Walking with the Walking Dead: Living with the Walking Dead exhibition, Museum of the Moving Image, New York City, June 25, 2022-January 22, 2023.
by Harvey O’Brien
The Museum of the Moving Image in Queens, New York hosts a permanent collection of filmmaking equipment, production props and memorabilia from film and television from the golden age to whatever is trending when you go. Alongside Edison kinetoscopes, Vitaphone equipped projectors, cameras, lights, television sets, and video games from all through the 20th century, you will encounter conceptual drawings, set models, merchandise, toys, costumes, masks and gadgets from films and shows, including a hefty quotient of sci-fi, fantasy, and horror materials from Star Wars to Silence of the Lambs.
From June 25, 2022 to January 22, 2023 the museum hosts Living With The Walking Dead, an exhibition built around AMC’s The Walking Dead. The exhibition is curated by Barbara Miller (interviewed here: https://decider.com/2022/09/14/living-with-the-walking-dead-museum-of-the-moving-image-barbara-miller-interview ), sponsored by AMC, and accompanied online by a programme essay by Bethan Jones, Research Associate working on the SIGN project at the University of York (accessible here: https://movingimage.us/feature/life-with-the-walking-dead ). Miller and Jones provide much needed context. The exhibition itself consists primarily of physical materials similar in nature to those found elsewhere in the museum – the detritus and ephemera of craft past use and literally on static display. The descriptive plaques are brief and the items are more decorative than revealing. There is no exhibition catalogue or book, though you can access the Jones essay freely online from the museum web site. In spite of an obvious thought process and a great deal of work planning the walkthrough, the exhibition relies on you to bring quite a bit to the party to really get value from it. But as zombie scholars, which we must presume you are if you’re reading this, there are pleasures to be had from walking with the walking dead.
Fandom is an odd compulsion. Says Jones: “Fans are part of that family, not only because they are the dedicated viewers the producers want to attract but also because the participatory nature of the fandom is encouraged by AMC.” Participation in this case being measured largely by presence alone. Visiting an exhibition is contemplating the echoes of an experience through a display of the objects used to construct it. It stimulates your curiosity and desire to know more and talk more about it, but inevitably, a display of objects has its limitations as an intellectual exercise. It can stimulate curiosity and satisfy a certain need to ‘see’ the ‘real thing’ – ironically entirely out of context behind display cases in a carefully curated space. On some level I guess this also echoes the experience of fandom itself, which is never true ‘ownership’, only the encouragement to feel a temporary sense of custody.
My own interest in The Walking Dead stems from the comic book. I came to it after getting a free sample of a reprinted issue one and then chomped my way through the collected volumes. I caught up with the monthly comic book during its run, but I stuck with the compilations which left me a little behind the timeline, but free to engage with the TV show when it began in 2010 as it went off in new directions. The exhibition duly pays homage to the source with a corridor lined on one side with original comics and covers on display, and these are fun to peruse. Beyond that the emphasis is very much on the live action iteration, though, again paradoxically represented by inanimate objects (and TV screens displaying scenes from the show where the dead become alive).
I actually gave up on the show not long after the comic book serial finished, though. I watched with curiosity about how they would handle certain scenes and plotlines, but when the comic book ended I was satisfied, and when the TV show switched protagonists and spread the infection to spin-offs which made it more and more evidently the “soap opera with zombies and shit” described by Jones in her essay, I had had enough. That said, I specifically went to the museum partly for this exhibition during a working trip to NY (where I flew the flag for Theorising Zombiism and Theorising the Contemporary Zombie, folks). I’d been there before in 2019 when the attraction was The Jim Henson Exhibition, which is actually still there, so who knows if Living With the Walking Dead will leave something behind. My visit to the museum was on a ‘free day’ on a Thursday afternoon in early November, and began amusingly. I wasn’t sure if the special exhibition was also free on the day and so queried with a security guard if it was okay for me to go up. She mistook my apprehension for unease with the content and explained how I could avoid it “You don’t have to see Walking Dead,” she assured me “Just turn right.” Very considerate, but very not necessary.
The exhibition actually begins in the lobby when you pass Daryl’s motorcycle, an object I’ve seen at comic-cons before, but still pretty cool. Isolated, seated in the clinical white space of the lobby, it’s even more incongruous than when presented with a painted backdrop for your selfie-taking pleasures in more actively fan-ish environments. Also on the ground floor around a corner that leads to an exit behind the screening room you’ll find some of the context Miller promises is important (“That was really something we were excited to explore, the roots of it and also what the legacy of The Walking Dead is”) in a display of posters from modern and classic zombie movies including Shaun of the Dead, The Serpent and the Rainbow, Sugar Hill, and Carnival of Souls. Again, not a lot of specific accompaniment here, though, which makes it more like someone’s postered dorm room than a specific exercise in theorising zombiism. It’s no less enjoyable for those of us predisposed to enjoying the stroll by, though. It did strike me how times have changed from the days when video store displays of the gore scenes from Lucio Fulci’s Zombie or the theatrical poster for Dawn of the Dead creeped me out as a child. The emotional response to poster images now is more nostalgic than immediate, and one’s mind turns inward more readily than to what purpose the exhibition may have at this point on the walkthrough.
