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Unsettling: The "Lord of the Rings" show mimics a traditional natural history museum exhibit -- from a real freaking culture.
Copyright NLP, Inc

Today, it's almost a foregone conclusion that museums will compromise their principles for cash. Shows with questionable corporate ties or pandering appeal -- or both -- are all too common. We have two cash-first examples on view in Houston. At the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, there's "Baseball as America," and at the Houston Museum of Natural Science, "The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy, The Exhibition."

If you can't make it to Cooperstown, the MFAH has brought Cooperstown to you. "Baseball as America" is a cavalcade of memorabilia that's unfortunately cut with a heavy-handed dose of nationalism. Organized by the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. , it attempts to draw a parallel between American history and baseball history. A video montage of great moments in baseball is framed by an American flag and accompanied by the national anthem. Among the inspirational clips, there's one of George Bush tossing out a post-9/11 pitch.

The nostalgia-soaked vitrines of baseball artifacts do include some unpleasant realities, like the history of segregation in the leagues. But ultimately the dominant theme is of uncritical, unquestioning love -- of both the country and the game. Contemporary controversies are avoided. Where is the display of androstenedione that ought to be next to Mark McGwire's home-run-record-breaking bat? Somehow, I don't think the National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum, Inc. is the most objective organizer for such an exhibition.

But as sports exhibitions at the MFAH go, at least "Baseball," with all its boosterism, hasn't sunk to the advertorial depths of the MFAH's previous show, "First Down Houston: The Birth of an NFL Franchise." That exhibition presented images from the Houston Texans' first year. The shots were taken by a photographer paid by the Texans, and they glorified the Texans franchise (i.e., business), which happens to be owned by MFAH trustee Bob McNair.

Museums seem to have given up on defending these shows. MFAH director Peter Marzio was quoted in an Associated Press article as saying, "It has nothing to do with art, but I asked myself, 'Would Houston be better off if the baseball show doesn't come?' The answer was no." Is that the MFAH's new mission statement? In the same article, Marzio nobly characterized the show as a "service to the city," because the museum wasn't charging special ticket prices in addition to general admission, adding, "we'll probably lose money on it." That remains to be seen, but should it turn out to be true, things are even worse: The museum compromised its principles for no reason at all.

Maybe the MFAH is trying to make up the cash at the gift shop, which has branched into the electronics business, selling baseball-shaped TVs for $499 and non-baseball-shaped models for $699. Two weeks before the exhibition's close, there was also a "buy one, get one free" sale on $9.95 MFAH stadium cushions. Surprisingly, the hideous jean jackets designed by Debbie Clemons to benefit the Clemons Foundation -- which cost more than $600 -- hadn't been marked down yet.


Meanwhile, the Museum of Natural Science has long been a venue for crowd-pleasing blockbusters like "Titanic: The Artifact Exhibition," "made possible by Clear Channel Entertainment and RMS Titanic, the exclusive salvor of the wreck of the Titanic." The upcoming October offering, "Diana, A Celebration," will feature Princess Di's clothes and a "tiara gallery." At least in that case a portion of the profits is slated for the Diana Princess of Wales Memorial Fund.

"The Lord of the Rings Motion Picture Trilogy, The Exhibition" is a hugely self-indulgent and profitable promotional extravaganza for the film and its creators. (Tickets are $17.50 for adults and a mere $14.50 for children and seniors.) The filming of the epic trilogy was one of the biggest things to happen to New Zealand in a long time, and the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa jumped on the bandwagon, partnering with New Line Cinema to develop the exhibition.

The show is both intentionally and unintentionally fascinating. It has two central aspects: interactive stations that exploit and explain the gee-whiz aspects of filmmaking, and what amounts to a fictitious cultural anthropological exhibition with clothing, jewelry, armor and weapons from the races of Middle-earth.

Some of the filmmaking exhibits allow you to experiment with scale. Visitors can sit on identical benches, except that one is of normal size and the other giant. The benches are filmed by two different cameras to allow them to appear the same size. The video is combined into a seamless split-screen image. When I walked by, the video was showing one huge eight-year-old and one tiny eight-year-old. It's a cool gimmick, and it's also another revenue opportunity. You can buy a print of your now-mutant kid for a mere $10. "Cash or charge?" I heard an employee ask a parent.

Another station uses 3-D modeling to allow you to see what you'd look like turned to stone. Stick your head in a contraption, and your face is scanned by a computer. I tried it, and FYI, this is really best suited for eight-year-old kids. For those of us over 30, it can be unsettling.

But what's really unsettling is how much of the show mimics the elements of a traditional natural history museum exhibition -- from a real freaking culture. Artifacts on view include hobbit clothing from hemp fibers, an Elven scepter, a Goblin quiver and arrows, Orc spoons and sundry battle helmets. A Middle-earth "death ritual" is re-created in a life-size wax cast of Sean Bean as Boromir, shown lying in state, Viking-style, in a longboat. But sadly, in a missed marketing opportunity, he isn't available at the gift shop. Guests will have to content themselves with a life-size Gollum or prosthetic hobbit feet.

Obviously, a tremendous amount of obsessive effort was put into the film to visualize and flesh out the races and cultures imagined by J.R.R. Tolkien. And in contrast to Houston's last sellout movie promotional exhibition, the hokey and lamentable "Star Wars: The Power of Myth" at the MFAH, this exhibition is spectacularly theatrical.

Whereas "Star Wars" lamely tried to justify itself by seeking to tie in Joseph Campbell and The Power of Myth, "The Lord of the Rings" makes no such patronizing obfuscation. It is entertainment, pure and simple. There are audio effects, video screens that present behind-the-scenes interviews and information at the touch of a button, and dramatic lighting. [The dramatic lighting runs into trouble with the Cave Troll. Not only his face but also his tiny penis and singular (?) testicle are uplit. No wonder he looks so pissed. In another inadvertent effect, the wall mural of the "eye of Sauron" looks, as one visitor delicately put it, like "a giant flaming pussy."]

The exhibition's central problem is that the real world has plenty of real cultures, both ancient and modern, many of them rapidly disappearing. Clearly, revenue and attendance are the primary motivations behind this exhibition. But do we have to present a fabricated culture from a popular film series to get people to the museum? There has to be a way for museums to present actual information and authentic objects in a way that's both interesting and educational. Surely there is middle ground between dryly academic exhibitions and Disneyland.


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