How does an exhibit about superheroes complement the museum’s mandate?
The Durham Museum is a history museum. One of the things we like about the Hall of Heroes exhibit is that it does a really good job of showing how pop culture is history and how you can use something like superheroes to connect different generations of people. The Durham Museum is a place for generations to connect and this exhibit is very much what that is about — it’s about mom and dad coming in with their children and being able to speak about Spider-Man and Iron Man. It’s about connecting and looking at pop culture history through the lens of superheroes.
Superheroes are just as fascinating for previous generations as they are today. There are not a lot of topics that can span the generational time gap.
Walk us through the exhibit as it’s laid out in the museum.
The exhibit is not only about the superheroes but also about their special powers and abilities.
There are five disciplines reflected in the exhibit: Powers of the Body, Powers of the Mind, Mastery, Gadgets, and Elements. The exhibit starts with an interactive station that puts visitors into one of these five disciplines. These disciplines are reflected throughout the exhibit and there are stations where guests can test out those superpowers — things like how high you can jump, how strong you are, and mind puzzles. These interactive elements speak to the ability of a superhero and the characteristics that make a superhero.
There are full-scale scale replicas of superheroes along with tangible history, such as movie and television props. There are large-scale photo ops with the superheroes themselves. The exhibit features superhero characters and it also encourages guests to discover their own superpowers by looking inside themselves for what makes them unique and special — a superhero in one’s own right.
We have a permanent exhibition program at the museum and we have temporary exhibitions from different lenders across the world. Hall of Heroes is put together by Exhibits Development Group (EDG). I want to be sure they get the credit for this exhibition.
Tell us a bit more about the immersive and interactive experiences you have planned for guests.
There certainly is an element of physical ability to some superheroes — strength, reflexes, balance. Those are powers of the body. But then there are the other four disciplines I mentioned earlier — powers of the mind, mastery, gadgets, and elements.
Not all superheroes are incredibly strong or fast. Some rely on their brain power. A number of our interactive stations test memory and senses such as hearing, smell, and sight. There’s even a section about humour and how it can be a tool that someone uses as a defence. When you look at the movies and even the old cartoons, there is often humourous dialogue or comedy used to make the villain look silly. There are so many interactive stations in the exhibit. Only a portion of them deals with physical abilities. It’s easy to think about the physical abilities of superheroes, but other elements can make them different or special and give them superpowers.
The wow-factor of the show is seeing these superheroes in person. I think that will be really cool for guests of all ages. But, they really just set the scene for the exhibit. Guests work their way through interactive stations that focus on those other elements, too.
Pop culture’s fascination with superheroes doesn’t seem to be slowing down. Why do you think people of all ages continue to be fascinated by these characters?
I love that question and I don’t know the answer.
We say that all of the exhibits at the museum appeal to everyone, which is true. But you don’t see many topics that have stood the test of time like these superheroes. It’s rare to find a topic that appeals to everyone, something that is just as interesting to a four-year-old as it is to my 80-year-old father. That’s one of the things that makes superheroes so interesting. Some would argue they are more popular today than they ever were, with the number of superhero films being put out. There’s something about superheroes that lets you get lost in their world and use your imagination. Most of the superheroes aren’t cool people in their real lives. There’s something about that everyone can see a little of themselves in.
We had an exhibit a few years ago about Jim Henson. That’s the only thing that I can think of that comes close to this in terms of spanning generations. People remember Henson’s characters from the beginnings in black-and-white to The Muppets, Fraggle Rock, and Labyrinth. As for superheroes, we are still seeing new ones every year and they are still growing and changing. That’s what makes it fun and fascinating, I think.
Not totally off-topic, I want to mention that we have an upcoming exhibit featuring the vintage lunchbox collection of Mark Kelehan. He’s a collector here in Omaha and has one of the largest vintage lunchbox collections in the world. Obviously, lunchboxes include a lot more than superheroes but they were a huge part of lunchbox culture. It’s another way for generations of people to connect and talk about pop culture. Picking out a lunchbox is a kid’s first identity. What was featured on lunchboxes is also pop-culture history. That exhibit runs March 4, 2023 through Labour Day. It overlaps with the Hall of Heroes exhibit for the months of March and April.
What do you hope guests take away from their time at the exhibit?
Going back to what I said about the exhibit being a way for different generations of people to connect with one another, we’re always looking for opportunities where people of different ages and backgrounds can connect around a common theme.
The history buff in me hopes people will take away a little bit of the history of superheroes and their influence on popular culture and society.
The exhibit is a great way to show people the values that are important in a superhero and encourages those correlations to people in their everyday lives. Doctors, nurses, and first responders do incredible things — we hope everybody will walk away thinking about how they could have an impact on others.
We are all different and we can talk about that in the exhibit and show these different types of superheroes. It even gives us the opportunity to talk about the evolution of the superhero, such as when we saw the first female superhero and the first superhero of colour. These moments did not happen a very long time ago. There’s still an evolution ongoing and the exhibit is the opportunity to have that dialogue.
Overall, people are going to have fun. It would be silly for us to say that our number one goal isn’t for people just to come and have a blast and experience this incredible exhibit. It’s going to be a really fun show and if, when we feature a topic like superheroes, also talk about some of those other important things, what a great chance to be able to make that correlation.
The Hall of Heroes exhibit runs from January 28, 2023 to April 16, 2023. Visit The Durham Museum website for more information.
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