Last week in London, Queen Elizabeth opened the new Churchill Museum. Twelve million dollars and ten years in the making, the spectacularly innovative showplace located in the basement of the Treasury Building in Whitehall instantly assumes a yin/yang relationship with its pointedly low-tech companion exhibit of the actual World War II Cabinet War Room. In keeping with the sensitivities of our age, the creators declared their intent to present a complete portrait, warts and all, of the first British civilian to have his own museum.
Because it came in at almost exactly one half the cost of Christo’s concurrent Central Park TP party, one must think twice before criticizing such a comprehensive and meticulous gathering of objects — some personal, some iconic — from the man’s nine decades. Also, one must stand back and appreciate the creativity and technical wizardry of the room’s path-breaking multimedia presentations. Unfortunately, this fruit of a decade’s labor and considerable fortune is a 7200-square-foot mishmash, possessing all the moral and historic clarity of Rudolph Hess’s ill-fated 1941 solo “peace mission” to Glasgow. Worse actually, because at least Hess wore an enemy uniform.
“It’s a twenty-first century project about a twentieth century giant,” enthuses the project’s historical consultant David Reynolds. That statement alone gives the alert visitor a clue as to how the deck will be stacked: judging a 19th century man by 20th century standards from the perspective of the 21st is a classic sucker’s set-up. Just ask Abe Lincoln, now fending off accusations of homosexuality because he engaged in the practice du jour of having male roommates.
ON ENTERING THE EXHIBIT, new arrivals immediately catch on that this is not your grandfather’s museum. Gone are such old-fangled concepts as hierarchal or narrative presentations. Instead, via the magic of invisible data servers, the visitor is encouraged to make choices on what to see and thus construct his own experience. History has met Souplantation (a popular U.S. chain of salad buffets), and surrendered.
The gateway corridor presents what the organizers apparently believe is the essence of Churchill’s importance: words. Not ideas, mind you — just words. We are confronted with collage displays of memorable speeches, and then screen displays that playfully jumble words and phrases and encourage the visitor to drag and drop them in different ways. Meaning takes a holiday, as the words are stripped of sentence, paragraph — and historic — context. Much like vegetarians who call everyone else “carnivores” or childless-by-choicers who label the rest of us “breeders,” the presenters practice linguistic materialism; by examining Churchill’s words only by their functionality, they obscure significant appreciation of their profound moral or spiritual overtones.
As befits a 21st century museum, the visitor is confronted with many new modes of exhibition. On the interactive foreign policy map, this reporter experienced his own Homer Simpson moment; nearly disabling the experience until an adjacent spectator politely introduced himself as the designer of said exhibit and patiently demonstrated how to slide the five pound mouse-like object. This kind of visual sophistication, demanding immediate intuitive understanding of totally new user interface paradigms, should only present difficulty to those over age 25. More troubling is the effect on one’s brain after mastering the controls: the new interfaces further leverage the materials’ disconnectedness from structured reasoning.
Of course, even nonjudgementalism has its limits. Just as Souplantation may put the less expensive vegetables in an easier to reach position, the organizers have engineered the kiosks in such a way that you will most probably be drawn to those that present what they consider warts if not fatal flaws. Not surprisingly, the disastrous Dardanelles campaign has its own shrine. In another nook, the old man’s lifelong, rigid hatred of Communism is pointedly presented not as Reaganesque idealism, but rather as an off-putting tic that undermined consensus leadership.
A review of Churchill’s relationship with the women’s suffrage movement is the most subtle dig, and maybe the most effective. A newsreel loop begins with familiar scenes of women marching in dresses and hats. Within a minute, the clip climaxes with the 1913 sacrifice suicide of uber-suffragette Emily Wilding Davison, as she rushes the Epsom Derby race course and intercepts the King’s horse Anmer. Now, for the curators to paint Winston as proxy for the murderous jockey would have been ridiculous. To characterize him as a misogynist would be provably inaccurate. Instead, he gets the Wilhelm Furtwangler treatment, presented as someone who could have done much more in the pursuit of justice but instead chose silence.
BY FAR, THE MOST INSIDIOUS component of the exhibition is its showpiece contraption, the interactive “lifeline” worthy of George Orwell on a very bad day if someone had lent him Macromedia Flash. Right at the physical center of the museum’s celebration of random access is — you guessed it — an agenda. Embedded in a 6’-by-40’ table is a plasma touch screen, allowing the visitor to expand, day by day, on the details of any moment in Churchill’s life. So far so good, once you teach your fingers to suspend the “mouse click” paradigm and shift to touch and glide.
The galling part seems to come every ten minutes or so. As people around the timeline manipulate their particular strip of the calendar, they unknowingly activate hidden triggers — think of Groucho Marx and “say the secret word.” Instead of a chicken coming down from the ceiling, all hell breaks loose. There’s a sudden loud bass boom that rumbles around the entire museum. Then, the entire timeline table screen goes white, akin to a nuclear holocaust wipeout.
I have no idea what this intervention is supposed to mean. Stuff happens? The fruits of warmongering? The futility of existence? What I’m sure about is that it’s sneaky and it’s wrong.
The atomized environment (no pun intended) has a sinister side effect. By presenting every aspect of Churchill’s life from his christening gown through his last paintings as a tangentially related jumble, the exhibit encourages the visitor — especially the young and/or the naive — to eschew critical thinking and just enjoy the experience. Then, having disposed of moral or historic baggage, the presenters use a sledgehammer to somehow graft world annihilation to the life of Winston Churchill.
Maybe Churchill — who famously described Russia as a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma — would enjoy the paradox of his own museum. The presenters have succeeded in collecting a breathtakingly broad sample of objects from the man’s life, only to present them in a profoundly non-Churchill, non-structured Punjab bazaar. Funny or not, the joke has an unpleasant aftertaste.
The brilliance of Churchill’s leadership was his ability to give the present a sense of continuity and context. Memorable phrases like “never have so many owed so much to so few…” or “last a thousand years… this would be our finest hour” have little or no meaning outside of a national narrative context. Without context, the RAF are killers in the air. Without context, the deprivations of the blitz are just that — depressing deprivations and no more. With so little or no moral context provided by the organizers, visitors slip into a twilight akin to that of a stroke victim just returning home from the hospital — surrounded by the familiar but unsure as to how it all fits together.
Ultimately, this exhibit does not deserve to stand on British public land. By uncritically presenting nonlinear fact elements, and then lacing the experience with anachronistic swipes at the great man, the Churchill Museum has failed two mission-critical responsibilities of any national exhibit: to define coherently the moral underpinnings of the host culture and to render those events and ideas transmittable across generations.
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