Wednesday, June 2, 2010

The language of truth

This is actually what started me on the whole skeptical art idea, the visual language used by museums.

When I was a kid I went to the Royal Ontario Museum and was fascinated by all of their impressive displays about the evolution of dinosaurs and how evolved into lizards. When I went back years later the same dinosaurs were there, but they were evolving into birds.

Now that I'm an adult I can visit a museum and read the signs deeply enough to catch the caveats and disclaimers about this being what "evidence suggests" and "the scientific consensus" scattered here and there in the longer blocks of text that everyone skips over to look at the compelling and scientific looking graphic beside the awe inspiring sculpture.

That brings me to my jump off point to all of this inquiry: What is a scientific looking? Why do we believe what we see in a museum with credulity? I have lots of hypotheses. I'm going to start with this.

We believe what we see in a museum because that's what the word "museum" means. A museum is where we keep history so that the public can see it. Scientists and learned people put those things there so they must be true. When we enter a museum, we leave our skepticism at the door and absorb everything we see as fact. Museums, at least those that I have visited, have a certain structure to their exhibits that tell us that what we're seeing is a museum piece. The cases, the labels the lighting and the poses of the sculptures all contribute. Also, the complimentary graphics that tend to emphasize form and detail over movements and composition tell us that the truth is more important than entertainment.

This visual language seems to have become so well understood that it can be abused. Enter the Museum of Creation. I shit you not. This is a real place. Their agenda is to present an interpretation of history that is coherent with a literal interpretation of the bible. How do they do it? By creating the same environment as a genuine natural history museum. Take their virtual tour. This is the same place as I visited as a kid but with different labels. If I wasn't versed in the sciences I would be entirely unable to discern between the facts being presented at each.

So my conclusion? We have, as a society, created and conformed to a visual language that lends credibility to its subject. That language can now be exploited by anyone with the resources to do so.

My solution? Introduce paradox. Create and present items using the visual language of the museum that can't possibly be true. Force the viewer to think critically about what they're seeing and hope that they can then apply that to future exhibits. My dream is to make a whole museum style exhibit full of visually compelling nonsense. Here's my prototype:

(I did say in my first post that at some point I would stroke my own ego)

In my mind I have an exhibit with interactive displays and fake fossils and some bigger skeletons and a whole evolutionary history based entirely on lies. I'm convinced that it will work because two strangers have already asked me if this guy is real.

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