House of Silicone: Displaying macabre and contested history
The Battle of Örlygsstaðir, copyright Saga Museum, 2017.
In House of Wax (1953), Prof. Jarrod argues with his investor about the value of his Wax Museum. To turn a profit, it needs to feature great villains of the past. The curator disagrees, placing aesthetical and historical validity and value above economic growth. The Saga Museum, Iceland, is within the boundaries of this discussion, valuing both beauty, realism and a healthy profit margin.
There is a constant need to affirm the economic and social value of museums, often done by emphasising education; they display ‘real’ history, art and nature. Thereby museums are distanced from low-brow forms of entertainment, such as ‘dark tourism’ and blockbuster exhibitions, including dungeon museums, providing an experience resembling haunted-houses in amusement parks as opposed to distinguished educational experiences.
Yet history itself is gruesome and shocking, which is especially clear in historical wax museums. At the Saga Museum, the nation’s most famous historical moments (both fictional and real) are brought to life with silicone. Therein lies the true uniqueness as well as controversy of the museum, frequently deemed as empty sensationalism, undermining the Icelandic museum sector by displaying an outdated version of history, one based on oral storytelling traditions and glorified historical narratives.
In this talk House of Wax (1953) is used as an analytical tool to discuss the Saga museum’s use of the uncanny and sensational, rather than working to dissolve the dark atmosphere in favour of a more realistic, muted and distanced historical narrative. The aim is to create a discussion on the limitations of restrictive museum practices, relating to a neutral exhibition ‘voice’.
Dr. Gudrun D Whitehead is Assistant Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Iceland. She has a background in literature and folklore and a PhD in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester. Her co-edited volume, Fashioning Horror: Dressing to Kill on Screen and in Literature, comes out in 2017.