Curating Azeroth: Museums, Scholarship, and Archaeology Fragments
Azeroth clings to history just as surely as it destroys it. Cataclysm brought about many changes—yet monuments still remain. The inhabitants of Azeroth are bent on twisting history to suit their own narratives—much is forgotten and obscured, but small things are strangely preserved. With the simplified questing path in Cataclysm and the emphasis on the player-as-hero, this may not seem apparent at first. But archaeology (in theory!) provides that sense of haphazard discovery, a slow reveal in which the player is a bit-player in a dynamic culture instead of the savior of the future.
In this series, I will cover the available artifacts to analyze how they interact in counterpoint with the quests, NPCs, and customs of each race—whether the curatorial notes prevent a revisionist history or shed light on an undeveloped historical event or a destroyed zone. To begin the series, however, I will analyze the museums—why Azeroth is interested in archaeology and where would the artifacts most likely end up? There are monuments and museums, academies and scholars—coexisting with the faction rivalry and Deathwing’s destruction. Several bosses guard libraries and others have been cursed in their thirst for knowledge. And the most bookish of the subfactions, the Shen’dralar, lived in self-exile for millennia, preserving history yet refusing to share it with the public.
How does Azeroth remember and why a need for museums? As Philippe de Montebello, former Metropolitan Museum of Art director, says, “A museum is the memory of mankind.” And as Archmage Mordent Evenshade says, “I have been apart from this for centuries…I do not believe admiration and wistful thoughts are against the societal norm.”
The Latin word museum originally referred to a temple dedicated to the nine Muses, the most famous of which was the Museum at Alexandria founded by Ptolemy Soter. It was a state-run institute for advanced-studies, housing many prominent scholars. Prized objects were also collected, but they were secondary to the community of scholarship and research. The Temple of the Moon parallels this early type of museum—it’s the one place in Darnassus where trainers and ambassadors of all races congregate and Tyrande and Malfurion hold court: a political, spiritual, and educational center for the city. The spectacular architecture, friezes, gardens, and sculptures is second to preserving knowledge and the ideals of Elune. But don’t be fooled by this tranquil scene—Hammon the Jaded animatedly gestures and converses with Daros Moonlance of the Highborne, perhaps arguing with the older elf about historical facts. Daros’ presence is a painful reminder of Highborne culture–a time when the night elves valued privilege, luxury, and magic over knowledge and nature.
The Tauren Archaeology trainer in Elder Rise, Otoh Greyhide, works in a similar sort of temple of knowledge, the Hall of Elders—surrounded by Arch Druid Hamuul Runetotem, priests, and druid trainers. The woven cloths hanging from the walls record tales from “before the age of memory,” heroic and tragic myths that both archaeologists and spiritual leaders have equal stakes and interests in. While the Arch Druid states that the earth holds many secrets, it is the role of the archaeologist to preserve the earth as it is for future generations to ponder. The rich cloths also bring to mind cloistered monks, creating lavish illuminated manuscripts to preserve, if not fully decipher, their spiritual mysteries.
In ancient times, objects were also collected as votive offerings in temples and by patricians to mark the spoils of war. This continued into the Middle Ages, when the Crusade plundered valuable goods for both churches and lords alike. Objects as a direct reminder of battles and physical prowess would appeal to Garrosh more so than discussions of the humanities. In Grommash Hold, he keeps archaeology trainer Belloc Brightblade close to his throne. The Hold itself is literally decorated with treasure—axes hang on the walls, bearskins lay on the ground, treasure chests fill every alcove.
In the Renaissance, the museum resurfaced in the galleria and the gabinetto. The galleria was a long hall traditionally used to display pictures and sculptures, while the gabinetto was a smaller room filled with curios and exotic artifacts. Scarlet Monastery reminds me of an elite Renaissance palace between the religious zealotry and intrigue; the instance is strewn with books and valuables in long, narrow halls and places of workship—luxury goods you, as the adventurer, were never intended to see. Stratholme, another area taken over by the Scarlet Crusade, was a classic example of a town divided by the commoners and the nobility even at its prime. Zombies fight to invade the locked citadel, richly furnished with valuables; the residents in the Culling of Stratholme tend their shops and worriedly ask the town leaders, barricaded up in the inn, about the plagued grain.
