The Museum as Theatre

(reflection after the exhibition: FOSSILS from the beginning of the 21st century. 18 dec. 2021 – 2 jan. 2022. A short video about the exhibition can be seen here)


At the end of 2021 the Museum organized an exhibition of a few items of its collection that could be called fossils. They included a 150 million years old ammonite, fosselised wood, i.e. coal, of 300 million years ago, and fossils of the Anthropocene: skulls, imprints of tyres, sheets of plastic, surgical masks, remnants of computers, medicines, …

In order to make a coherent curatorial statement, we decided to present everything as if we lived in the year 52022 CE. The Anthropocene is long over, we don’t know how it ended, and the Museum of Anthropocene Technology is one of those stubborn institutions that collect items, with the goal to understand how our ancestors lived in the Anthropocene and, even more important, how their civilisation came to an end. Because one thing is clear: humanity did not come to an end: we are the direct descendants of the people living in 2022.

Such was the story that the director of the Museum and a geologist told at the inauguration of the exhibition. They didn’t mention it was a story, they simply talked as if they were living in that not so distant future. Halfway in the presentation, some people in the audience got it and started to smile. At the end of the discussion, others were still confused and wondering: what was this all about? aren’t we living in the Anthropocene right now?

We talked about this experience with two young theatre makers: the daughter of the museum director and her boyfriend. They said that we had made of the museum a theatre, but without following the rules of the theatre.  They went on to explain: when you enter a theatre to watch a play, you know and accept that the play will not necessarily be about reality or the truth. The moment you enter the half-darkness of the theatre there is a “suspension of disbelief”,  in the sense that you leave any possible doubts about reality and truth behind, and you are ready to be transposed and enjoy the play as if it was real or truthful. Only when you leave the theatre, you confront what you just have experienced with reality. You may shrug this confrontation off with a smile or with disbelieve, or, if it is a good play, it may linger on in your mind for quite some time and change the way you see and live reality.

In a museum, on the other hand, especially in a kind of natural history or anthropological museum with which the Museum of Anthropocene Technology might be compared, you expect that you will be told something as close to the truth as possible. You don’t expect to be told stories invented by the guide. You never suspend your disbelief because you trust you can belief what you will hear and see. When you leave the museum, your reality will not have fundamentally changed, only be enriched with more facts.

The error that we at the Museum made, according to the young couple, was that we made of the visit a play in which the visitors took part, but without them (immediately) realising it. We did not give them the chance to enter that play and therefore some of them might have remained stuck in confusion and disbelief. At the very beginning of the visit we should have included a short moment in which we said, for instance: “Watch out, keep in mind that from now on we are in the year 52022.” The point is taken. We had to introduce the visit with something like what is written above the entrance of Disneyland: ”Here you leave today and enter the world of yesterday, tomorrow and fantasy.

In a way, we are glad that the visit to the Museum has been compared with going to the theatre, that the guidance was recognised as a performance. We wrote before that the initial inspiration for the Museum of Anthropocene Technology were the Wunderkammern of the late Renaissance, these microcosms of the macrocosm, which were often material realisations of the Theatrum Mundi idea: “all the world’s is but a stage”.  (Whether that stage is fixed, or continuously changing because of the play, is another theme dear to the Museum.)

So yes, the idea is that visiting the Museum is a theatre experience, and that when you get out, you see the world differently. That is the idea, but apparently, we still have to improve on it.