Museums are Theatre




In my time in New Zealand, I have had the chance to visit many museums of all kinds: art, history, general, science, etc., and at each one, I am always in awe of the exhibits and how engaged I am. I would say that I am a person who thoroughly enjoys a good museum, even a bad one actually. Since I was a kid, I was always looked forward to a museum field trip- and not just because we got to take a break from school. I love learning through these visual works of creation and, above all, appreciating the time, energy, love, and care that people put into making museums which are basically shrines with an abundance of accumulated materials.

I had the privilege of meeting and becoming friends with a couple of people in my program who are focused on museum and anthropological studies. Through them, I was able to grow in my love for museums. As someone who has no in-depth knowledge on museums or the technical aspects of making one, I was able to learn through them the backgrounds and in-and-outs of such a thing. I found a new appreciation because not only was I admiring the pieces, but I was also admiring the work and dedication that was put into it.

I also want to mention that even though I am always interested in going to museums, I rarely take more than an hour to explore the entirety of the building. I have found that this is not because the exhibits aren’t interesting (they are!), it’s just that I have difficulty keeping concentration in one space for a prolonged period of time. I also don’t like the sound of silence which is usually what is- what I have found to be- normal in museums. Additionally, I always need to be doing something with my hands, and, in my experience, most museums don’t lend themselves to that necessity. All this combined, I tend to rush through the experience of a museum even if I am enjoying it. That’s why when I decided to take a last-minute trip to Wellington and asked a friend for activity recommendations, I was surprised when they told me to go to a couple of the galleries and museums there. They said each could and would take about 3 hours of my day, if not more. I was absolutely shocked and doubtful of that suggestion. I knew I would go, but I thought I would certainly need to find other activities because ‘museums and galleries could not possibly take that much time’.

I had five days to spend in Wellington and I used all of them to their fullest! On the second day, I decided to go to the Wellington Museum, properly named as it focused on the history of Wellington, how it came to be New Zealand’s capital over 150 years ago, and what makes it such a special place. There were three floors and an attic full of different exhibits. The first floor, The Bond Store, jumped straight into it by introducing the spectators to the Victorian era of this region and how it acted as the cargo warehouse to hold goods. Walking further in, there was an introduction to the domestic lifestyle of those who live in Wellington. Automatically, I knew this museum was not what I was expecting. Being on the southern tip of the north island and the connection to the south island, Wellington is surrounded by water which is the perfect location for extreme winds. How extreme? Well, the museum let us toy around with the concept of building stability in response to wind stresses by letting us rearrange structures and push a button that activated a wind model. I found this particularly enjoyable because it’s not often that I interact with exhibits. The most I’ve ever engaged with museum artifacts is the plasma globe at a science museum. This interaction did not stop here though, in fact, it grew. The second floor had objects on display and “This or That” challenges where one is the true history and the other is a likely but not true history. It was like a game, I guessed which was true and then looked at the answer. I did this for each object.

The third floor BLEW ME AWAY and kind of inspired me (as a drama major). Over my time here, I have been able to hear many amazing Māori legends, from Maui fishing up the North Island to “The Courting of Te Rahui”. The third floor of The Wellington museum had a simulated live performance of Te Whanganui a Tara (The Great Harbour of Tara). When I walked into the “theatre”, there was a miniature set design, and when the show started, a hologram popped up! I watched a 15-minute play legend-told by the actress and performed by two more actors. All holograms! Not only this, but one of the first effects is the narrator lighting a fire to make the place brighter. The fire was obviously holographic too BUT she lit the fire on actual set sconce, and the lights were brought up a bit too. The synchronicity of these events made it so realistic and my jaw dropped. On top of that, there is a jump scare towards the end, and the way that it was portrayed was by practical effects. There was a secret door in the ceiling that quickly slid open and eyes looked down on me from a screen. Everything was just so perfectly timed that it felt like a real live performance- in miniature. As 1) a drama major 2) focusing in stage management 3) with an immense appreciation for the technical aspects of theatre 4) who spent a semester working with a professor on how to make theatre more accessible in this technologically advanced world, I was flabbergasted. I enjoyed every minute and would definitely watch it again. There were many more engaging parts of this museum, but this one definitely took the cake! I would absolutely love to talk to the person/people who created this. And I would love to be apart of making performances like this more common.

