I am on Maiden Castle with the Museum’s Illustrator, on a day to die for.  We are talking about Story, which is one of our favourite subjects, and also admiring the view (which is all bare earth and black crows and skylarks and cloud shadows) when it occurs to me that everything that we are looking at is an Imaginary Landscape. Down below is Wessex, Thomas Hardy country, and so with only one foot in reality.  Also at our feet is Powys Land, the much story-fied Dorset of the novelist John Cowper Powys, high priest of much of the artsy lunacy that took place in this county in the 1930’s.  And directly behind us is Maiden Castle, whose ditches and ramparts were painted by Paul Nash in great, swirling loops.

All these are Imaginary Landscapes. Sometimes it’s good to remember that museums are only one of the things that we want to do with the Past; that visitors don’t only want to learn about the Past, they also want to paint it, draw it, re-invent and re-imagine it;  that they love to fete it, mythologise it, run towards it and escape away from it, whenever possible.

Still I am enough of a museum-person to also want to understand it, and Maiden Castle, stunning as it is, is distinctly short of explanations.  In fact there are almost no explanations at all up here on this hilltop, just grass and sky and swirling ramparts. And so we route-march back to Dorchester and to the County Museum, which turns out to be the perfect town museum, being chock a block with dinosaurs, fossils, the skeletons of Iron Age dogs, an Iron Age mirror, hammers, nails and other implements from a hard-scrabble farming life;  and also the letters, diaries, posters and book jackets that represent all the writers who have pitched up in Dorset and written it into something else.  You would think that museums, being thing-worlds, would be better at expressing facts than they are at expressing emotions and ideas, but oddly it’s not true.  Things also capture feelings.

In fact this Museum perfectly proves my theory, that you can pitch up in any town in the UK and make sense of it by going to the local town museum.

That said, hill forts in general and Maiden Castle in particular, are distinctly mysterious.  We spend some time in the Museum and then also flicking through books in the local Waterstones, from which we learn that nobody really knows the purpose of Maiden Castle, or of hill forts in general.  By about 500 BC they were springing up all over the UK, often but not always sited on the tops of hills, always built to impress and probably to mark the territory of tribes but not necessarily as a tool of war.  And if Maiden Castle did have a military purpose – well, nobody knows which war it was or who was fighting who, only that it was well into decline by the time the Romans came.  On the other hand I also pick up a copy of John Cowper Powys’s novel ‘Maiden Castle’ to read when I get home, so although I may not be able to tell you an awful lot about hill forts I can tell you a great deal about Dorset’s Imaginary Worlds.

PS:  The Powys’s were a sprawling, talented Dorset family, all of them into words, landscapes, visions, history and story.  ‘Eccentric’ doesn’t begin to describe them.  Some people believe that John Cowper Powys was the unsung genius of 20th century literature;  others that he was mad and boring beyond belief.

PPS  There is a neat observation that I wish I had been the first to make – I wasn’t – it comes from Morris Hargreaves McInture and goes as follows: – that museum visitors come for many reasons – intellectual yes, but also social, spiritual and emotional and that if you quantify these emotions on average the social, emotional and spiritual outweigh the intellectual.  Which is neat because it upturns the traditional assumption, that museum visitors only want to learn and nothing else.

Rachel Morris

To the Musee de la Chasse in Paris, a museum which – if it were a short story – would be indirect, poetic, fragmentary, full of atmosphere and able to create effects in ways you know not how.

It tells the story of the medieval forest, a lost and mysterious world, both savage and beautiful, that was haunted by Virgins and inhabited by Wolves, Stags and Unicorns.  The Museum is full of leafy tapestries, old muskets, a fox curled up on a flowery chair, the suggestion of blood and carpets of flowers and faithful hounds, the droppings of wolves and the whiff of a world that has gone. There is none of the usual paraphernalia of museum-making, no graphic panels pointing out that these people believed in unicorns.

Instead, like a good storyteller, it takes the viewpoint of the past as given, and in so doing takes us into the heart of their world.

Now it’s possible that since French is not my first language I’ve misunderstood a whole level of interpretation here. But I don’t think so, and either way my point would be the same, that museums can get magical effects by not distancing themselves from their subjects.  It’s what they teach you at Creative Writing classes – Always show, Never tell. And it’s what Hilary Mantell does in the ‘Wolf Hall’ books – collapsing her own viewpoint with Thomas Cromwell’s – with entrancing effects.

