Just a quick update to say that the slides from my paper 'Stratigraphy and Super Strength' have now been posted on my academia page. This paper was delivered at the wonderful Monstrous Antiquities conference at the Institute of Archaeology, London. The presentation here is essentially an interim piece on ongoing work looking at the representation of museums in graphic novels.
'Rohan at the Louvre' - surreal and terrifying.
I’ve been quite ill this week, very annoying given that the current ‘to-do’ list includes turning around a 4000 word article in the space of a week, finalising preparations for an excavation which begins in just over a week, wading through a pile of marking freshly delivered to my inbox on Friday, oh, and not forgetting the whole ‘finish the PhD’ thing. I also seem to be spread over four separate twitter accounts, which is proving to be not just time consuming, but incredibly confusing. So, all in all, a bad week for producing an insightful blog on the heritage sector. No, instead I thought I would be kind to myself this week, and look over my ongoing research into museums in graphic novels.
This has been an indulgent, wonderfully fun, and surprisingly enlightening subject to explore. Surprising still was finding a conference, Monstrous Antiquities, which might just be suitable for a paper to be presented at based on this work, always a bonus (abstract is almost ready to go - yet another thing being worked on this week). In some respects this research project has gotten out of hand. What started as a bit of an aside exploring the DC character of Hawkman and his collection of artefacts held in the fictional Stonechat Museum, has now exploded into a myriad of museum scenarios, all of which is probably going to be too much to include in one article – a good problem to have though.
While this project has allowed me to revisit some favoured publications, and delve more than once into the murky waters of ebay in search of some rare edition featuring museums, it has also provided me with the opportunity to fully explore the series of graphic novels co-published by the Louvre Museum. This run of novels has been supported by the Louvre for several years now, and is based around artists being invited into the museum to explore the collections in, structure and workings of the museum. The range of interpretations has been varied. ‘Rohan at the Louvre’ is by far the most bizarre offering, with museum staff being executed by a malevolent painting one by one – a narrative I found intriguing, if not entirely useful to my research. One entry that I would certainly recommend is Marc-Antoine Mathieu’s The Museum Vaults. Excerpts from the Journal of an Expert.
The Museum Vaults is probably the one entry in the Louvre graphic novel series to really explore the inner workings of the museum. Here, the Louvre is a behemoth of a structure, utterly impossible to fully explore during the course of a single lifetime. In the exploration of the museum by the titled ‘expert’, reference is made to collecting and conservation of objects. But then perhaps more mundane roles within the museum are each in turn given their own position of significance. A framer is given a moment to extol the significance of his position, while an inspired sequence provides an insight into the training of museum guardians, where the art of ‘tss tssing’ members of the public from touching paintings is meticulously practiced. A certain structured madness is on display in this imagining of the museum, and having worked in several, it is easy to think back on occasions where these extreme imaginings might not be so far removed from reality.
Without wanting to spoil the narrative for anyone looking to follow this up, the novel does point toward the all consuming nature of experiencing a museum of such stature. Can we ever hope to see everything in a museum during a single lifetime? Can we ever hope to understand everything in a museum in a single lifetime? Possibly not, but The Museum Vaults makes a good case in favour of this being a worthwhile, if not impossible pursuit.
So the research goes on, and I wonder if I have taken on something which will prove to be utterly impossible in one lifetime. Only time will tell I suppose on that one.
Not directly to do with museums today, but certainly related, it is the Festival of Archaeology for the next couple of weeks, and it seemed appropriate to find something from the graphic novel vaults that linked to this celebration. Mentioned a few weeks ago, Carter Hall, aka Hawkman, is probably the most prominent of archaeologists in DC publications, active in fieldwork, and living in his own museum - few characters are better placed than this one to give archaeology a platform in graphic novel circles. The panel selected below is a nod to last weeks rant on the relocation of the Mold Cape, and develops a pretty direct repatriation narrative. A pitched physical battle ensues in this volume over the rights and wrongs of excavating a particular site, and while such extreme conflicts are rare in our more mundane real world, it does serve as a reminder as to some of the ethical questions that we are faced in archaeology, especially regarding collections acquired over a century ago.
As I rummage through volumes of graphic novels to find museum references and locations, I'm going to be posting some of the choice examples as and when they appear. Given that repatriation themes are never far away from the headlines, this scathing introduction to the British Museum by John Constantine in Hellblazer #1 from January 1988, seems an appropriately controversial place to begin.
The PhD drafting is almost at an end. A major assault on the footnotes to come, and then it goes off to the supervisor for one last editorial battering, then back to me for a final time, and then it will be done...so in many respects, not really at the end at all, but certainly no more research to be done at least. So the mind now turns to the summer and what next? Well, there are a number of irons in the fire, most of them article driven in one form or another, as thoughts turn to fleshing out the publication list. Unfortunately, the one thing I really want to write about is probably the least practically applicable subject, in terms of my career, that I could have thought of, and that would be graphic novels.
There’s a bearded American to blame for this one way or another, but that’s a story for another day. I actually started bringing in graphic novels into my teaching for the first time this year. I had stumbled across an old copy of Hawkman from November 2003, where Carter Hall (Hawkman) engages in a two page spread debate on the ethics of repatriation of cultural material. It struck me as a fairly obscure aside, but ultimately the narrative went on, perhaps unconsciously, to question the ethics of the excavation of human remains. Two themes then, that frequently engage the heritage community in discussion and publication, were being fought out in the pages of a comic.
Repatriation is one theme to have been subject to very specific graphic novel treatments. The most obvious example was published in 2011 as part of a British Museum exhibition on Manga. ‘Professor Munakata’s British Museum Adventure’ is an entire book committed to the exploration of repatriation themes, and, perhaps unsurprisingly given the publisher, the British Museum does quite well out of the debate. Biased maybe, but a good read nonetheless.
All of this got me wondering though about how museums are portrayed in graphic novels. What does the setting of Stonechat Museum in the world of Hawkman tell us about how museums are perceived? Does the museum environ reveal how wider attitudes towards museums are changing, or do they continue to reflect the dusty dark halls of stereotype? What about the activities that take place within museums. I can think of no shortage of murders, thefts and doomsday scenarios to occur within a range of unfortunate museums, but what about archiving and community outreach programmes? Okay, so the last two probably don’t lend themselves so well to a dynamic storyline, but that would make it all the more interesting should such themes ever actually get displayed, if only in the background.
So, there is at least one summer plan – wading through comic books to find examples of museums, in whatever form or storyline they might come up in. Not entirely sure what I’m going to do with this research once it’s been compiled, but I’ll certainly do something! There are a good range of journals covering graphic novels now, but then this might be something, depending on results, that might sit more comfortably within a museum journal, we’ll see. However, any help or suggestions would be very welcome on this one, as there are only so many comics I can read over the summer!