Culture | Culture with a low melting point

Coming soon: A Montreal wax museum

When I was eleven, I took a picture of a photograph of a moose, so I could tell my friends in New York I had seen one of these mythical creatures on a family trip to Eastern Quebec. Nowadays, I get my little white lie fix by claiming serendipitous celebrity sightings wherever I go. Was that Christopher Walken I saw getting a shoe-shine in Newark Airport? Was that Larry David kvetching about a pastrami sandwich in front of me at Schwartz’s Montreal Delicatessen? Everyone has guilty pleasures.

Now Montrealers will have a new outlet for their celebrity fixations. This April 19, the company which operates Musée Grévin in the 9th arrondissement in Paris will open a wax museum in the empty Eaton Centre building at Maisonneuve and University. While wax museums offer cheap thrills, the cost of admission can get expensive. At New York’s  famous Madame Tussauds, full price admission for a family of four (children 4 to 12) is $130. Paris’ Grévin costs at least $100 as well. In this age of instant archive access on YouTube, and with everyone’s 15 minutes of fame virtually guaranteed, are wax museums still relevant?

First, a brief history of these peculiar spaces: The Queen of all wax museums (and maybe gimmickry in general) was Madame Marie Tussaud (1761-1850), whose name is attached to museums from London to New York, Niagara Falls, Las Vegas, and beyond. Born in Strasbourg, Tussaud first learned the trade of wax sculpture from Dr. Philippe Curtius, in whose Parisian and Swiss homes she was a housekeeper. Besides playing with wax, Curtius was also a physician. Though he had artistic ambitions, Curtius used wax for more practical purposes – as a medium to depict the anatomy to students.

Wax figuring probably developed from this intersection of medicine and art. Death masks, originally fashioned from gold and other valuable materials for Egyptian pharaohs, would eventually be made from wax in the late-middle ages. In fact, Tussaud’s oldest figure still on display is a 1765 wax portrait of Louis XV’s last mistress, Madame du Barry. In 1776 Madame Tussaud was featured in an exhibition at the Palais Royal in Paris, and she quickly developed inroads with royalty in France and England, as her sculptures were more life-like than paintings.

Though wax figures are meant to preserve memory of a faded past, we tend to lump wax museums with cabinets of curiosities. I cannot recall anyone ever asking if wax sculptures are art. Though these figures served a purpose of recording the past in a way words or paintings could not (Tussaud also made death masks of guillotine victims, for instance), today this is mostly unnecessary.

Which begs the question: why do tourists still shell out stupid amounts of money to mingle with fake replicas of the public figures they already consume inordinate amounts of online and on TV?

For some insight, consider the Hollywood Wax Museum. It was founded by one Spoony Singh in 1964, because even in SoCal’s playground for the rich and famous, celebrities were “obligingly sparse.” Though ticket prices are over $15 a person nowadays, the museum still brings in over 300,000 people a year in a city not starved for attraction or distraction. Part of the appeal of Singh’s museum is its figures’ less-than-real appearance – it’s described by the New York Times as “beyond the realm of campy” and “old-time Hollywood decadence that is soulful and deeply satisfying.”

Unlike Hollywood Wax or even original London Tussaud models, the new Tussaud sculptures (and likely the Grévin figures as well) show little evidence of the human artistic touch. Is the artistry perhaps in the arrangement of figures?

The original Grévin in Paris features 450 figures arranged with artifacts to uniquely illustrate France’s past in a way that a stodgy museum exhibition could never bring to life. Similarly, the Montreal museum will include famous figures from Canadian history, including hockey player Guy LaFleur and of course (lest my Heart not Go On), Céline Dion.

Before I was old enough to avoid family vacations, my parents used to drag me and my sister to all the historic landmarks along the Eastern seaboard of the U.S. Though places like Gettysburg, Colonial Virgina, or Boston offered no shortage of sites with real, visual evidence of the past, inevitably we ended up at a restoration and reenactment village in Massachusetts, Colonial Williamsburg, or the President’s Wax Museum. Though even then these places seemed like cheap approximations or plays on the past, they offered something that all the art museums (and we went to many) were lacking: interactivity.

At Madame Tussauds you could pose with and visually disgrace these alarmingly life-like statues of figures you loathed or loved. It was like a living museum in that the ‘art’ and the spectator were stomping around in the same awkward tango. Though I will not go to another wax museum, I think other art institutions, many of which are struggling financially, could learn from this interactive model. We can already see all the pieces online, so how can you move beyond viewing to participation?

Whether it derserves to be ranked among Los Angeles’ more distinguished institutions or not, the Hollywood Wax Museum’s reputation in the public consciousness  never stood much of a chance. As owner Singh said, “On Hollywood Boulevard, dignity kind of gets lost in the shuffle.”  If Montreal wants its own wax museum to cultivate a similar aura, Ste. Catherine’s, that infamous stretch where office worker and sex worker, designer store and dive bar mingle, could not be more appropriate location.