Thursday, May 16, 2013

Set-Up & Pay-Off: The Shroud of Turin

Note:  So it was pointed out to me that this blog post is being discussed over here.  On that note, I'd just like to say that my intention is not to provide scientific information or discredit the Shroud in any way.  I'm certainly not qualified for that and I don't pretend to be.  Rather, the point of this post is to use the exhibit, which indeed has a room in which it claims the Shroud is resistant to temperature, water, etc., as an example of problematical set-up/pay-off.

The exhibit itself is hardly a scientific journal article.  There are no signs with information, no pamphlets…Nothing except an audio guide with a very clear goal:  to tell a story.  It's not the story itself I wish to focus on; it's the telling of the story, which left me and others very disappointed.

A few weeks ago my roommate told me that the Shroud of Turin was currently in Sevilla, which is a big deal, since it usually lives in Italy.  My response:  "What's in the world is the Shroud of Turin?"

"It's supposedly the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped when they took him off the cross," she explained.  "It has his image on it."

A negative photograph of the Shroud of Turin.
Interesting, indeed.  As a sometimes-wannabe-pseudo archaeologist, I like old stuff, and if this really was the shroud in which Jesus was wrapped, then that's pretty old.  Besides, I like to make checkmarks on my "List of Cool Things I've Seen in Museums" (which so far includes St. Peter's bones and Abraham Lincoln's hat, among others), so I decided to make a visit to the exhibit titled La Sábana Santa, which translates to "The Holy Shroud."

I wasn't really expecting much--just a piece of cloth--but it turned out to be a pretty neat exhibit, one that told a story.  It began with the discovery of the shroud in Medieval France, then proceeded to discuss the nineteenth-century photograph that revealed it to be a giant negative of a man who looks suspiciously like Jesus Christ.

Could it really be Jesus?  And the even bigger question, how is the image on the cloth when there's no signs of paint, ink, embroidery, or anything else of an artistic nature?  (Plus, the question that resounded in my wannabe archaeologist's mind:  How could a piece fabric survive 2000 years?  Fabric is one of the most degradable materials, which is why archaeologists rarely ever find it, and when they do, they only find tiny threads.)

These are the questions the exhibit tried to answer.  Slowly.  Each room offered a little bit more information, more clues:
  • Carbon dating -- Do the dates match Crucifixion?
  • Pollen samples -- Scientists are able to analyze pollen in the threads, which indicates where the fabric has been.  Indeed, the shroud had bits of pollen from plants that only grow in and around Jerusalem.
  • Forensic studies -- What do the blood stains and the positioning of the limbs indicate?

Each room added a little bit more; the entire time, the suspense built and built.  Soon enough, I was ready to scream into my audio guide, "Just tell me if it's real!"

Then, the rising action right before the climax:  the tests.

  • The shroud is impervious to water.
  • The shroud is impervious to temperatures, both hot and cold.
  • The shroud is impervious to light.  The image hasn't faded.
After thousands of years, the shroud has not deteriorated at all, something absolutely unheard of in the archaeological world.  Which makes one wonder if it really is a miracle…

By this point I'm bouncing on the balls of my feet with anticipation, wishing the audio guide would go faster (there were no cards next to the displays, so unfortunately I couldn't just read my way through).  I needed to know.  Then, finally, it told me to proceed into the next room.

The climax.  Now, after about an hour, it was finally time to actually see the shroud of Turin and find out what scientists have concluded:  is it really the shroud?

There it is.  Hanging on a wall behind glass.  I walk toward it, holding my breath, and--

"What you're seeing is a reproduction of the shroud of Turin.  The original is only taken out every twenty five years so that it doesn't deteriorate."

Wait…What?  Rewind, I need to hear that again.  Reproduction?  So that it doesn't deteriorate?

This is what I saw behind class.  Yup…It really is just a strip of fabric.
Sorry, but the exhibit was just asking for the string of blasphemies that escaped my mouth.

Nobody said anything about a reproduction.  A reproduction?  Of a strip of fabric?

That's hardly the worst of it.  The whole time the museum strung me along:  despite my doubts in the beginning, as I went along, I became pretty convinced.  The science seemed thorough, the evidence pretty solid…

Then the penultimate room.  The one with the tests:  impervious to water, impervious to temperature, impervious to light, impervious to time…

Then the last room:  "The original is only taken out every twenty five years so that it doesn't deteriorate."

Wait, but you just said…?  I thought…?  What happened to being impervious to everything?  Even time?

One sentence, and the museum lost me.  Nope.  
If this were a book, I'd have thrown it across the room.  Yup, this exhibit is a great example of what books shouldn't do.

When you pick up a book, you're putting your faith in the author.  You're trusting him with valuable hours of your life:  his book had better satisfy.

I'm not saying it should be predictable.  It should, however, have good set-up and pay-off:  they should match each other.

What do I mean by set-up?  Pay-off?

Set-up is information you need in order for the pay-off, another action, to be believable.  For example:

Joanne has to stop a bomb from detonating.  Fortunately, she has the instruction manual.  Unfortunately, it's written in Greek.

The set-up would be that Joanne knows Greek:  earlier in the book, we witnessed a scene in which she speaks Greek to her neighbor, who happens to be from Athens.  The pay-off would be that she can easily read the instruction manual and stop the bomb.  That's a good set-up/pay-off situation.  A bad one would be:  By the way, Joanne knows Greek.  We learn that she can speak it at the same time she needs it.  That's not very believable.

The Shroud of Turin exhibit had excellent set-up.  With every room, it gave just a tad bit more information, continuing to pique my interest as it tugged me along.  A little here, a little there, so that by the end, I wouldn't have been able to "put the book down."  I couldn't wait for the big reveal.

So set-up, great.  Pay-off, not so much.

Just like you can't have a good pay-off without a good set-up, if the pay-off isn't good, then the set-up is meaningless.  It's excess information, completely unimportant.  Which is how I felt after the exhibit: that the set-up was a waste of my time.

Moral of the story:  set-up/pay-off problems can go both ways.

Have you ever been really disappointed in something because of set-up/pay-off problems?  Movie, book, museum?

No comments:

Post a Comment