It's a hit - but should the Science Museum showcase props from a Hollywood movie?

Some 260,000 people are expected to see the new 'Lord of the Rings' exhibition - but critics say it is further evidence of dumbing down
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Devotees of The Lord of the Rings will think they have died and gone to Middle Earth. From today, hundreds of props, costumes and gadgetry from the epic production of the J R R Tolkien trilogy, directed by Peter Jackson, go on display in a £750,000 show in London.

The exhibition is being held at the Science Museum in South Kensington, founded from the proceeds of the Great Exhibition. The aim of the founding fathers was to deliver to the masses knowledge of Western science, technology, industry and medicine.

What critics were asking yesterday was how this Victorian spirit of intellectual improvement could be reconciled with a self-conscious blockbuster exhibition based on a fantasy movie already seen by a global audience of millions?

One thing is certain, there is no questioning the demand. More than 17,000 people had booked tickets before the exhibition opens. Visitors are being told to book in advance, or risk being turned away. Some 260,000 people are expected to cram into the show before it closes on 11 January, which would make it, pro rata, the most popular show seen at the Science Museum.

What they will see is the shimmering costume of the elf queen, Galadriel, the weapons of handsome Aragorn, the Hobbit home of Frodo and even examples of his hairy prosthetic Hobbit feet. Visitors will be able to shrink to Hobbit size, 3ft 6in, and have their photograph taken as if on set. And they can hear the computer whizz-kids behind the giant battle scenes explain how they created thousands of computer soldiers with fighting brains of their own.

It is an exhibition destined to be a hit. But, like the Star Wars exhibition at the Barbican Centre, its blockbuster appeal raises suspicions that the institution's very integrity is being put in jeopardy.

The fear is that the pressure to satisfy the Government's demand to widen access to parts of the community that has traditionally not visited museums is encouraging an unstoppable drive to populism. On top of that is the ever-constant pressure on budgets. The museum is charging £9.95 for adults and £6.95 for children during the week, rising to £11.95 and £8.95 respectively at weekends. Profits will pay for refurbishment of the building's entrance for schoolchildren.

Julian Spalding, the former Glasgow museums director and author of The Poetic Museum: Reviving Historic Collections, said there was no legitimate reason for a publicly funded institution to put on any show simply to increase visitors. "The question they always have to ask themselves is, 'What good are we doing? What are we giving to our visitors that they wouldn't have any other way?'.

"Is this a legitimate use of Science Museum space? Computer animation is part of popular visual culture, but a museum needs to tackle it from an independent point of view. They're just making a virtue of a commercial activity. The Versace show [at the Victoria and Albert Museum last year] and this show are trade shows, because it's one product."

David Barrie, the director of the National Art Collections Fund charity, said two important factors were driving nearly all museums and galleries.

"All our museums ... are pressed for money," he said. "And one of the things they have to demonstrate to Government is that they are attracting the widest possible audiences. That does lead them to seek out exhibitions that are going to achieve these objectives."

Neither of these factors was bad in itself, he said. "The only concern one might have is that sometimes there's a desperate desire to generate income that might force people to do things that otherwise they might not want to do. The fundamental issue is to what extent do the ever-more pressing funding needs of our national museums and galleries distort their normal exhibition plans. It's probably difficult to tell."

The former chairman of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Ivan Massow was more blunt. "It's a PR stunt and the kind of things that make these great institutions simply PR halls," he said. "When the Government doesn't properly invest in culture and art and museums for the sciences then our institutions are forced to turn to commercialism and lose the very essence of what art and science is trying to achieve. What's become important to them is their survival, not their purpose. It's not their fault."

Yet Jon Tucker, the head of the Science Museum, said it was perfectly fitting for it to take the exhibition, which was devised and originally hosted by the National Museum of New Zealand. "It's absolutely packed with insights into the various technologies of the film-making industry and some of the technology is absolutely ground-breaking," he said.

But he admitted that the movie was also a way of jolting people who did not think of themselves as interested in science into visiting the museum. "We know from research amongst our visitors that once they're here they find we're much more interesting than they thought we were going to be," he said. "But we're quite careful to protect the quality of the experience."

Jill Nelson, director of science communication for the British Association for the Advancement of Science, said scientists were divided over the balancing act required between popularising science and trivialising it. But it was legitimate to try to attract new audiences in to the Science Museum - and it was reasonable to assume that an exhibition on The Lord of the Rings would bring in a different audience.

Brian Sibley, author of several books on The Lord of the Rings, described the show as wonderful. "What we're seeing here is a display of the work of craftsmen and technicians, which is absolutely suited to being seen here - or across the road in the V&A," he said.

"You can absolutely see the attention to detail."

MIDDLE EARTH OR MIDDLE BROW?

Barbican Centre

Attracted ridicule in 2001 for "The Art of Star Wars" exhibit, which displayed tired props from the film including pod racers, the R2-D2 robot and Ewoks in glass cases.

Imperial War Museum

Home to a "1940s House", a reconstruction of the pre-war suburban home that featured in the Channel 4 series of the same name. The promotional literature offers visitors the chance to "see the house that Granny grew up in - find out what she had for tea."

National Gallery

Charles Saumarez Smith, the director, surprised art circles last year by announcing that the gallery was to exhibit Rolf Harris's work. The pieces, from the presenter's BBC1 show Rolf on Art, featured works based on masterpieces such as Monet's Waterlilies.

Natural History Museum

Launched a massive marketing campaign this summer to publicise its Tyrannosaurus Rex exhibition. Visitors judge whether the T Rex was a hunter or an opportunistic scavenger.

Science Museum

Accused by critics of dumbing down in the past two years with exhibits such as the 'Grossology' show, pictured top, replete with burping and farting machines.

Victoria & Albert Museum

Sparked controversy last year with its retrospective of the work of designer Gianni Versace, particularly for displaying the dress, right, that Liz Hurley wore to the premiere of Four Weddings and a Funeral.

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