The bulk of the exhibition is upstairs. At the centre of it is a display of the costumes of the principal characters surrounded by multiple video screens of different sizes displaying scenes from the show. Its very Man Who Fell to Earth as a multimedia space, though the purpose of it is to show the costumes in motion and action which stand before you on featureless mannequins (which made me think of Dawn of the Dead and of Doctor Who’s Autons. This room is fringed by smaller spaces with specific collections of props and masks, including naturally, some Fangoria-friendly zombie heads, wounded and necrotic flesh, weapons and ephemera from knives and guns to badges and coins, and full size maquettes including a kneeling Glenn and not one but several Lucilles. On the gory elements, Miller comments “…we’re not going to make a show that focuses on the origins and the creation of The Walking Dead without having some yucky stuff there. That’s the show. But having said that, things like the Governor’s body, we definitely didn’t want to just have out there. Things like a prosthetic that is not connected to a body is an object; it’s gross, but it’s not real because it’s just a head.”
Artefacts you will encounter in the space include the original ‘bunny slippers’ from the zombie girl in the Frank Darabont-directed pilot episode, lots of sinage including ‘No Sanctuary’, an ominous door emblazoned with ‘Dead Inside’, and a slightly friendlier ‘Welcome to Alexandria’. On the way out you’ll find a full set of action figures, which may seem strange, but actually in the main museum a set of original Star Wars figures from 1977 have pride of place, so really not all that out of bounds. Miller describes her narrative process in laying out the display: “That’s what happens iteratively between me sketching out what I feel like the story needs to be, and then looking at what artifacts we have that could tell that story, because honestly, exhibitions are about creating a narrative in three dimensional space. So we may have certain points that we want to make about a story, but without having the material there to bring it to life, what are we doing? We might as well have it in a book. So the question you always have to ask is, “If we’re going to tell this story in an exhibit, what is actually making it special to the exhibition context?”” On this level it’s interesting that we proceed from the historical and inaccessible (rare objects) to mass market consumer items (available for purchase, although not in the museum shop, in fairness). Again the question of ownership and experience comes to mind, and also the conviction that a book might have been nice all the same.
At the top of the stairs you can see the route to the main part of the exhibition, the corridor lined with comic books leading towards the ominous door promising ‘dead inside’. But if you’re a zombie aficionado your eyes will immediately flick over to the video screen display showing scenes from Night of the Living Dead mounted above three original posters for the classic Romero trilogy. Why Land of the Dead didn’t make the cut, I don’t know. I suspect probably for copyright reasons, which is a shame. Right beside this display in a glass case of their own were a viewfinder used during the making of Dawn of the Dead, and for me the most interesting thing in the show, a shooting script for that film complete with handwritten directions. How I would love to have cracked that case open and had a look through it. One feels like a zombie in the grip of such impulses: clawing at the invisible force field you can’t understand wanting to get at the sweet meats beyond your grasp. Eventually, you walk on.
A little further along then there is again a little bit of welcome context from the history of zombies on screen. Again Bethan Jones does make an attempt to contextualise the history and heritage of the zombie on screen, but her examples tend towards the recent and she is burdened with having to provide the kind of ‘making of’ detail that most people attending the exhibition will be looking for. That’s fair enough. Says Miller: “I think it’s really important to spend a little bit of time with the history part in the beginning so that you have a frame to put the rest of it in. So I would really encourage that walkthrough. I think in particular, the very racialized roots of the zombie figure in general, that’s important to understand how that imagery was brought forth and then almost started existing on its own without reference back to its origins. Restoring that history so people are aware of where it all comes from, I think is important.” It’s hard to disagree, but again the frustration of seeing a copy of The Magic Island behind a class case beside a lovely poster for White Zombie merely highlights the distance between the urge and the capacity to dive deeper. Likewise it’s fun to contemplate the bold and provocative graphics on the poster for I Walked With a Zombie, but where is the talk of dark romance and the motifs of melodrama weaved through the mythos? There’s also a copy of I Am Legend with a nice pulpy cover and a poster for The Last Man on Earth, but again, an expansion on the zombie/vampire (later ‘mutant’) dynamic is there for those who know, but not really all that developed on site. Ironically, Jones observes: “One of the things The Walking Dead does extremely well in developing its serialized drama is bringing other genres into the mix. The show is a work of horror, but as academic Stella M. Gaynor argues, it layers multiple genres to allow the zombie text to evolve.” That’s fair enough, but again, there’s a distance between the discourse potentially enabled by the reasons and rationales here and the ability to engage in conversation based on the objects on view.
One of your last views as you exit the exhibition is an animated display behind a door, suggesting the grasping dead outside. It’s not a lot different from commercially available lightshows you can project in your home during Halloween, and seeing it just a few days after the day, it still made me smile and feel perfectly safe turning my back on it and walking away.
If my response to the exhibition seems harshly over-thought, it does represent what ran through my mind as I ambled through the space. I think that it’s primarily a commercial exhibition of the post-use material culture of television production without a great deal of depth or insight into what these things are or were – enough to provide that ‘ooh, shiny’ response but maybe not quite enough to feel the sense of a museum space. Honestly, throw some cosplayers in there and a couple of retail stalls selling figures and there’s not a huge distance between what’s here and what’s at a decent fan event. There is lots of ‘stuff’. There is a fan rush from seeing the ‘stuff’. There is some context in what you read around it and what you bring to it, but will it advance the cause of zombie studies? Doubtful. One or two books in the museum book shop (no Theorizing the Contemporary Zombie, guys… I mean, come on!), but mainly again your fridge magnets, tote bags, posters, and T-shirts. What you take away depends on what you came for. I bought a fridge magnet, and I made a donation to the museum in the ‘please support us’ box, because fair is fair. I don’t mean to be mean or dismissive in anything I’ve said. I enjoyed seeing the exhibition and if you have cause to be in New York between now and late January (who knows what may survive), of course you should go. I mean, it’s zombies on parade, right? Sort of.
Postmortem: “As of April 2023 the exhibition does appear to have closed according to the Museum of the Moving Image web site, but you never know when the dead may return…”
[Images by Harvey O’Brien]
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