Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Careful with That Axe, Stanley … some random thoughts on displaying artefacts

From April to September 2019 The Design Museum in London hosted a retrospective of the life and career of Stanley Kubrick. It was a magnificent show that placed his movies in context, and displayed rarely-seen items from his archives. It was all timed to coincide with the 20th anniversary of Kubrick’s death and the release of his final movie – the tragically under regarded Eyes Wide Shut. I was lucky enough to get to see it twice (once in the presence of my eldest son, himself an emerging Kubrick acolyte).

There was just so much on display that it was hard to take it all in. There were original costumes, scripts, clapperboards, even the remarkable cameras he used to film the breath-taking Barry Lyndon. While there is much to enthuse about, Kubrick is relatively recent for consideration by an archaeology blog (even this one!). Instead, I want to mention two items that caught my attention for how they were displayed.

Axes. Original Props. The Stanley Kubrick Archive, University of the Arts London

The exhibition included two axes used by Jack Nicholson to break down the door in the famous ‘Here’s Johnny’ scene from The Shining. The scene is famous for, among other things, reducing Shelley Duvall to tears with 217 takes of the scene. While the large carving knife wielded by Duvall was on display in a glass-topped cabinet, the axes were displayed with their blades embedded in the exhibition wall.
For comparison: Axes in the Ulster Museum, Belfast. See Blog Post
It struck me as particularly effective in conveying both the menace of the scene and the destructive power of the axes to have them like this as opposed to the usual treatment we see of axes/axe heads in museum spaces. Here, they’re frequently shown held to a background panel and flat-face on. There are good reasons for this, not least of which is the fact that most prehistoric axes are lacking their handles. Unfortunately, in an effort to show the ancient artefact off to its best, the physical menace and violent potential that these artefacts must have embodied is lost. In contrast, Duvall’s long knife (which actually grievously wounded Nicholson’s character in the movie) seems unthreatening in its glass case. It is as though the formality of its presentation has stolen away the terror and violence it represented. I’m not arguing that all prehistoric axes should be immediately re-displayed, but it might be interesting to see the occasional one or two given back a feeling for the lethal force they once possessed in their working lives.

The first part of the title is taken from Pink Floyd’s Careful with That Axe, Eugene, from 1969’s album Ummagumma. But, of course, you knew that.

1 comment:

  1. Yes, I knew that. Now could we also have bullets and cannon balls displayed as'in use'?