Mannequins, models and simulations: The Oxford Story

Oxford story 1Oxford story 2Oxford story 3

The entrance to every ‘old’ college in Oxford and Cambridge looks fairly similar. There is a Porters’ Lodge, staffed by grumpy men, a notice board advertising upcoming events of interest to undergraduates, and a narrow vista through to the court or quad. The above photographs are highly representative, except that they are all photos of models. Look closely at the first picture, and you see an incongruous rubbish bin in the bottom left: we are inside a building rather than outside on the street. In the bottom right you can glimpse the top of a velvet rope, as is found in many museums. The porter does not move, because he is a lifeless model. The stone walls are made of plaster, the view to the court is a trompe l’oiel, and so on. We are not in an Oxford college; we are in The Oxford Story on Broad Street. This whole model is so good, though, that I assumed the polite notice requesting no photography was part of the exhibit, a representative object of a sign seen in Porters’ Lodge’s, and happily continued taking photos until told off by a stern woman in a uniform, who again I at first thought was part of the whole performance.

What follows after this simulation of the entrance to an Oxford College is simultaneously ridiculous and tedious. In what should be the model for any future Harry Potter rides at Disneyland, you pass through an antechamber and then sit in a rollercoaster car shaped like a nineteenth century scholar’s desk. You then ascend and descend steep inclines, surrounded by velvet drapes and electric candlesticks, very slowly indeed. During the ride, the history of Oxford (and England) is narrated over headphones, illustrated by strategically placed full size models of Good Queens (Elizabeth I), Bad Queens (Mary Tudor), Flawed Kings (Charles I), and numerous illustrious Oxford men such as Roger Bacon, Thomas Hobbes and Elias Ashmole (all Quite Good). The whole thing takes nearly three quarters of an hour, ending with a stirring description of how Oxford combines tradition with innovation, going fearlessly forward into the 21st century.

Museums usually contain numerous models that either make large things small or small things large in order to make both the large and the small comprehensible. Models at a 1:1 scale exist too, however, both within and without museums. Usually the reason for a 1:1 replica of an object is that the object either no longer exists, or that it exists far away, or it is inaccessible. Examples include the model of the Altamira Cave in the Deutsches Museum, the recreation of Venice with canals and gondolas at the Venetian Hotel, Las Vegas, The Cloisters Museum in New York City (an entire museum in the northern tip of Manhattan designed to look like a medieval monastery), and the recreation of Check Point Charlie on the border between Kreuzberg and Mitte in Berlin (the original having been moved to a museum).

Oxford College Porters’ Lodges, however, both exist today, and exist very near by. Within a hundred yards of the simulation of a Porters’ Lodge are numerous real ones, through which, either for free or for a fee considerably less than the £7.50 it costs to enter the Oxford Story, one can enter a real college. Why then would anyone want a simulation, however good it is, when the real thing is immediately accessible? The exhibition itself, the slow rollercoaster ride, whilst containing models of people and objects, presents a history that, knowing little about the University of Oxford, I could have predicted: it is an unsophisticated, simplistic, uncritical heroic narrative. Critically engaging with the past is not its aim. The Porters’ Lodge at the beginning of the attraction, therefore, is utterly incongruous: it is a highly, indeed unnecessarily, accurate representation of what a college really looks like, attached to a rather silly rollercoaster ride. So there is a further question in addition to the question of why would anyone want a simulation when the real thing is available next door: how could anyone believe a fake history after being presented with such a real simulation? Why don’t more people ask for their money back?

[03/05/2014: I wrote this nearly 8 years ago. £7.50 seemed like an awful lot of money at the time. Not all Oxbridge college Porters are grumpy, and these days some of them are even women. There is now Harry Potter theme park in Florida. The Oxford Story sadly closed soon after I wrote my post. I don’t think there was a connection. The blog post was originally published here: http://scientificobjects.mpiwg-berlin.mpg.de/scientificobjectsPublic/docroot/mpiwg/network/html/wanderer/start.html]

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One Response to Mannequins, models and simulations: The Oxford Story

  1. Pingback: The Museum Mannequin – scene stealer or scene setter | Tincture of Museum

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