Re-activating the natural history museum

With the risk of being accused for playing to the gallery, Australian Museum in Sydney has opened its exhibitions for the Jurassic Lounge. Every Tuesday night the last months, people have queued up to dance among the dinosaur skeletons, mingle in the atrium surrounded by techno music and projections, listen to live music in the skeleton hall, admire the museum’s collections of gemstones, fossils and stuffed Australian extinct animals with drinks in their hands and perhaps listen to a talk. The Jurassic Lounge completely transforms, and re-activates, the museum’s classical interior. But it also works the other way around, the museum environment re-activates musicians, dj:s, performers, movies and the audience.

Dinosaurs attract many children and they became cultural block busters a few decades ago with Steven Spielberg’s movie Jurassic Park. In BBC:s series Walking with Dinosaurs they balance on the verge between education and children’s popular culture. In short, dinosaurs have great cultural allure and this has helped natural history museums to attract visitors as well as it has provided them with extra incomes as they fill their shops with dinosaur merchandise.

Making museums into places for pleasure and consumption, is not a 21th century, or even a late 20th century phenomenon. In her 2003 book, Re-imagine the museum: beyond the mausoleum, Andrea Witcomb points to the way museums already in the 19th century oscillated between on the one hand high culture and education and on the other hand popular culture and entertainment.

Visiting the Jurassic Lounge, I was struck by the way its organizers had managed to attract a mixed crowd. The visitors were mainly in their twenties but there were people of all ages. We all played around among the dinosaur skeletons and life-sized models, exploring the interactive displays, or trying out the tools of a paleontologist. And, what surprised me the most, people actually took time to look at and the discuss the exhibitions, at least the ones on natural history. The museum’s cultural exhibitions, on Australia’s indiginous people were left outside the spotlights of this event. I was equally surprised by the staff’s relaxed attitude. They discretely watched over people eating noodles from boxes of noodles sitting on the fitted carpet. When did you last have a picnic at a museum?

According to the event’s website, Jurassic Lounge is presented by the Australian museum in association with the Festivalists Ltd, a non-profit company specialising in promoting independent and under-represented filmmakers & artists.

April 19 was the last date for Jurassic Lounge this time. For those of you that missed out the event, the Australian museum also offers a sleep over at the museum in September.

Bodil Axelsson

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