Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema: Reminiscing with Fantastical Creatures from Childhood

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

October 06, 2021

This is the last post in the Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema Virtual Exhibition Experience series. Please see Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema: The Translation from Physical to Digital and Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema: How the Archives Enrich Virtual Exhibit Storytelling for more evaluative information on the virtual exhibit experience. 

You’ve heard a lot from me on the Think Clearly Blog, and sometimes a fresh, non-museum perspective can hold greater insight. My Dad, Sam Woody, grew up with Ray Harryhausen’s movies. He also lived his childhood during the turbulent 1960s, watched the first shuttle launched into space, and spent his adolescence during the height of the Cold War. He has a love for science fiction, history, and museums. So, when the National Galleries Scotland (NGS) Ray Harryhausen | Titan of Cinema Virtual Exhibition Experience was advertised, I knew it would be right up his alley. We attended the virtual exhibition together and as we went through, I asked him questions and made notes of his observations. This post, the last in this miniseries, will outline how my Dad interacted with the virtual exhibition with a focus on areas for improvement and key takeaways.

A Childhood of Seeing Things Never Seen Before

My Dad describes Harryhausen’s work as childhood fantasy stories come to life. Mysterious Island (1961) was one of the first Harryhausen movies my Dad saw. Seeing the dinosaurs in One Million Years B.C. (1966) and The Valley of Gwangi (1969) were awe-inspiring. He explains, “Seeing the dinosaurs, no matter how rudimentary, was amazing because you’ve never seen anything like it before!” And it’s not just my Dad who thinks so. Harryhausen’s animation was, indeed, groundbreaking for movies of that era.

Exhibition Room for Improvement

The overall exhibition is fairly straightforward in layout. Once you’re in an exhibition section the only clicking you have to do is if you wish to open the carousels into a record view to read item details. There are some areas that could use improvement as told to me by my Dad and as shared here through my museum professional lens:

Content

  • For a few items the NGS uses a sentence or two to call out an item if it possesses a racial or sexist stereotype. While these are large topics that don’t need to shift exhibition focus, they should have a few more sentences to provide historical context to these issues and how they relate to the item on display. 
  • Many items could use a lot more information to explain what they are and offer enough contextual information to ascertain their meaning. For example: What are lobby cards and what were they used for? Other information that could add meaning are: Why did he collect what he did? And how big are the items? 

Navigation

  • When viewing the archival material (drawings, posters, diary entries, etc.) it would be easier to navigate to the next item if there were navigation arrows provided in the viewer. Currently you have to click to open each item and view the descriptive data.
  • There is an inconsistent application of exhibit text with the items. There is scant information for most of the items and some skip the normal text and provide what NGS labels as “bonus text”?

Visuals

  • It’s hard to see and read some of the items, such as the diary entries. There needs to be a zoom functionality in order to see the wonderful detail of the sketches, read some of the text, etc.
  • There should be a hover over option to see a “quick view” description of an item in order to determine if it’s worth clicking on to view.

This Exhibition is for the Fans

The overall impression is that the exhibition was made for original Harryhausen fans who can fill in the gaps between items, movies, models, and other objects. There aren’t a lot of historically contextual or meaningful tie-ins offered to help court a person without Harryhausen or historical special effects knowledge. Even as a Harryhausen fan, Dad wasn’t sure why some of the items were included. What was their role? Why are they there?

The Exhibition Takeaways

As a museum professional, when I think about what people take away from an exhibit I first think of knowledge or perhaps respite. What my Dad took away with him was more than just knowledge. Yes, he loved the behind-the-scenes approach to see “Just how the heck they did it.” But the insight he gained into Harryhausen as a person and how that impacted the end result of his special effects was a takeaway I didn’t foresee. My Dad explains:

You definitely see that he (Harryhausen) loves what he’s doing and that he’s striving for perfection. Otherwise, how could you have the patience to create and move the models to film one frame at a time?

Which made him wonder:

Did he (Harryhausen) know that what he created was groundbreaking for its time? Yes, he created a fanbase due to the entertainment aspect of what he created. But, I think maybe he just did it because he loved it? And that was part of the charm his movies possessed?

Reflecting back on the movies Harryhausen created my Dad offered the following observation:

You know, today’s big blockbuster movies rely on humans who receive super powers and the story centers on that superhuman power. In these older movies, these are normal humans who are exposed to something terrific [meant in both senses of the word] for the first time. The story is centered on how every day humans overcome the fantastical and sometimes frightening creatures that Harryhausen produced.

Conclusion: Dad Still Needs to Visit the Exhibition In-Person

As many of us are now aware, online exhibitions and sharing collections online mainly serve to whet the appetites of potential visitors. The same is true in this instance. Even though Dad has now visited the virtual exhibition many times, he would still like to go see it in-person. Dad explains that he’d like to spend more time looking at the items in detail and view them from different angles. He wants to be close enough to these items from his childhood so that, in a sense, he can commune with them. 

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Expert, consultant and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management, digital museums, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. She is a popular presenter and Lucidea Press author. For more on museum success, learn about Lucidea’s Argus Museum CMS for virtual, multimedia presentation of collections, visitor engagement, and museum staff productivity and impact

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