An original by any other name

The Chinese have two different concepts of a copy. Fangzhipin (仿製品) are imitations where the difference from the original is obvious. These are small models or copies that can be purchased in a museum shop, for example. The second concept for a copy is fuzhipin (複製品). They are exact reproductions of the original, which, for the Chinese, are of equal value to the original. It has absolutely no negative connotations. The discrepancy with regard to the understanding of what a copy is has often led to misunderstandings and arguments between China and Western museums. The Chinese often send copies abroad instead of originals, in the firm belief that they are not essentially different from the originals. The rejection that then comes from the Western museums is perceived by the Chinese as an insult.

Byung-Chul Han in Why, in China and Japan, a copy is just as good as an original

Museums of Everywhere

Emmanuel Macron, President of France, recently announced he wants to return African cultural treasures to where they had been looted from, so they could be shown “in Dakar, Lagos and Cotonou,” not just Paris. The exact details of how this will come about – if at all – are still unclear. Perhaps France will make a series of long-term loans, or there will be swaps, or a simple transfer of ownership.

It’s a fraught question that teeters at the precipice of a slippery slope down into “but what if we had to return everything?” territory, which adjoins the land of “and who really has the right to these objects centuries on, anyway?” Of course, it’s all very well for western museums to raise these concerns when they did all the looting first…

For a different angle on this debate, try Kwame Anthony Appiah’s essay Whose Culture Is It? It’s not available online (not unless you’re really good at finding pirated PDFs) but it’s well worth seeking out for his argument that we shouldn’t merely be talking about the return of objects “home” but “a decent collection of art from around the world” so that more countries might have ‘world museums’ like the British Museum:

…when I lament the modern thefts from Nigerian museums or Malian archaeological sites or the imperial ones from Asante, it’s because the property rights that were trampled upon in these cases flow from laws that I think are reasonable. I am not for sending every object “home.” Many of the Asante art objects now in Europe, America, and Japan were sold or given by people who had the right to dispose of them under the laws that then prevailed, laws that were perfectly reasonable. It may be a fine gesture to return things to the descendants of their makers—or to offer it to them for sale—but it certainly isn’t a duty. You might also show your respect for the culture it came from by holding on to it because you value it yourself. Furthermore, because cultural property has a value for all of us, we should make sure that those to whom it is returned are in a position to act as responsible trustees. Repatriation of some objects to poor countries with necessarily small museum budgets might just lead to their decay. Were I advising a poor community pressing for the return of many ritual objects, I might urge them to consider whether leaving some of them to be respectfully displayed in other countries might not be part of their contribution to cross-cultural understanding as well as a way to ensure their survival for later generations.

To be sure, there are various cases where repatriation makes sense. We won’t, however, need the concept of cultural patrimony to understand them. Consider, for example, objects whose meaning would be deeply enriched by being returned to the setting from which they were taken—site-specific art of one kind or another. Here there is an aesthetic argument for return. Or consider objects of contemporary ritual significance that were acquired legally from people around the world in the course of European colonial expansion. If an object is central to the cultural or religious life of a community, there is a human reason for it to find its place back with them.

But the clearest cases for repatriation are those where objects were stolen from people whose names we often know; people whose heirs, like the King of Asante, would like them back. As someone who grew up in Kumasi, I confess I was pleased when some of this stolen art was returned, thus enriching the new palace museum for locals and for tourists. Still, I don’t think we should demand everything back, even everything that was stolen; not least because we haven’t the remotest chance of getting it. Don’t waste your time insisting on getting what you can’t get. There must be an Akan proverb with that message.

There is, however, a more important reason: I actually want museums in Europe to be able to show the riches of the society they plundered in the years when my grandfather was a young man. And I’d rather that we negotiated not just the return of objects to the palace museum in Ghana, but also a decent collection of art from around the world.

For my part, I wonder whether a transnational trust might be a good way forward. Perhaps museums and governments might be encouraged to transfer ownership of looted artefacts to this trust in return for the right to hold on to them for a few more years, or the right to loans of other objects in return. Anything to get the ball rolling.

Nothing but respect for the best gallery in the Science Museum, The Secret Life of The Home. Hidden in the basement, it’s stood the test of time.

Panels like this remind me why the Enlightenment Gallery is one of my favourite bits of the British Museum. Easily overlooked but an essential visit.

Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk

  • The free intra-resort bus service has pretty good thus far. In some cases it’s been faster than an Uber, since the buses can usually get closer to the actual entrance of the park. But on average, I think the buses are about 10-15 min slower than Uber, which is not bad given the savings. My main wish is that more stops would have ETA boards; some places do, most don’t.
  • Blizzard Beach was a lot of fun! Sure, the competition isn’t strong, but this has to be the best watermark I’ve been to. There’s a great range of slides, everything is clean and well-signposted, and all the staff were friendly. We’d read that on park opening you should run to the tallest slide, Summit Plummet, to avoid queues, but the entire park was very quiet. The longest we waited was about 15 minutes, and most slides had barely anyone at all in front.
  • FYI, while I like near-vertical drops, Summit Plummet wasn’t worth a second ride, whereas Toboggan Racers and the Purple rides were.
  • Epcot shouldn’t work as a theme park, and yet it does. It’s educational, but not as educational as a museum. It’s fun, but not as fun as the other parks. It’s got miniature versions of other countries… and yeah, those are pretty unique. I don’t say this to knock Epcot – I’m just amazed that Disney keeps it running. I guess the scale helps soak up a lot of visitors, and a lot of the capital expenditures have already been made.

Continue reading “Disneyworld Day 2: Blizzard Beach, Epcot, Boardwalk”

VR Will Break Museums

The first sign came with the Oculus Rift DK2 last year, when I discovered that consumer virtual reality could finally replicate a sense of physical presence in a digital world.

The second came last month, when I visited the British Museum’s Sicily exhibition.

The exhibition was perfectly fine, a well-curated narrative of the Greek and Norman periods of Sicilian history — the greatest hits, if you will. But here’s the thing: I couldn’t see shit.

It was a Sunday afternoon, only four days after it opened, so of course it was busy. I queued to read labels. I queued to study maps. I queued to peer over shoulders to gawp at shiny jewellery. And even after all that queuing, I only got to see each object for a few seconds — lingering any longer just made me feel guilty.

Perhaps, I wondered, there was a problem with the layout of the exhibition? Maybe they’d placed too many objects in corners, too many long cases against walls? But that wasn’t it. The designers did the best they could, given the constraints. And on reflection, I realised that I’d spent just as much time in other popular exhibitions queuing to see stuff.

Let’s be clear, overcrowding is a problem borne of success: 6.8 million visitors per year of success, to be exact. But it’s a problem nonetheless.

So to answer the inevitable question, “Why would you want to look at ancient objects in virtual reality when you could see them in real life for free?” I say, “Because even in the best museums in the world, I can’t see shit.” Compared to that very imperfect reality, virtual reality is an improvement.

The Rosetta Stone at the British Museum

Since 2010, I’ve visited museums over 250 times. My first book was inspired by museums. I’ve consulted for the British Museum about games, and I’ve taught workshops there. I’ve even had work displayed at the Design Museum, MOMA, and the V&A.

So I say this from a place of love: VR will break museums.

Before I take that fence down, I’m going to explain what it is that museums do that’s so difficult and important.

Museum galleries and exhibitions add context to objects. They tell you what an object was used for, where it was found, who made it, how they made it, and much more besides. They accomplish this through labels, timelines, photos, drawings, models, and ‘interactives’ — but also through more subtle means, like the arrangement of objects in a continuum or a group.

Making the Modern World at the Science Museum

If you do this with the right objects, you can tell the story of a civilisation in a single room. Remove the context and you’re in a warehouse. Remove the objects, and you might as well just read a book or watch TV. The objects are a physical link with our past. They enforce discipline in our explanations, and they sow magic in our imaginations.

Unfortunately, many museum galleries do a poor job of providing context. Yes, budget constraints, time pressures, duelling priorities, etc., but when I encounter something like this:

Swords at the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge (but really, it could be anywhere)

what I see is a very pretty arrangement of contextless weapons. This isn’t bad in and of itself, but it doesn’t belong in a museum. Sure, there are labels — but they’re usually placed out of the way and arranged in a cryptic order that doesn’t correspond with the physical arrangement of the objects. The museum might as well just fire the curator, take a trip down to the stores, pick some cool-looking weapons, and then print out their names and dates.

There are many other kinds of objects and stories that museums have a hard time explaining, like musical instruments. It’s all too common for museums to render them silent, reducing them to mere pretty objects. Some will offer phones to listen to a sample, and the excellent Musical Instrument Museum in Brussels offers visitors wireless headphones that automatically play music when you stand in front of an instrument — but these are notable exceptions.

