The Atheist Imagination Really is a Dull Space.

If I understand this exhibit correctly, it’s comprised mainly of death-related objects of the Victorian Era.  And ok, part of the exhibit is bits of metaphysical performance.

This hurts the heart of Sharon Hill (idoubtit) at Doubtful News.  She remarks:

Why use a medium to the exhibit? It makes me really sad that they do. It suggests such an interpretation has merit.

The exhibit itself seems interesting enough, why add the “metaphysical”? The human reality is way more interesting.

Now, I’m no curator, and I have little evidence about what the actual curator is thinking here, but I’d venture a guess.  I’d suggest that commenter spookyparadigm gets the basic point:

Given the Victorian element, it seems like it could be appropriate … if explicitly noted as representative of the Spiritualist craze of the period. The group they are going to have even boasts of being part of the ASPR.

I wouldn’t do it, I don’t think, but I could see it being done in at least a somewhat appropriate manner.

That’s surely what’s at work. (I’m not quite sure what spooky means by the last sentence, but I am left to wonder what an inappropriate manner would be – idoubtit seems to believe that any spiritualist performace is just that though.)

Lemme just try to spruce this idea up a little bit. Indeed, spiritualism was the stuff of popular culture through much of the 19th century, and even got the attention of lots of serious people.  No less than William James was keen on the ASPR (see Blum, D., 2006, Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death cited in that link). So it’s difficult to think of Victorian conceptions of death and mourning without considering belief in ghosts, mediumship, etc. And ‘scientific’ research into such things.

Of course some of that seems a little quaint now, though as Doubtful News never tires of pointing out, pop culture is still filled with plenty of ghostbusting. But I think her tireless work on the Amazing Randi beat wears her out here.

She concludes that the presence of mediums and metaphysicians within the exhibit legitimates their spiritualism. Maybe, but I don’t see how that’s necessarily the case.  I think it’s a rather clever element for the curator to add – not merely some inert artefacts of Victorian woo, but actual modern day woo peddlers (assuming that’s what they actually are). Isn’t this just a performance like Colonial Williamsburg or something?  No matter that the actors and even some of the audience may be true believers.  Undoubtedly plenty of vistors are not.  And there’s no doubt that plenty of participants in Victorian séances and what not didn’t believe either, but it was all popular stuff in salons in America and Europe in the 19th century – good entertainment at least. Falling completely on the side of doubt, so as to get teh sadz at these demonstrations in the midst of very serious and ‘scientific’ presentation of history, is to maintain a pretty staid conception of museology.

More than that, I’d say that people like idoubtit are the butt of an implicit joke. For it was the Victorian Era (or more to the point, the era of European Colonialism) that mostly gave the modern conception of the museum.  And such events as The Great Exhibition, and the Chicago World’s Fair with its performances by real live Indians and everything. And collections comprised of sacred objects, many from death cultures, of very hinky provenance (many later returned with deep public apologies). Yes, the objects in the exhibit in question are interesting enough indeed, as is the human reality from which they are now removed. But surely, idoubtit wouldn’t be comfortable with death artefacts pilfered from colonized cultures the world over, nakedly displayed for the public to gaze upon as mere curiosities.  She’d surely prefer to see some respectful context and control exercised by interested parties for whom these are matters of human reality.


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