A recent newspaper article got me thinking about preserving traditional skills. Commendably, British museums and heritage sites have encouraged the conservation of traditional arts and crafts such as dry stonewalling, thatching, hedge laying... I could go on.
At the same time museums have often been accused of indulging in 'safe' heritage, making the past easy to digest for audiences. The process of safe selection goes on when museums decide which objects to display. Perhaps less consciously museums are also selecting safe traditions and skills to preserve. Which brings me to the newspaper article.
The Daily Telegraph on 11th August 2011 showcased the training (for a price) to fly a Spitfire. Not just any training, but the actual combat training RAF pilots would have got in 1940 before being let loose on the Luftwaffe.
Naturally safe preservation of heritage being what it is, the trainees are not then allowed to shoot down any German planes which have the temerity to cross the Straits of Dover. This is because we are not at war with the Germans, we just bask in the glow of having helped defeat Hitler and refuse to move on.
This led me to reflect on the new economics of museums and how they can earn money and keep traditional skills alive. The RAF Museum at Hendon declaring war on a foreign country is not feasible, and although I admit I haven't seen the forward plan for the Imperial War Museum I think it unlikely that they will celebrate the 100th anniversary of the outbreak of WWI with a flanking move into Belgium.
The simple solution is torture.
Many regimes, including our own fair government, have indulged in what might be regarded by more sensitive souls as infringements of human rights. At the same time numerous museums have collections that point to a past which suggested this kind of activity was relatively common. If you are a museum curator ask yourself, have you used your stocks,scolds bridle,iron maiden or rack lately? Do you even know how to use them properly?
A quick email to the intelligence agency of your choice offering your equipment for use (for suitable remuneration) will get more of your collections out of storage, improve the income generation of the museum and keep traditional torture methods alive by getting dubious confessions 'the old fashioned way'.
In the immortal words of the torture scene in Marathon Man, 'Is it safe?' now need not always be applied to museums and that can only be a good thing for the preservation of all aspects of our past.