The failure to add context to objects is not a trifle to be hand waved away — it should be the entire point of a museum’s galleries and exhibitions!

You don’t need VR to solve this problem. For a weapons exhibit, I’d be happy with an illustration or animation or ‘interactive’ that compared them by accuracy, range, reload time, stopping power, cost, popularity, etc. I’m sure that donning a VR headset of dubious hygiene and spending three minutes pretending to fire rifles would be plenty of fun, but it’s not the only solution.

What VR does, however, is make it easier to add context in general. VR necessarily comprises a superset of all existing ways of adding context (lots of people enjoy watching videos and movies in VR, you know) plus it adds entirely new contexts, like simulations and recreations. Of course, this only works if the entire museum is experienced in VR; you can’t be putting on and taking off a headset every five minutes as you wander through galleries.

So if you really believe that putting weapons in a glass case is the very best display arrangement, you can still do that, except in VR you can add labels that appear next to the weapons instead of metres away (you wouldn’t believe how much of headache this is for curators). And if you’d rather teleport people into a 1:1 recreation of Chichen Itza, you can do that as well.

Anything you can do in a museum — which doesn’t include touching or smelling—VR can do better. Continue reading “VR Will Break Museums”

200 Years of Change

A game I like to play at history museums is imagining the present-day equivalents of past behaviour and objects. So at The Geffrye Museum of the Home in Hoxton, London, it’s fun to look at their Period Rooms and link up past and present behaviours.


Take the 1935 Living Room; the armchairs are pointed at the fireplace (which obviously would be a TV today), and there’s a record player and radio in the corner (also TV/hifi). Or the 1695 Parlour, in which the woman of the house would spend her day noting down the household receipts on the writing cabinet (i.e. iMac) before joining her husband for dinner and listening to him read out the day’s newspaper (watching Netflix).


Then there’s the 1790 Parlour, with a set of playing cards laid out on the table. Just imagine what present day families might do when entertaining friends – why, they’d… play cards! Or maybe boardgames. Yes, it turns out that we still all want reasons to talk and gossip in an formalised way, and the things we did back 200 years ago are still pretty much exactly the same now.


The Period Rooms go all the way up to 1998.

As you might expect from me, another fun thought experiment is imagining what the Period Room and gallery notes for 2014 would be; probably a room dominated by a big Samsung TV with a Playstation, some bluetooth speakers, Ikea bookshelves, a corner sofa, surround sound speakers, and a coffee table. “Here, the co-habiting couple would gather in the evening to watch ‘television serials’ and ‘YouTube cat videos’, while perusing social media on Twitter and Facebook on their tablet computers.”

The Period Room for 2034, of course, would just be an empty room with a near-invisible projector, an easy chair, and a virtual reality headset.

The British Museum: Ming and Germany

The British Museum has a couple of big exhibitions on at the moment, about China’s Ming dynasty and Germany.

The bigger one is undeniably Ming: 50 years that changed China, being held in the museum’s shiny new gallery. It did a solid job at contextualising what the Ming dynasty was and why 1400-1450 was so important (Beijing as the new capital, the Forbidden City, Zheng He, etc.) and the emperor’s involved, and while there were some very nice objects on display, it felt pretty antiseptic. The object that I heard the most people talking about was a lovely scroll depicting the Xuande emperor playing football, golf, and polo as part of military training exercises. You could’ve made a whole exhibition out of that…


Germany: memories of a nation doesn’t sound like the most gripping exhibition, and its subtitle “A 600-year history in objects” tellingly tries to link it to the museum’s superpowered “A History of the World in 100 Objects”. It also belies its lack of focus; the subtitle might as well have been “Some interesting stuff from Germany.” Yet it was interesting – hundreds of coins showing the Germany’s early fractured nature, interesting manufactures, Napoleon’s hat, modern artworks, wartime propaganda, and so on.

The gallery was packed full, which was rather uncomfortable given its tight confines (particularly compared to the vast spaces of the Ming exhibition). Initially, I was surprised – surely China is way more interesting and cool than Germany? – but then again, Germany is incredibly important to the UK. We feel like we know so much about it compared to other countries, perhaps because the history taught in schools is so obsessed with WW1 and WW2, but it turns out that the vast majority of people, myself included, really know very little about any part of Europe. And with Germany effectively powering the European Union, and with popular sentiment pitted so firmly against the EU, it’s hardly surprising at all that the exhibition would be popular.

So: more European exhibitions, please!

