Wednesday, 14 November 2012

The Museum in Science Fiction

I recently came across an essay by Robert Crossley called ‘In the Palace of Green Porcelain: Artefacts from the Museums of Science Fiction’. Referencing the green porcelain palace featured in H.G. Wells’ novel The Time Machine, Crossley describes this as ‘the most memorable of all science fictional museums’, going on to argue that ‘Wells saw the institution of the museum as an immediately accessible icon for the narrative’s philosophical concerns with nature and culture, time and change’.

I found the concept of this essay interesting; Crossley notes the frequent appearance of the museum in SF narratives, and suggests the museum’s concern with history and the development of societies is reflected in the speculative aspects of SF, and its projections about how the consequences of historical events might play out in the future. His essay draws on examples from Olaf Stapledon (Last and First Men), Arthur C. Clarke (Childhood’s End) and J.G. Ballard (The Drowned World), where the museum is used variously as the key to decoding lost civilisations, the palace of earth’s alien overlords and a decadent monument to a world overtaken by environmental disaster.

Other examples I could think of included the Natural History Museum of China MiĆ©ville’s Kraken, which opens with the robbery of a giant squid specimen and the 1965 Dr Who story, The Space Museum, a series, I’m reliably informed (like the museum it portrays), goes to pieces after the first episode.

In at least three of these cases, as with the aforementioned palace of green porcelain, the appearance of the museum serves to highlight the fragility of humanity’s cultural achievements; the museum and its artefacts are depicted as ruins, as part of the jumble of human detritus. Aside from the obvious museum/graveyard analogy, it struck me that this general disorder disrupts the narratives of progress represented in the layout of museums. Furthermore, the SF genre itself challenges these narratives to the extent that it often explores scenarios where the events of history are cyclical, and humanity develops only to regress again.

The choice of artefacts encountered in SF museums is also interesting; the dinosaur bones and decayed books of Wells’ palace present a sharp contrast to the surrealist paintings and ceremonial altars of Ballard’s treasure ship. It got me thinking about the fact that in all the SF museums I’ve come across, I can’t recall a SF collection, a kind of history of the future, ever being featured (although I’m prepared to be proven wrong on that). What do collections of this sort tell us, I wonder? And if the museum expresses the concerns of the SF genre in a microcosm, how does the genre regard itself when it becomes one of the artefacts on display?

Dr Who: The Space Museum Trailer from Youtube.

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