The Best Portrayal of Museum Work on TV
Season one, episode two of Sherlock “The Blind Banker” contains one of the best portrayals of a museum ever. When you look past Benedict Cumberbatch’s curls (which is extremely hard), what sticks out is the care of a curator for objects.
Nearly every time a museum appears on TV or in a movie it is being robbed. When the museum is not being robbed, a stuffed figure of President Teddy Roosevelt is coming alive to take down an Egyptian pharaoh. Both options are good fun. They did not, however, give the public a good idea of what actually happens at museums.
The central creed of the museum world is the public trust. We hold objects for the public, using them to educate while ensuring their preservation for future generations. This concept is a foreign one to much of the public. People know we have stuff. They seem to wonder how much it is worth more often than why a museum felt it was important to safeguard and what they can learn from it.
This is why the character Soo Lin Yao, played by Gemma Chan, is important. In the opening scene, we see Yao performing a tea ceremony for visitors at the National Antiquities Museum. She explains pots like the ones she is demonstrating have been preserved by being seasoned with tea over hundreds of years. After her subsequent disappearance, another museum staffer explains to Holmes and Watson the pots were Yao’s life. This is proven to be true when Yao risks being assassinated to reenter the museum in order to care for the pots. Her sole goal is to ensure the pots are seasoned. She fears without attention they will crack. Such actions make Yao an excellent representation of a museum employee.
Firstly, she uses objects to teach the public. In movies museums’ collections are just there. A security guard is seen making sure they stay there. Other staff members are nowhere to be seen. Exhibit labels, explanatory text panels, and docents are nowhere to be seen. Showing a museum employee using objects for education makes “The Blind Banker” standout. By showing Yao seasoning the pots for guests, the episode goes further into the work of museums than entire other movies set in them.
Yao also has expertise in how to preserve the pots. Items are not stagnant things. Museum people understand they change over time. A great deal of effort goes into slowing the constant process of decay. Specialized knowledge is needed to preserve museum items. The creators of Sherlock showed this through Yao.
Lastly, Yao is devoted to the pots. In other cinema items in museums are constantly being knocked over, shot, or used as shields. Museum staff often spend their entire career in the service of their organization’s objects. Many would prefer you shot them in the leg than put a hole through something they have protected for decades. Yao risking her life to return to the museum to care for the pots shows this level of devotion.
“The Blind Banker” is not perfect. It is a tv show about crime-solving, not a documentary. A sculpture or two are shot. It is inexplicably easy for people to get into collections storage. I find it hard to believe no other museum staff member would step up to care for the pots in Yao’s absence. Yao is also not given a title such as curator. She does not seem to have a degree that would lead a major museum to hire her. Museums don’t hand out positions like the one Yao occupies to people without serious credentials.
Still, Sherlock showed how museums care for and teach with objects. The creators captured the devotion staff members have for the collection. It is hands down one of the best portrayals of museum work this author has ever seen. Benedict’s curls are just a bonus.
Have a better portrayal of museum work? Let us know in the comments.