The Theatre of Learning
A recent trip to Washington’s fabled Smithsonian Institute reminded me of the glories to which museums can aspire. While I am a diehard supporter and lifetime member of Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum, the ROM would fit nicely into a tiny corner of the Smithsonian, and could never challenge the larger institution’s scope, content or legacy. The Smithsonian truly is a wonder of the modern world. Its very existence, price of admission (free!) and its crowdedness are heartwarming. That so many people would visit a museum warmly reminds me that science, history and learning are still valued in the world.
However, a rather disturbing observation shook me from my self-satisfied hopeful reverie, and I was once more filled with concern for our society’s long-term educational wherewithal.
The Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum boasts a great many treasures, including mock-ups of lunar landers and space shuttles, and the original Spirit of St. Louis, preserved decades after Lindbergh’s death. Providing a nucleus about which papier-mache models and space-suited mannequins seemed to orbit was an actual moon rock brought back to Earth by one of the Apollo missions of the early 1970’s. Apollo moon rocks are rare enough, but this one was quite special: it was exposed to the air and made available for any visitor to touch, caress, poeticize or otherwise inspect. Armed guards accompanied the rock, of course. But this was still an incredible sight: one of humanity’s priceless artifacts presented for all to see and feel. It represented a culmination of millenia of human dreams… we can all now touch the moon.
Most Apollo moon rocks remain sealed in depressurized units filled with inert gases. That this one was exposed to the Washington air –to allow taxpayers to experience some of the glory of their space program– was in some ways indicative of the democratic tradition whose resulting affluence made the Apollo missions affordable in the first place. Yet no one seemed to care. The line-ups for the papier-mache models were quite long. The dense bursts of people occupied with space-suited mannequins and hand-drawn lunar landscapes were loud and engaged. But I remained alone with an actual moon rock for half an hour or more, all the time frustratingly cognizant of its glowing veracity in this menagerie of fraudulence.
I am aware, of course, that a rock is not as much fun as something that looks like a big toy. My annoyance is not with the children, for it is their duty to be drawn to multicoloured things upon which they can climb. But the inability of an entire generation of adults to appreciate both the intrinsic value and enormous financial cost of that one rock was saddening.
I do not pretend that this is a uniquely American tendency. I fear it is a reflection of the entire Western world’s growing obsession with the theatrical in place of the demonstrable. As we increasingly glorify actors and entertainers moreso than thinkers and leaders, it is no wonder we are drawn more to renditions of history than to history itself.
We are a society that learns its history from Hollywood versions of events rather than from factual accounts. In a given week of A&E biography episodes, one is treated to the life stories of four contemporary entertainers and only one truly historical figure. Prior to the present state of war, the number of entertainers on political talk shows would often equal or surpass the number of actual analysts.
My own memories of history, it seems, are anchored and contextualized by entertainment events. I am reminded of an episode of The Simpsons in which a science-fiction convention brings out characters from Star Wars, The X-Files and Star Trek and one real-life astronaut, Neil Armstrong. Guess whose exhibit was the least popular? "People," Armstrong’s publicist shouted, "this man has actually been to outer space!" But no one cared because Mark Hamill was waving his fake light-sabre.
I have no doubt that if a major motion picture were made about the Apollo 11 moon landing, the actor who plays Neil Armstrong would draw a bigger crowd than would Neil Armstrong himself. Indeed, maybe the Smithsonian should have had Armstrong himself available for close-up inspection, and sent the moon rock back to the scientists who could truly appreciate it.
The forces of entertainment have done a splendid job of popularizing some historical and scientific events that would otherwise be difficult to make meaningful to a distrustful generation struggling to see the relevance of much of the orthodoxy. But those same forces now threaten to usurp the truth, and to draw the communal imagination away from the glories of the real thing.
732 words December 11, 2001