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When is a museum not a museum?

Anne-Marie Museum Definition Blog

When is a museum not a museum?

Long gone are the days of the cabinets of curiosity, spaces crammed with objects and artefacts only accessible to a select group of people, with very little interpretation. But, what do museums look like today and what are they for?

Are they an educational resource, a tourist attraction or an escape from the rain? Should they have interpretation boards, glass display cases and the all important gift shop?

We all have expectations and ideas of what a museum is, but if these elements are found at a location not identified as a traditional heritage site, can the title of museum be bestowed upon it?

The Making of Harry Potter

Leavesden film studios in London has a long history that stretches back beyond its motion picture heritage, with the film hangers previously being utilised as an aircraft factory. Following the success and completion of the Harry Potter film series, the decision was made to create a studio tour, allowing visitors behind the scenes access to experience the film sets from the perspective of the actors and see the props and costumes that were used, opening their doors to the public on 31st March 2012. The organisation prides themselves on their authenticity and producing film inspired activities, where you can even fly a broomstick!

This was an unusual concept, as following the completion of many films, props and sets are generally dismantled to be either sold or disposed of. Sets were reassembled, a similar process of period room recreation, as well as depicting the social history of literary characters. Interpretation boards explaining objects and production methods litter the exhibition space, as well as models and objects displayed in glass cases, a visible archive store and a small art exhibition. A staff member provided insight into the costumes used in the final film, explaining how they were only designed to last 18 months, but are on display 17 years later. Whilst handling the costumes to allow visitors a closer look, the staff member wore white gloves and provided a demonstration on how the clothing was distressed to show age and wear from battle scenes.

On Site Resources

As well as an amazing gift shop (I spent far too much each time I visited), there is a restaurant, a café (try the Butterbeer ice cream!), a free cloakroom and a ‘Knight bus’ even picks you up from Watford train station, dropping you off at the door of the studios. Visitors can purchase souvenir guidebooks, as well as taking advantage of a digital guide available in nine languages. Are these resources sounding familiar?

There are interactive exhibits, encouraging visitors to be hands on to experience the films production and harness your wizardry skills. The gallery spaces are updated regularly, with the inclusion of new objects and activities, as well as the recent expansion to accommodate the Hogwarts Express train, recreating Kings Cross Station, and the Forbidden Forest. I have been to the Studio Tour three times and each time I see, learn and experience something new. Even though the films have finished, the exhibition continues to evolve to capture the current and new audience.

But how unique is this approach?

Temporary and touring exhibitions featuring objects from films and TV series have featured at different sites but rarely are the sole focus of a museum, not necessarily regarded as what we expect to be traditional museum objects. I particularly enjoyed the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy exhibition at the Science Museum, celebrating the work of Douglas Adams, and asking the audience to consider how his science fiction ideas could become science fact.

The immersive experience, getting behind the scenes access, has become a popular entertainment method, expanding beyond walking tours of filming locations. The newly opened Emmerdale experience provides you with the opportunity to stand behind the bar of the Woolpack and pretend to pull your own pint. The production set designers are curators, selecting key items, preserving and displaying them to ensure consistency and continuity, reflecting a community’s personality and heritage.

Doctor Who Experience

Another favourite location of mine is the Doctor Who Experience in Cardiff. Similarly to The Making of Harry Potter you are able to set foot on the film sets of past and present series, see the costumes up close, as well as props and concept development. Before you even step foot in to the exhibition hall, you have to safely operate the TARDIS and navigate your way through a perilous journey, facing some of the Doctor’s greatest foes. You can even have lessons on how to walk like a monster and dress up as your favourite Doctor.

Museums come in all shapes and forms, having different names and activity definitions. I would class The Making of Harry Potter studio tour as a museum, in its preservation, display and interpretation of key objects important to British film history, but this may not be a shared opinion. The organisation pushes the boundaries of what we can expect from a tourist site, continuing to attract visitors from all over the world with its immersive experience.

By Anne-Marie Rooney, Resilience Syndicate Intern

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