A History of the Future in 100 Objects

Last year, I listened to a programme on Radio 4 called A History of the World in 100 Objects. It took 25 hours, or 1500 minutes.

In the show, the BBC and the British Museum attempted to describe the entire span of human history through 100 objects – from a 2 million year-old Olduvai stone cutting tool, to the Rosetta Stone, to a credit card from the present day. Instead of treating history in a tired, abstract way, the format of the show encouraged real energy and specificity; along with four million other listeners, I was riveted.

After the show ended, I immediately thought, “What are the next 100 objects going to be?”

Which 100 objects would future historians in 2100 use to sum up our century? A vat-grown steak? A Chinese flag from Mars? The first driverless car? Smart drugs that change the way we think? And beyond the science and technology, how would the next century change the way in which we live and work? What will families, countries, companies, religions, and nations look like, decades from now?

I couldn’t stop thinking about it – it was the perfect mix of speculation grounded in science fact and science fiction. So I’m creating a new blog called A History of the Future in 100 Objects. I’m going to try and answer those questions through a series of 100 posts, one for each object. Along the way, I want to create a podcast and a newspaper ‘from the future’, and when I’ve finished, I’ll put it all together as a book.

Before I begin, though, I’m raising money to help pay for the podcast and printing the newspapers and books, and I need your help.

If you visit my Kickstarter page, you can pledge money towards the project in return for all sorts of goodies, including getting copies of the newspaper and books.

(Kickstarter is a very neat way of funding projects through individual pledges. A creator – like me – sets up a project and a target amount, and only if the target is reached does any money get paid. So there’s no risk – if I don’t make the target, then you won’t get charged! Plus they take payments on credit cards from around the world, which is handy and much easier than messing about with PayPal).

I’m really excited about this project – it’s going to be the first book-length piece of writing I’ll have done, and it’s going to combine a lot of my experience from writing about science and technology and thinking about the future. It also touches on a big interest of mine, which is new modes of publishing: I toyed around with pitching the idea to a publisher first, but I want to see how far I can get with the community’s help (that’s you!).

So, if you’re interested in the project, please check out the Kickstarter page and support it – even just a single dollar is really helpful! And if you know anyone who might be interested, please pass the word on.

It’s a brave new world out there – let’s see what’s going to happen…

Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?

I visit the Science Museum in London at least twice a year, so I was interested to read an interview with their new Director, talking about how he’s going to change the place:

A month into his job, Professor Rapley is sitting in his South Kensington office, telling me that broadly the museum’s collection celebrates “the advances in technology since the Industrial Revolution, right up to, but not quite including, today”.

He wants to turn that on its head. “Its image is that it looks backwards through its collection. It’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children. Where we want to go with it, the tag line is, ‘the museum of the future’.” He would like the museum to be sufficiently up-to-date that someone seeing, say, a climate-change sceptic on TV, might think, “I’m confused about climate change. I’d better go to the Science Museum and see what they’re presenting in order to help me make up my mind.”

Prof. Rapley is spot on when he says that ‘it’s a museum, it’s historical, and it’s for children’. I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing (and I suspect he agrees), but I’m pleased with his desire to make the museum more up-to-date for adults. Unfortunately, I remain to be convinced that he’ll be able to accomplish this.

Every single science museum I’ve visited (including ones in London, Liverpool, Glasgow, DC, Seattle, Philadelphia, San Diego, Amsterdam, San Francisco and Sydney) tries to stay up-to-date with scientific developments with exactly the same methods:

  • Scientific news stories shown on computer touchscreens and big TVs

Basically useless. If you’re an adult in a science museum, you probably know a little about science, and you will know how to use the internet. So why bother coming in to a museum to read about science news on a computer, when you can do that at home?

  • Quarterly, or perhaps monthly, standing displays on scientific issues

Not current enough – people forget about stuff after a month, certainly three months.

  • Short talks from scientists, a few times a day

Not only do visitors need to be aware of when the talks are happening, but they need to be there on time and have the patience to sit through it. This is an unlikely confluence of events.

  • Guys dressed in white labcoats sitting behind a desk, ready to answer scientific questions

Who talks to these guys? what are you supposed to say? ‘What are your views on stem cells?’ No-one expects someone to be knowledgeable in every scientific discipline, so that further dissuades any questions.

So, you can see why I am very doubtful about the ability of the Science Museum to stay up-to-date. Continue reading “Can the Science Museum be up-to-date?”