I ended up staying at this museum for two and half hours- a record for me. This record would be broken by my introduction to the Te Papa museum.

Quick pause to elaborate on something. Blogs have been my thing throughout my time with FEA. I love writing down my experiences and find that I sometimes have too much to say and desperately need to edit. I do write my blogs as if I were talking to you. In fact, I am literally speaking out loud as I type this. It’s an informal, ramble-y mess of thoughts, and I like that. I feel comfortable with my style. That being said, I very much contemplated making a video for this entry because words are not enough to describe how much pleasure and excitement I had watching the play at The Wellington Museum and walking around Te Papa! I am bubbling with excitement just writing about it. The only reason I didn’t do a vlog is because I am a novice at video editing and would not produce a very good video. Okay back to Te Papa.

I will try to keep a long story short because I could go on and on about how Te Papa is literally theatre. Te Papa is a unique theatrical experience that keeps its audience engaged throughout all the exhibits. I never lost focus or got bored. In fact, I experienced and witnessed other people experience pure joy. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa is NZ’s national museum established about 25 years ago. It is a highly tourist destination, as it should be. The first exhibit I went to was entitled “Gallipoli: The Scale of Our War. It was about New Zealand’s Gallipoli campaign during WWI. Like war, this exhibit was dramatic. The exhibition shows the experience of eight people who “found themselves in extraordinary circumstances”. Each person is sculptured in a very scarily accurate, human-like model about 2.4 times the actual human size. I felt like I was looking at live giants. The DETAIL on each sculpture was incredible. There was arm hair, eyelash hair, scabs, tears, veins, and more that made the sculptures look like actual people. For a moment, I was so sure that that they were about to do a “Toy Story” and actually come to life. I did more research and found that these magnificent sculptures were crafted by members of the Weta Workshop, which is not surprising. If you don’t know about the Weta Workshop, I highly recommend you look them up. So, these models were paired with somber instrumental, lights, and other technical aspects. There was even dramatic voice-over readings to mimic the words that would be said in these scenarios. Again, I could talk about this forever because it literally made me cry at how involved I felt. As a theater kid, I noticed all of the theatrics of this exhibit. Not only was I able to geek out, but I was actually absorbing the information of the war. I was intrigued to learn about these people and their stories.

Moving on from this exhibit, my second favorite part of Te Papa was their nature section. Again, the most engaged I ever felt with a museum. Each display had something to do: a button to press, an activity to complete, a simulation you could affect. Even when it most definitely was not necessary, there was something. For example, there was a part of the bird section where the only thing to do was look at the taxidermy-like artifacts and read their description. This is pretty standard across museums, but what Te Papa did was make it interactive and stimulating by prompting “What’s Hiding Here?” and making you press a button to shine a light on the animal and its description. A small thing, but attention pulling. In the area where I learned about the history of moas, there are two skeleton moa structures with a light shining on them making a shadow. Except no, its not a shadow, it’s a perfectly designed lighting shadow that MOVES every so often. The lights reflected moa movements, predation, hunting, etc. I will most definitely have to ask my lighting designer friends their thoughts on this because I was entranced. Finally, another heart-warming exhibition was the water cell cycle area. The water cell cycle, while interesting, is not the highlight of a museum. Its more of a mundane science fact that people learn and place in the back of their head. But what I loved to see with this exhibition was, once again, the interactive nature of it. There was a pinball-domino effect- like structure where a ball acted as the water and there were different mechanisms to change the path. It showed the different ways that water can go through the cycle. Now, I did not engage with this structure, but I did see a six-year-old kid and her mom interacting with it. And the smile that I saw on the little girls face when she saw the ball work its way through the path was adorable and amazing.

This is what museums are for. To remember and educate. And I think this theatrical, engaging method of art and history not only inspires me, but brings happiness and education to kids too. I saw so many young kids walking around the museum interacting with the exhibitions and having fun. As for me, I never lost concentration or lost my thoughts in silence. My eyes were always stimulated with shiny, moving structures and my hands always had something to do. It was such a unique experience for me. And I think museums have such capabilities to be this theatrical spectacle and attract a wider audience. Maybe I am biased because I love theater and science but it was nice to make a connection (especially in the nature section) between the science part of my brain and the theatrical part of my brain. I would love to see more museums like this one because I did end up spending 5 hours at Te Papa over two days. And I would most definitely go back to spend more!