Monday, May 11, 2009

Concerning Explication

Living within easy reach of the Fitzwilliam Museum, I try to keep track of the various temporary exhibitions and special displays that often run there - and recently, we realised that we'd not caught the latest batch, so we dropped in on Sunday. They had four such things running; aside from a case with coins from Commodore Matthew Perry's personal collection (noted Victorian public figure had quirkish hobby, shock) and a room full of Chinese jade pieces from the neolithic to the modern era (some of them very nice indeed, but the display didn't seem to have much of a theme beyond demonstrating that jade has been important in Chinese art for a very long time), there were two that told me lots more stuff I didn't know, in somewhat excruciating detail.

The first was entitled "Kachofugetsu: The Natural World in Japanese Prints", and consisted of a collection of, yes, Japanese prints, mostly (but not all) showing themes from nature. Japanese print-making being the art it is, this was a pleasure to visit, and I was shown a few details that I'd never noticed before and found interesting, such as the use of print blocks carved to so as to add physical texture to the image. I was also told a lot of other stuff about things like metaphors and symbolism in the images and all the quotes from Chinese poetry. This is all doubtless necessary information for scholars of the subject, and a really amazingly smart exhibition design might have conveyed some of it in ways that would make it interesting to the general viewer - but I just felt that I was drowning in detail.

The second, two rooms away, was about "Changing Faces: Antony Van Dyck as an Etcher"; it turned out that Van Dyck didn't do very much etching, but yes, when he turned his hand that way, wow but the boy could etch. Mostly he did portraits, mostly of his fellow artists (and the artistic community in the Netherlands at that time was, one can be reminded, packed with significant names); many of these prints wound up in books of, basically, collected picturesof famous folks, a few years after he did them. Often, the creators of said books added background and clothing that Van Dyck himself hadn't included; he and they also added and corrected countless details at various points, as the exhibition labels were happy to explain. I may have come away knowing a little bit more about the craft and history of etching, but mostly, once again, I just felt overwhelmed. It's good to have one's ignorance challenged from time to time, but I couldn't really call these exhibitions overly friendly to the ignorant newcomer.

Still digesting these thoughts, I turned the TV on in the evening to catch part one of The Incredible Human Journey, which rapidly started causing the usual problems I get with TV science programmes these days - a lot of teeth grinding and a strong wish that they'd spend a little less time repeating the trivia and showing the presenter driving a car, and a lot more explaining some details. Dr Alice Roberts was shown trekking laboriously across east Africa and talking to (sometimes worryingly gun-toting) locals, accompanied only by an invisible camera crew, until she finally found the remote site where a past expedition apparently found the oldest known remains of modern humans - but what distinguishes a "modern human" from the various other human ancestors she talked about? What brought that past expedition to that so-terribly-remote location? Damnit, this is a science programme - could we have just a little bit of science? Later, Dr Roberts spent the night on her own out in the bush, protected from the prevalent leopards and hyaenas only by an ad hoc thorn scrub barrier, supposedly in order to empathise with the ancestral humans who'd have experienced the same thing - but we didn't really learn anything about what's known or believed about Stone Age life, with even the nature of the barrier that kept her alive skated over, and while we may have learned something about Dr Roberts's willingness to take risks in order to get five minutes of good film, these scenes with dangerous-sounding wildlife or dangerous-looking locals just drove me to cynical thoughts about BBC management risks assessments and insurance cover, and who aside from the camera crews may have been just off-shot or not far away.

To be fair, things got a bit better later in the programme, and I think I learned something about early humans' possible routes out of Africa across the Red Sea and up the southern coast of Arabia. I'll tune in again next week to see what else I can extract from the series. But the first half of the programme surely felt like a horrible warning about what you get if you wish for less detailed, more friendly explication.

At which point, I draw no conclusions, other than that I should give more credit to the creators of really good exhibitions and documentaries. There's a balancing act involved, and getting it right is harder than it looks.

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