Of Holes and Collective Wholes

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When I first read about it earlier this year, it struck me as being both tragic and wonderfully intriguing in equal measure. In the early hours of the 2nd of February 2014, an enormous sinkhole appeared in the middle of Bowling Green, Kentucky’s National Corvette Museum (NCM), collapsing a large area of the gallery floor and swallowing up eight of its prized racing cars. Last week, the museum directors have finally made the decision that the enormous geographical fault must be filled in. I was not sure how I felt about this development however, and I wondered if by filling the sinkhole, the museum is deaccessioning one of its greatest exhibits, leaving them with a new hole, one in their collection, that they may never be able to remedy.

 

Whilst obviously being a scene of massive devastation, the sinkhole in actuality has proven to be somewhat of a blessing in disguise for the museum. A shrewd business move from the directors, likely in part fuelled by an unwillingness to close during its 20th anniversary year, saw the museum reopen the very next day, to massive spikes in attendance and interest. Since the hole appeared, the NCM has seen attendance and revenue increase by nearly 70%, and generated worldwide intrigue with a YouTube video of the hole and the damage it caused totalling over 8 million views to date.

 

The museum has embraced the hole as an important part of its identity, providing a bounty of sinkhole-related merchandise including t-shirts, DVDs, mugs and all the other standard gift shop fare. I have said many times in this blog that a museum experience should always provide the extraordinary, and both the NCM and its visitors immediately recognised the attraction that this particular sight provided.

 

In addition to the sinkholes visible appeal and marketability, there is also a case to be made for its preservation in that it is now a distinct part of the museums twenty-year history. It is a history that is literally ingrained in the fabric of the building and the sinkhole cannot be considered at this point as anything other than a major exhibit, so to fill it in could surely be accused of deaccession?

 

Having said that however, the sinkhole as a historical object has already been compromised. Those who flocked to see the 30 feet deep chasm witnessed a spectacular sight of destruction, what the Wall Street Journal described as a “yawning abyss,” filled with half a million dollars worth of damaged antiquity. That was the real showpiece exhibit. The hole today has been excavated and all eight cars successfully reclaimed from its depths. While still undeniably an impressive sight, it is no longer the same exhibit that caused such fanfare the day after it appeared.

 

In addition to this, the hole in its entirety cannot be preserved. It measures 60 by 40 feet wide and the cost of making it structurally sound places the option well beyond viability. Indeed, the chief reason given by the NCM for not preserving the sinkhole was that their proposal to retain only a small part of it was estimated as being well over a $1 million development. Preserving a tiny portion of the geographical fault would be of little interest to me either though, especially at such cost. The hole with the cars removed has already lost some of its lustre, a mostly filled-in hole, still with no cars has even less.

 

There had been talk at one point of placing one of the mangled sports cars back in as a memorial to the event, however this to me would be another contentious issue. Museum collections are of course preserved for the benefit of the people, and placing one of the wrecks back in the hole would undoubtedly provide a more educational and entertaining experience for the visitor, however the safety of said collection must always be ensured. Of the eight cars that the sinkhole successfully swallowed up, only three are to be repaired to their previous condition. However, to admit an object is beyond repair is not to admit that it is beyond conservation. These tragically mangled cars, despite their condition, remain important historical artefacts.

 

Additionally, one of these cars was a donation to the museum, received only three months prior to the accident. To cast one of the cars back into the hole on account of irreparable damage would show a lack of compassion to the donors who so kindly entrusted their possessions to the museum. The other five remaining damaged cars would be displayed for the public to view elsewhere in the museum, so there is no case that can reasonably be made to single one out to be placed back at the sight of its wreckage, where what remained of it could not be afforded the conservational safety of its counterparts. I am all for museums pushing the envelope, and being creative and exciting with their interpretive methods, but to place any of the cars back in the sinkhole would be inappropriate and unethical.

 

Lastly, there is the issue of whether a sinkhole really has any place within the collection of a Corvette museum anyway. Exhibits earn their place in museum displays through their historical, cultural and social relevance to its audience. The sinkhole admittedly has some of that now, but it did muscle its way in. Needless to say the acquisition of a giant geographical fault would have been far from welcome if you had asked the NCM directors the day before they had one forced upon them. Were the site at Bowling Green home to a natural history museum the sinkhole may have had a case for retention, but an institution dedicated to the display and preservation of automobiles can easily argue against such obligation.

 

It seems filling the hole does indeed make both financial and museological sense. A showpiece exhibit cannot excuse jeopardising the safety of a museum collection; this is why the cars have already been removed. To preserve only part of the sinkhole reduces its spectacle and likely much of its attracting power, meaning the cost of doing so becomes untenable. I praise the directors of NCM for their decisions, both in cashing in on a situation that could easily have caused more damage in the long term than just to eight sports cars, and for making the correct decision last week to bring what was quite possibly one of the greatest temporary exhibitions a museum has ever offered, to an end. My gut reaction to hearing the news was based solely upon envy that I will now never see it in person. But those who have should consider themselves lucky, and should thank the NCM for their audacious curatorial decision.

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