. We use it in teaching a lot, and people are amazed by this skull. Snake skulls are too fragile to handled, so this cast allows us to tell their fascinating story. Unless people ask, we don’t remember to tell them it isn’t real.
Somehow a common object like a viper feels different to a dinosaur skeleton, but deep down I know it isn’t.
Are any of these “lies” acceptable, or are there others you can think of? Let me know in the comments box.
Jack Ashby is the Manager of the Grant Museum of Zoology.
*let’s assume they had been unsuccessful in trying to borrow one from elsewhere.