Friday, November 16, 2007

Museums failing as educators

By Walter Haan,

Museums, along with publishers, schools and colleges are on the front lines as educators. But I think that museums are failing in their role in educating the public.

I was visiting the Autry National Center in Los Angeles a couple of months ago. It is currently running an exhibit entitled "Gene Autry and the Twentieth-Century West: The Centennial Exhibition, 1907-2007." As a western movie buff, particularly of B -westerns, I was looking forward to seeing the exhibit, which runs through to January 13, 2008.

I wasn't into the portion about Gene's movie career for long when I realized I was angry about what I was seeing on the walls. There is a generous amount of movie posters from Gene's movies, both from Republic Pictures and Columbia, on display. But none of them, although framed, were restored. Looking fragile, they were obviously going to look more fragile as time goes by. The generally accepted method to restore movie posters is to mount them on linen and restore them by painting over scratches and piecing together patches of paper to seamlessly fill in holes and rips. None of this was done.

But what bothered me the most was the actual mistakes in the text mounted on the walls that explained the exhibits. One of the exhibits was a large painting of Herbert J. Yates, the president of Republic Pictures from 1935 to 1959. Yates and Autry and their first wives knew each other well, had sailed across the Atlantic at least once in the late thirties together, and Yates had made Autry the movie cowboy star he was. But the text explaining the painting was incomplete about the production of Republic Pictures and the four types of productions produced by the studio. But what really got me hopping was the declaration at another exhibit that Monte Hale was the last singing cowboy.

Rex Allen was the last singing cowboy. His Republic Pictures were released from 1950 to 1954. Looking into this error, I discovered the Hale had been a very good friend of Autry's and had assisted his widow in establishing and running the Autry National Center. So I guess the next step was to make Monte Hale look better than he was by making him the last singing cowboy on film. Didn't seem to matter to get the facts straight.

A couple of years ago I took my young nephew to the Museum of Natural History in New York City. I thought a little culture and educational exhibits would be a nice way to spend the time of day.

Until, as part of some exhibits in the basement, I found a large life size display of Peter Stuyvesant in a full-length window with colonial New Amsterdam behind him. The explanation on the wall identified Stuyvesant as a Governor of colonial New York.

Stuyvesant must have been turning over in his grave in The Bowery. He was the Dutch governor-general that had been forced in 1664 to surrender New Amsterdam and New Netherland to an English fleet aiming their guns at New Amsterdam. The city and colony were subsequently renamed New York.

In the incidents I described above, I complained about the inaccuracies found, but the museums didn't seem to care. I wrote down the inaccuracies for the Autry National Center and talked by phone to writers for the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History. Nothing happened.

Nothing that is, except misinformation continued to be spread by museums disguised as educational institutions. Copyright 2007 by Walter Haan,


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