The Untold Story of the Creature from The Black Lagoon

Updated: Nov 7, 2019

a case for crediting creators at the museum

As an avid listener of the podcast Reading Glasses, I was thrilled when first visiting MoPOP (the Museum of Pop Culture, in Seattle, WA) to see the Gill Man mask from Creature from the Black Lagoon. One of the hosts, Mallory O'Meara, was in the process of publishing a book about the Creature's designer, Millicent Patrick, and I wanted to see what the museum had to say about it. The label reads:

Creature from the Black Lagoon

"Gill Man" mask from Creature from the Black Lagoon, 1954

Paul G. Allen Family Collection

Notably, the text only includes the name of the creature and the name of the movie (and the name of the donor), conspicuously leaving out the names of any of the creators involved in designing the costume piece. This is fairly representative of the approach taken with label text for many of the objects at MoPOP, from costume pieces from horror movies to props from science fiction shows to fantasy concept art, where only the piece of media that it was from (e.g. the video game Diablo III) and the studio producing it (Blizzard Entertainment) are listed. This erases creators such as designer Milicent Patrick, whose work on the iconic Creature was heavily downplayed by a male colleague who objected to a woman working as a designer. It also limits audiences’ understanding of the work required to create the props and costumes used in movies and television, the creative labor done by people--individuals--throughout the industry.

MoPOP's mission is “to make creative expression a life-changing force by offering experiences that inspire and connect our communities.” Its emphasis on creative expression seems at odds with the erasure of creators throughout the museum: designers, fabricators, and many others who are involved with the development of the authentic objects on view. Instead, the interpretation relies on the status of objects and media as iconic in order to engage and inform visitors.

This strategy works best for an audience already well-versed in pop culture, especially in a particular genre like horror. The effect is to impress and delight visitors who are familiar with and excited about media such as Creature from the Black Lagoon by bringing them face-to-face with the authentic objects from the movies and television they enjoy. But what about visitors who don't fit that bill?

Visitors who are unfamiliar with the movie may simply pass the object by, having no prior connection to it. Why stop and look at something from a movie you've never seen, and don't intend to see? I'll stop and look at something interesting if the text gives me context for why it's interesting or important. Providing more interpretive information, like names of creators, context of the object (such as a description of the character for which it was created), or other information about its use, creation, or design, might provide unexpected connections for visitors who would otherwise merely glance at it.

MoPOP has ample opportunities to do this; there is a wealth of information about its collections, and genuine interest in that information. The mask's story is directly tied to Milicent Patrick's story, and including information about her role in the creation process and the adversity she faced in the industry might engage otherwise uninterested visitors who take an interest in design or women's roles in moviemaking. Instead of relying on objects' icon status to engage visitors who recognize the objects from their own background knowledge, focusing on the real, human stories behind the objects on display can help capture the interest of a wider audience.

What else can human stories do? MoPOP’s mission to “make creative expression a life-changing force” would be more effectively enacted through an approach that actually encourages creativity in visitors and gives them the tools to understand who creators are and what they do, rather than the more disingenuous model that presents the objects in a vacuum as if they were not purposefully created.

The Interpretation Canada task force describes interpretation as “a communication process, designed to reveal meanings and relationships” of our cultural heritage. The current choices being made at MoPOP do not help to make the Gill Man mask meaningful; nor do they help to reveal relationships between the mask and other contexts beyond its use in a movie. The onus is on the audience to recognize the mask and the movie title as meaningful in some way, relying on personal meaning-making based entirely on prior knowledge rather than encouraging inquiry or deeper understanding of the object’s origins and history.

Is it possible that MoPOP’s interpretative policies purposefully prioritize audiences that already know about and care about the objects on display there? Maybe--it's easier to cater to fans than to try & reach a nebulous “everyone.” Marianna Adams and Judy Koke encourage museums to ask honest questions about who their public really is when developing a comprehensive interpretive plan, asking, “Is the museum really everyone? Should it be?” Casting too wide of a net in trying to please everyone is certainly a problem for many museums seeking to engage their audiences with their content in a meaningful way. Narrowing the focus to be particularly engaging for a certain, defined audience could be a valid strategy.

But MoPOP’s primary content is popular culture, which is fundamentally the culture of “everyone:” ordinary people, the layperson, rather than the elite. A museum with a mission to "connect our communities" might benefit from evaluating who the museum is actually serving. It might also consider whether its limited interpretive approach might lead objects like the Gill Man mask to take on a certain “elite” quality of their own, meant for film buffs and hardcore fans who already have prior in-group knowledge of the objects and media. A cynic might say that fans are already the museum's audience, so providing that context isn't necessary. But MoPOP especially contains such a wide variety of things--from music and genre film and tv to video games and fashion--that providing audiences with the tools to connect unfamiliar objects to their lives can, in fact, do the work of inspiring and connecting communities. These objects are full of life--and it's up to the museum to connect the people who made them to the people gazing at them in a display case.


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©2019 Johanna Berliner