1/12/09

House of Hax

Excerpted from Wikipedia:

Marie Tussaud was born in 1761. Her father was killed in the Seven Years' War just two months before Marie was born. Her mother, Anne Made, took her to Berne where she moved to work as a housekeeper. There she took the Swiss nationality. (the homeowner) was a physician, and was skilled in wax modelling... In 1767, Tussaud and her mother joined him in his move to Paris. He taught Tussaud the art of wax sculpting. She started to work for him and showed a lot of talent. She created her first wax figure, of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, in 1778. Other famous persons she modelled at that time include Voltaire and Benjamin Franklin.

In Paris, Tussaud became involved in the French Revolution. She met many of its important figures, including Napoleon and Robespierre. On the other hand, she was also on very good terms with the royalty. They were so pleased with her that, on their invitation, she lived at Versailles.


However, Tussaud was arrested by the revolution on suspicion of royalist sympathies. In prison, she awaited execution by guillotine together with Jos├ęphine de Beauharnais. Even though Tussaud's head was already shaven for her execution, she was saved for her talent in wax work and employed to make death masks of the victims of the guillotine, some of whom had been her friends. Among others, she made death masks of Marie Antoinette, Marat, and Robespierre.

In 1802, Marie Tussaud went to London. She established her first permanent exhibition in Baker Street in 1835. Some of the sculptures done by Tussaud herself still exist.


So the night before my last full day in London I'm reading a book which I highly recommend, Edison's Eve: A Magical History of The Quest for Mechanical Life by Gaby Wood. It's a short history of Automatons, with some references to Tussaud. It describes the museum's first mechanized waxwork, a figure of Sleeping Beauty whose chest slowly expands and contracts in her slumber. How could I pass up the chance to see that? At the last minute, I decide to add the wax museum to my schedule, and get down there first thing next morning to beat the crowds.

"25 pounds? Wait, is that part of a package? Does it include dinner, drinks and a handjob? That's not what I'm looking for, I just want admission to the museum itself. How much for just the museum? What? 25 pounds?" (writer's embellishment)

But I pay it, for two reasons: (a) my curiosity about the history of the institution, and (b) I'm an idiot.

There are no dioramas. The figures are scattered through empty rooms, free of any props or scenic context. This is to better allow you to get right up next to them for photo-ops. Sculpture, it seems, only has value if you can stand beside it and have your picture taken. The photograph, and your inclusion in it, is the only thing of worth, not the artwork itself. It's an odd combination of egocentrism, self-delusion, and idoltry: "Look, here's a picture of me! And that's Jim Carrey!"

If you didn't bring your own camera, don't worry: Tussaud's staff are in nearly every room, with a tripod parked in front of the most appealing figures (Queen Victoria, Andy Warhol, the cast of High School Musical) and they'll take your picture next to a faux-celebrity for an exorbitant fee.

Then there's the problem of the subjects themselves: people like Britney Spears and Beyonce are already post-human, with enough plastic surgery and makeup to be no different in appearance from the average department store mannequin. So in the end, you have a wax figure which is an accurate replica of an artificial person.

Curiously missing from the "World Leaders" room is George W. Bush. The Obama figure won't be unveiled until inauguration day, but you'd think, until then, they'd continue displaying the most powerful person in the world of the last eight years. Sure he's a mass murderer, but then, so's this guy:

(this isn't the figure that was recently and famously decapitated by a visitor - that was the Berlin location). For some reason, I don't see too many people cuddling up next to him. He looks lonely. The first thought that enters my mind is, "how cool would it be to lift him up and carry him over to the previous room, in the "Superstars of Music" section? He could take the mic at center stage, backed up by Jimi Hendrix and Marc Bolan!"

The Chamber of Horrors is a big letdown, with just a handful of figures and showy special effects. There's a dark maze haunted house (which contains no waxworks or scenery), and a disney-esque theme ride on the history of London which cost 10 million pounds to build. These things have nothing to do with wax museums, and seem to be there specifically to justify the entry fee. In all this, I don't see a single figure which was sculpted by Tussaud herself. I could be wrong, but at the very least, they aren't clearly identified if there are any. Where are they? Where's the history?

I walk out feeling like a grifted, gullible, juvenile fool. But just before the predictable gift-shop-blockade-exit, I pass the last figure in the museum, which lifts my spirits substantially:


Visit a huge wax museum blog HERE.

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