Don’t panic – tell a lie! Per Helge Nylund

“Once upon a time”, began Per Helge Nylund of Tromsø University Museum, “there was a regional museum in northern Norway. They were going to stage an exhibition for the benefit of a local audience with something as un-Arctic as live tropical snakes.”

To promote the exhibition, the Museum had created posters featuring said tropical snakes that had the words SLANGENE KOMMER! in big letters at the top. That translates in English to SNAKES COMING! I didn’t get a photo of the poster because, like any good conference blogger, I was too busy typing furiously to take photos, but I can tell you that the snake looked something a bit like this.

 

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Eric Isselee/Shutterstock.com

What you’ll notice about this snake is that it is very much real and alive. It’s terribly important that you bear this in mind.

The poster we were shown also featured another word in bold, capital letters: UTSATT, or POSTPONED. The snakes, it was hoped, would be coming, but a lack of the correct paperwork for the visiting reptiles, a protected species, meant that the they were not able to come quite yet.

Nylund and his colleagues were told about this issue six days before the exhibition was due to open. 

“We tried not to panic”, Nylund told us, “We were in denial till lunch, then we started discussions.” I don’t know about you, but the image that came into my head at this point was The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, famous for its plea to readers remain calm in times of crisis.

The Museum team felt they couldn’t simply not have an exhibition as this wouldn’t be fair to visitors. A solution had to be found.

A quick Norwegian language class: Slange is both the word for ‘snake’ and ‘hose’. This homonym was responsible for some of the most creative thinking I have seen in a museum. The resulting exhibition was one that even famous snake-hater Indiana Jones would have approved of.

(Any excuse to watch a clip of everyone’s favourite fictional archaeologist, right?)

An email was sent round to museum staff: “Can we have all your hoses and pipes and tubes and toy snakes?” I’d like to suggest that this might be one of the most fun and interest-piquing[1] emails that has ever been sent to anyone in a museum since the beginning of the digital age. Even better than ‘Cakes in the staffroom’ or ‘Funding application success’[2].

Said hoses and pipes and tubes and toy snakes were then displayed around the gallery. There were hoses of all kinds: ventilation hoses, fire hoses, garden hoses and more[3]. Two vacuum cleaner pipes were contorted together to give the effect they were mating. The previously rather mundane household objects were gaining a life of their own. The fake snakes had arrived.

Each fake snake was given its own Norwegian and Latin name by Nylund. The latter were carefully chosen; the fire hose, for example, was given the Latin name for ‘durable head’. The Museum’s natural history curator also came on board with the project, displaying fossils that had been interpreted in the medieval era as being snakes. More fake snakes to enjoy.

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A selection of the fake snakes with their Latin names

The exhibition opened to great applause. All the staff got involved; a water hose was used in place of a microphone at the launch, and Nylund dressed in safari gear to lead visitors around the exhibition. “This is aggressive!” he warned visitors about one fake snake. The mating vacuum cleaners were discussed with fondness: “We’re hoping for a baby vacuum cleaner bag soon.”

Museum staff thought that the paperwork problems that had prevented the live snakes from coming would be sorted within one or two weeks. The exhibition of fake snakes was a way to buy some time before the arrival of the real, living snakes. It turned out that the paperwork was not easy to sort out and the snakes never arrived.

The lack of living snakes, however, was not a problem. The fake snakes exhibition was a great success, making local and national news and attracting over 7000 visitors in five weeks – that’s over 10% of the population of Tromsø. The Museum received fan mail from people living an eight hour drive away from Tromsø asking how long the exhibition would be on for as they were keen to visit. The exhibition was extended by an extra month.

As well as attracting visitors, capturing people’s imaginations, and being generally brilliant, the fake snakes exhibition can boast other, long-term benefits. The exhibition opened Museum staff up to new ideas and showed that the Museum was a place of fun where creativity was encouraged. A local artist approached the Museum about hosting an exhibition about recycling. Swedish artist Eric Langert, who makes animals from junk, also exhibited at the Museum. Nylund believes these collaborations would not have happened without the fake snakes exhibition.

“Fake snakes”, Nylund noted, “was not meant to be a replacement, more of an entertaining diversion and playful fantasy borne out of the idea that the show must go on and out of love for the audience.” Museum staff told a lie of sorts in pretending the snakes in the exhibition were alive, but in a sense they were living, having been presented as living creatures in a make-believe world. Although the objects that were in the exhibition were “really boring and not interesting”, suggested Nyland, they were made interesting by being treated as live species and museum objects. The approach worked very well; audiences enjoyed the irony and Museum staff didn’t receive a signal complaint about the lack of live snakes.

Nylund concluded his excellent presentation with a plea: When something like this happens, please be cool about it. In times of crisis, fake snakes and carry on. Don’t panic – just lie.

PS: Since the fake snakes exhibition, the museum has held an exhibition of live snakes. I think this sounds wonderful, but a certain Dr. Henry Walton “Indiana” Jones, Jr. might not have enjoyed it so much.

Laura Crossley, PhD Researcher, University of Leicester

[1] I’m claiming that as a word.

[2] Okay, maybe not better than ‘Funding application success’, but still jolly exciting.

[3] I confess that I could not think of another type of hose. In my defence, hoses are not my specialist subject.

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