Blockbuster Exhibitions: a Case Study

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Blockbuster Exhibitions: A Case Study

The contemporary blockbuster exhibit, which emerged in the museum world in the late twentieth century, has become increasingly popular among museums in the past few decades. Defined by Albert Elsen as a “large-scale loan exhibition which people who normally don’t go to museums will stand in line for hours to see,” these exhibits produce mass interest and wide-ranging excitement. In my paper I tackle the issue of the blockbuster exhibit and debate the pros and cons of this type of display through an analysis of the exhibit, Harry Potter: The Exhibition on display at the Museum of Science in Boston, Massachusetts. Does the display of such an exhibition harm the museum’s mission statement and core collection with its “theme park” type of display and potential lack of relevance to the museum’s purpose? Does it take away from the scholarly principle of the museum? Do benefits to funding and attendance figures dictate the museum’s policies regarding the presentation of exhibitions? Through the careful study of blockbuster exhibits I determine if museums are influenced by corporate money that sponsor such exhibits and whether such partnerships weaken the reputation and integrity of the museum.

The Museum of Science (MOS), originally founded as the Boston Society of Natural History in 1830, is located in Boston, Massachusetts. In its mission statement, the MOS states that its larger purpose is to "play a leading role in transforming the nation’s relationship with science and technology." The museum perceives its role as an educator and informal leader in the museum community that promotes science and advances young people’s comprehension of the subject matter. Its responsibilities are to use the collection as a tool for learning and to enhance the knowledge of preK-12th grade students.

On view in the red wing from October 25, 2009 through February 21, 2010, is the Harry Potter exhibition, a 10,000 square-foot exhibit that features 200 props and costumes from the Harry Potter movies. The objects in this collection are advertised by the museum as “showcasing the supreme artistry and craftsmanship that went into the making of the ever popular film series.” A July 22, 2009 press release from the MOS stressed the importance of the opening in Boston since the museum is the only New England location to host the exhibition. Such advertisements are standard when promoting blockbuster exhibits; it urges the public to visit by stressing its importance as a once in a lifetime event. This tactic is used to ensure increased numbers of visitors to the exhibit. In line with most blockbusters, Harry Potter: The Exhibition sells special tickets, which are not included in the regular price of admission to the museum, for a specific hour on a specific day. This is to control the crowds and ensure that each visitor has space to view the items. After visiting the exhibit one will be surprised to find no mention or relation to science or technology at all. The props and costumes that are on display aren’t used to discuss the science behind making the movie, but rather are displayed as relics worn by famous characters and movie stars. Explanations from the set designers about why they chose a particular object are mentioned in the audio guide but nothing about the process or technique is described, as one reviewer noted: “craft, and not much of that, is about as good as ‘Potter’ gets from any sort of educational perspective.” With no science or technology present in the exhibition, it is hard to see how this fits into the museum’s mission statement.

The museum’s sale of special tickets that space out the time in which each visitor can view the exhibit space doesn’t seem to work at all. It is still overcrowded and hard to maneuver through the gallery. One lingers in line waiting behind five rows of people to see an object, and then when the object is in sight it can only be...
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