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This is the kind of museum I don’t want to make…

January 12, 2013

Many of you won’t have heard of Studio Ghibli, though by extension you may know it as the home of the Oscar-wining Director Hayao Miyazaki, who can count Howl’s Moving Castle, Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke, among his achievements.  Miyazaki’s visual style is absolutely unique, and it is refreshing that his heroes are usually female and his movies have a positive message, with many being anti-war in nature.  Here’s a trailer for Princess Mononoke so you can see for yourself what all the fuss is about.

Miyazaki’s status in Japan has reached legendary status over the years, so much so that there is now a Studio Ghibli theme park/museum outside of Tokyo.  Here’s the museum plan.


I like the sound of the Cat Bus Room.  And this is what it looks like in real life.


Most museums are very earnest in their efforts to communicate their remit as it is this which gives them their authority.  Not so much with Miyazaki’s museum.  On the studio Ghibli website he states quite specifically the type of museum he wants to make, as well as the type of museum he doesn’t want to make. The full list of criteria is well worth reading but I’ve just put the wants and not wants below:

This is the Kind of Museum I Want to Make!

A museum that is interesting and which relaxes the soul
A museum where much can be discovered
A museum based on a clear and consistent philosophy
A museum where those seeking enjoyment can enjoy, those seeking to ponder can ponder, and those seeking to feel can feel
A museum that makes you feel more enriched when you leave than when you entered!

This is the kind of museum I don’t want to make! 
A pretentious museum
An arrogant museum
A museum that treats its contents as if they were more important than people
A museum that displays uninteresting works as if they were significant

I’m not sure I’ve ever been to a museum that hasn’t been pretentious in some regard.  Welcoming, yes and often, but pretentious, always.  I’ve not been to the Ghibli Museum but I’d like to visit to see if this sort of museum is actually possible.

Now I’d like to return to the other side of the globe, to France and a particular museum situation which contrasts very severely with Miyazaki’s vision.  It is customary for each French President to leave some sort of cultural legacy, and the Pompidou, Musee d’Orsay and a certain pyramid at the Louvre that have all been the result of such initiative.  Each of these is amazing in their own right and should be on everyone’s list when they visit Paris.

Sarkozy’s gift to the nation was to be a Museum of French History, Maison de l’Histoire de France, in fact, and it was going to cost some 80 million Euros and was to be housed in the National Archives building after they were removed elsewhere.  Protests about this move duly followed, much of it in what should be called the French activist style, while critics of the project stated that it was a Sarkozian right-wing view of French history, a ‘bling-bling history’ which didn’t accurately reflect France’s evolution in a changing world.  One particular critic stated that for the museum to be accurate it would have to be a ‘world museum’, an interesting comment when considering almost any first world national heritage, or perhaps it’s a comment on how the French see their own history.  I’ll leave you to decide on that one.  You can read more about that here.

Not surprisingly, it hasn’t taken long for Francois Hollande to scrap the plans citing that Sarkozy’s vision was too ideologically slanted.  Interestingly, the Daily Mail is one of the few UK papers who picked up on this story and the comments at the end of the Mail article are probably evidence enough that there needs to be a more enlightened discussion about what history is and why it needs to be interpreted intelligently.

There are issues raised here about public ownership of museums (and particularly history museums), the masters that pay for them (or at least control the purse strings) and the politics that shape the discussion.  In a social democracy we expect that a public museum will have a broad educational remit, it is for the public benefit after all, and as such one would expect a balanced interpretation of the subject matter.  But there is an inevitable tension when there are significant differences of opinion, and as Sarkozy’s project has discovered, when there is a change in the politics there is also a change in cultural interpretation.  That’s why history is such a delicate subject for museums (and for society in general), it informs who we are, it’s the blood that runs through us, and the right to control the interpretation of that history will always be a battleground as a result.

But perhaps that’s the point Miyazaki is trying to make about museums, they’re actually political spaces, and that’s why they have a history of being pretentious, arrogant, making second class citizens of their visitors and of attaching significance to objects that may not warrant them.

French presidents should probably take note, leave your legacy to art museums.  History is far too divisive.

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