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Futurist Friday: Apocalypse for One

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog

Yesterday Stuart Candy, on his Skeptical Futuryst Blog, drew readers’ attention to a dark, elaborate scenario that played out on UK television last year. “Derren Brown: Apocalypse” is a two-part special that Candy describes as “Orson Welles’ 1938 Radio Play War of the Worlds meets The Truman Show.” Brown leads the hapless “star” of the special to believe that the end of the world has arrived–faking Armageddon to make one complacent and somewhat self-centered individual more appreciative of his real life. 

I’m interested in the show (which I have queued up to watch this weekend) as an example of an immersive scenario–an experience engineered to bring potential futures to life in a way that written stories can’t. As Nina Simon laments on the Museum Two blog this week, museums rarely use their skills to create immersive, compelling, in-depth stories, even though such experiences can have the deepest and most lasting impact on the audience.  I’ve been thinking about how to design and present an such a scenario through CFM–perhaps staging a museum conference taking place in 2035, or inviting people to attend an open meeting of a museum’s board taking place 20 years hence. So I’m studying examples for tips on how to make such experiences  practical, credible and effective. 

Whether or not you watch Brown’s Apocalypse, I recommend Candy’s post for his commentary on the production (thought warning–he gives plot spoilers). His post includes a thoughtful meditation on the nature and power of storytelling, a theme we will explore at the Alliance conference in Baltimore this May. Who is being deceived in Apocalypse–the protagonist or the audience? Does it matter? Does it matter if the audience knows they are being gamed? 

I’ve long thought that some of the most compelling stories flirt with us, being transparently ambiguous about their orientation as truth or fiction. This approach to audience courtship made me lose my heart to the Museum of Jurassic Technology. And I wish I could see this new installation by Mark Dion at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, which creates in loving detail the office of a vanished curator (who never existed). 

Nina observes that museums too often settle for broad generalizations rather than delving into specific narratives. I think another thing that weakens many museum narratives is a ponderous insistence on authoritative truth. I find stories more compelling (and engaging) when they invite me to use my critical facilities, attention and maybe some research skills to challenge the narrative they present. I like a exhibit that I can disagree with, question, or even suspect is an outright fake. Sometimes uncertainty keeps life, dating, and museums more interesting. 

Anyway, here is episode 1 of Darren Brown’s Apocalypse. Care to watch with me?

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