Commentary: A new ‘Game of Thrones’-inspired exhibit at L.A.’s NHM is the worst kind of marketing
L.A.’s Natural History Museum is good at many things: displaying dinosaur bones, explaining complicated ecosystems, digging into the history of our city and unearthing the flora and fauna that once thrived here.
So when I was invited to attend a preview of a temporary exhibit at the museum titled “House of the Dragon: The Targaryen Dynasty,” I figured NHM and its collaborator HBO Max would be good at excavating the fabricated fantasy of the premium channel’s mega-hit show “Game of Thrones” and its upcoming prequel series. I imagined the likes of giant dragon skeletons, a virtual-reality dragon ride, and ancient gems, tools, costumes and ephemera from one of Hollywood’s most beloved fictional worlds.
I imagined wrong.
The exhibit is an underwhelming promotional ploy unspooled in a room large enough to hold little more than one giant dragon head and a replica of the iron throne made famous by the original eight-season epic, upon which the prequel “House of the Dragon” is based. There is a line to sit on the throne, and everybody who does so is clearly mugging for a TikTok video or Instagram selfie. Good thing entrance is free with your ticket to the museum.
I hope winter is coming to freeze out the relentless churn of these types of pop-up exhibits, which use the legitimacy of a museum or gallery space to ride a pop culture hit, or beloved artistic figure, for dubious purposes. Rather than an encounter with art, these experiences are akin to staring at an advertisement on a billboard.
I’m talking to you, immersive Van Gogh, Frida Kahlo and Monet. I’ve got you in my sights, Museum of Selfies.
I’m not just being grumpy. I legitimately love “Game of Thrones,” and I’m a huge fan of NHM (its new “L.A. Underwater” special exhibition looks riveting), but the current “GOT”/NHM collaboration is a bit of a Red Wedding for both entities.
For those not versed in “GOT” parlance, the Red Wedding is a massacre that unfolds in Season 3. In the case of the “House of the Dragon” exhibit, the only massacre will be of your expectations. Even my 6-year-old was disappointed, asking, like a mini Peggy Lee, “Is that all there is?”
I assured her, as we stood beside a dragon saddle that looked like a fancy elongated horse saddle, “Yes, honey, this is it.” A few costumes, a couple of dragon eggs and a map of the show’s territories completed the scene, which NHM’s website promises are costumes and props from the new series itself.
I couldn’t help but crane my neck, looking for another room. Imagining an exhibit where the glorious land of Westeros comes alive, and with it the magnificent rule of the Targaryen dynasty. NHM is fabulous at conjuring the near-mythic lives of dinosaurs and prehistoric creatures, so it’s not hard to picture what it could do in service of creating a magical realm where humans ride dragons and kings and queens are godlike.
Hopefully “House of the Dragon,” which drops on HBO Max on Aug. 21, will give me the “GOT” fix I crave. In the meantime, the exhibit is the plastic toy in an NHM Happy Meal. Cross-promotional, yes. But to what end?
HBO Max and its parent company, WarnerMedia, have made significant stumbles in the streaming wars. Wild speculation currently surrounds the platform’s fate as it seeks to combine service with Discovery+. The legacy media company needs all the wins it can get. That will take disciplined strategy and extremely careful management of its most successful brands, including the “GOT” empire.
A disappointing exhibit at a local museum may not seem like a big deal, but this museum is in the heart of Los Angeles, and L.A. is the entertainment capital of the world. Fans here are extremely fickle, and failure isn’t a good look.
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