A similar galleria is found in Karazhan—the Curator guards a lavish hallway and engages when he suspects the adventurers will steal the valuable artwork. But Karazhan is not just another elite palace with an impressive library. Gabinetto lurk in hidden corners—the square-shaped occult room Terestrian Illhoof hides in, Netherspite’s lair covered in globes and fossils. One could argue too that the gabinetto lives on in the monthly Darkmoon Faire promising shocking and never-before-seen wares from all around Azeroth.
One group promoting ownership of art by the rich and powerful is the Reliquary, a group of Blood Elves who acquire magical artifacts for their own purposes. Doranir, standing next to Archaeology Trainer Elynara in Silvermoon, says “History? Culture? Tch. Such is the realm of scribes…We discover, acquire, and amass lost artifacts, wealth, and lore so that it cannot be used against us. Power does, after all, belong in the hands of those who would use it best… wouldn’t you agree?” A Grand Vault, open only to the highest-ranking members, is referenced. Yet the Reliquary is the dominant force behind contemporary Horde archaeologists in spite of its secrecy. One suspects it remains primarily populated by Blood Elves and ignored by members from other races who don’t share their views on artifacts and elitism.
These two threads—one appealing to high-brow culture, the other to freakish surprises—developed over the course of several centuries, culminating in Napoleon’s plan for a national French museum system depicting the power and glory of his country. While his empire collapsed, the idea that museums and cultural merit could be a national yardstick for excellence remained. The idea that art and the humanities could be used in bettering society was also developed by Wilhelm von Humboldt, Prussian Minister of Education, and Thomas Jefferson at the turn of the 19th century. The Valley of Heroes in Stormwind is a perfect example of art furthering the glory of the empire. Statues of fallen heroes in heroic poses and regal armor line the grand bridge, the main entrance to Stormwind, with plaques highlighting their contributions to society. Silvermoon also uses architecture effectively to display civic pride and prosperity as gilded statues flank well-tended parks and spacious avenues. On the flipside, Sylvanas uses these same civic themes in her decaying architecture to further her illusion of power to the Forsaken—she preserves all the crumbled ruins and statues of Lordaeron while adding her own heroic statue in Brill’s town square.
To the Forsaken, everything is a museum, even graveyards–a monument to their betrayal and loss of rational thought. Many of them don’t want to remember a history they couldn’t control, and those that do, process information in irregular and detached ways. In the Ruins of Lordaeron, they’ve meticulously preserved the throne and tomb of Terenas Menethil II. Other times, they act with no interest—Farmer Saldean knows he has a family in Westfall, but he has no desire to seek them out. The archaeology trainer in the Undercity, Adam Hossack, occupies his own scholarly nook with bookshelves and manuscripts in the Magic Quarter’s Library. The Library is quite unwelcoming, simply piles of books in dark corners. In the cubicle next to his, Samantha Shackleton endlessly cross-references the same volumes, never progressing with her research, always thwarted by unhelpful or incomplete books: “If I could just find “Magic and the Ways of Power…”Ahh here it is, what was it doing over here? That wasn’t very helpful. Let me check the other one… Ahh, “Mystical Conjurings of the Archmages of Dalaran.” Perfect. But this can’t be right. Where did I put that other book?” She is a model grad student.
In Colonial America, museums developed out of an interest to document the explorations on the foreign continent, quickly moving from closed scholarly circles to public exhibitions with an emphasis on financial support and community donations. The 19th century saw the rise of iconic institutions like the Smithsonian, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Museum of Fine Arts—centers for both scholars and the public. The Hall of Explorers in Ironforge could hail from this period; a grandiose public hall with artifacts and labels attached to a dazzling library. Artifacts range from Uldaman relics to Horde catapults to massive fossils. The placards relate these artifacts to the glory of Dwarven culture and mythology, as well as reach inflated assumptions about some of the more obscure fossils. The library also houses Archaeology trainer Doktor Professor Ironpants, hinting that perhaps this museum takes its dusty self a bit too seriously.
And of course, there’s Harrison Jones, a clear tribute to the romanticized early 20th century explorer, Indiana Jones. Traveling to every exotic and Hollywoodized corner of Azeroth, Jones has now retired to teach archaeology to adoring students in Stormwind. Initially a scholar in a tweed suit, Jones turns into a superhero, going to all lengths to save artifacts. While his techniques on various quests may not be very scholarly, his enthusiasm for the profession certainly had a role in promoting its visibility in Azeroth.
The 20th century has seen an increasing emphasis on interpretation and the public’s experience–it’s impossible to categorize the amazing depth and creativity of museums, but there are several common threads. Collectors, once sharing their prizes to a handful of the elite, now donate their possessions to museums. Curators design exhibitions to constantly provoke the public, instead of simply cramming objects into a small room. Conservation departments preserve artifacts for future generations instead of viewing them as passing unexpected gifts—a movement that is quite modern. And the public, instead of being an uneducated mass taught about higher culture, is a dynamic voice that sees the museum as one thread of a cultural tapestry they can weave informed opinions on—challenging opinions on value, connoisseurship, talent, and history. One can imagine how Orcish or Highborne fragments were shunned regardless of their craftsmanship several decades before Cataclysm.
The museum in the Exodar’s Vault of Lights, curated by Archaeology Trainer Diya, features high-tech holographic renditions of demons and guided audio tours for a small group of Draenei commoners dressed in level 1 robes. A large and well-lit space with pink animated images of demons shimmering from display cases, this museum presents sobering statistics and a wealth of information clearly, organized by species, affiliation, and function. While the topic is dark, the bright architecture emphasizes the triumph of the Draenei and more optimistic times.
The development of the Shen’dralar parallels the fraught relationship between current academia and museums—academia being a privileged sphere that weeds the masses out, museums being public institutions that welcome all visitors. The Shen’dralar, walled up in the decaying Athenaeum in Dire Maul, preserve great secrets of the arcane, but distanced themselves after the Sundering. Regarded unfavorably by the general night elf population for practicing magic and serving as a reminder of the pre-Sundering corruption, the Highborne must take great pains to reacquaint themselves with society. In Cataclysm, there was a schism between several inhabitants—one mage, Estulan, broke away and formed his own center for learning, attracting scholars such as Vestia Moonspear from Feathermoon Stronghold, who bravely decided to study magic and face social stigma. She notes, “Remember this, young ones. Every spell you cast, no matter how minor, cuts both ways. This is why sorcery must never be used frivolously.”
Past elitism, snobbishness, and transgressions prevent this corner of Feralas from being a true temple of knowledge, but with night elves beginning to welcome the Highborne back into the fold and teachers such as Vestia, perhaps one day it has the potential to transform into a city like Dalaran, a model city of magic and a classical museum, and pick up conservation techniques along the way to save some of the artifacts from the ogres.
And sadly, there is always a struggle between the arts, funding, and time. Foreman Wick and Mason Goldgild argue about the best way to repair Danath Trollbane’s massive sculpture, split in two and stuck on a ramp in limbo—fast explosives vs a slow haul. The Goblins are infamous for assigning a monetary value to everything—it’s saddest when, in Azshara, your character discovers long-forgotten heroes of the Sundering, and the goblin NPC doesn’t care. He simply wants the ruins bulldozed and turned into profit. Fortunately, the machines fail to work, so the project remains unfinished due to lack of funds–sound familiar?
It does to me, and that’s why archaeology is so personally fascinating. It’s not just another profession with a few fun achievements and vanity items. I love analyzing it in spite of the numerous flaws it has in the actual game–the soul-crushing RNG, the constant flying, squinting to see the brown tools against the brown dirt. It gives our characters, dragonslayers all in identical matching gear, a nuanced collective memory and brings Azerothian material culture to life beyond the epics.
For further reading, I highly recommend Museums in Motion: An Introduction to the History and Functions of Museums by Edward P. Alexander and Mary Alexander, as well as Reinventing the Museum: Historical and Contemporary Perspectives on the Paradigm Shift, ed. Gail Anderson.