Museum exhibition-making is a new art form and we don’t judge the results with the same fine-grained, thoughtful fussiness that we apply to books – although we could.  We tend to judge exhibitions in two ways only – by the significance of their artefacts and by what we learn from them. And because of this nobody sits around and says – as we would of books – ‘I’m not sure I believe in its premise, although it’s beautifully done,’ or ‘Mmmm.  What I admire about this museum is the voice of the unreliable narrator.’  (Although if that’s what you’re after I have just the museum for you:  the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. And the Museum of Marco Polo also has a weakness for the unreliable author’s voice – but that’s another story.)

So back to the idea that the Musee de la Chasse is a short story. In which case who would it be by?  I try various writers for size and then I remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoirs (‘Living to tell the Tale’) and how he learnt to write magical realism by listening to his grandmother recounting wonders in a deadpan voice. So there you go, I think;  definitely a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story.  And although I wouldn’t want every museum to be a slice of magical realism – sometimes I’m in the mood for plainer, simpler stories – I would fight for museums, like books, to come in every shape and form.  And museum-criticism likewise.

Meanwhile what I took from the Musee de la Chasse, apart from a baffled delight, was a curiosity to understand tapestries better and a half-desire to believe in unicorns.  And what more could anyone want?

The Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature is at 60, rue des Archives, Paris 3.

By Rachel Morris

A fascination with title sequences may seem like an anorak pursuit – until you Google it.  Then you discover a like-minded fellowship of admirers of the taut content of the introduction to movies. And you also realise that there’s something here that every museum could learn from.

My own fascination began early, with the stylish Bond and Pink Panther title sequences, their combination of film, graphics, music, drama, wit and animation. it has continued ever since.  A great title sequence encapsulates, paints a picture, embodies the essence of what is to follow.  Setting the scene is a fine art and an old one- just think of the prologue   in Shakespeare. It is great storytelling.

What has this got to do with museums, you may ask?  My feeling is everything.  How often do you arrive at a museum – and somehow fall over the threshold, disoriented.  There is no introduction, no ‘why am I here?’

The first time I realised the importance of title sequences was when designing the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in 1996.  As luck would have it, Laurence Rees was making his landmark BBC series ‘The Nazis:  A Lesson from History’ soon after we began.  The title sequence is astonishing.  It grabbed the story.  It is 4 minutes and 31 seconds of original footage, and it is brilliant.

We replayed it many times, breaking it down with a stopwatch so that we could discover how well-edited film can convey so much with such economy. And you can still see how this translates into the opening of the exhibition, which contains home movie, old photographs, testimony, stock footage and subtitles, and works as one complete title sequence in space.

I have had a few opportunities to do this again.  But one of the ways that I liked best was when we began the Surrealism show at the V&A by getting the visitors to step through a pair of scarlet curtains that evoked the 19th century theatre tradition.  Beyond a theatre stage, a magical story and Surrealism unfolds before you.  Title sequences are something that theatre does naturally – and always has done.

Museums themselves, like exhibitions, can pull off the same trick.  At the Olympic Museum in Lausanne the visitor walks the title sequence. The ascent through the Park and past hte Olympic flame is their own ascent to their own Mount Olympus.  And at the Grand Egyptian Museum in Cairo we turned the entrance stairs into a 3,000 year hourney back in time from Cleopatra VIII to Khufu. The visitor goes up on a trvellator.  if this journey had a voice-over, it would say ‘Previously on the Pharaohs’.

The masters of this genre are the makers of some of the recent US TV series – ‘The Sopranos’, ‘The Wire’, ‘Rome’ and ‘True Detective’.  They are masterpieces of film, editing and sound, with constructions as complex as a sonnet.  There are essays online on the semiotics of the 1 minutes and 59 seconds that it takes for Tony Soprano to drive the New Jersey turnpike, all seen through a haze of cigar smoke.

So why can’t I walk into a musuem and get the story with this depth, concision and degree of artistry?

I was going to write on the Marco Polo-ish subject of Story but have been side-tracked by Money, and in particular by the question:  What is it that museums, buskers and digital companies share in common?  Answer:  all of them, whether by choice, necessity or Act of Parliament, are distributing large amounts of their content for free.

It’s a hard way to make a living and it makes me wonder if there is anything that museums can learn from digital companies about how to survive in this new, free world?  Which is why it is that I am in our local Waterstones one morning, leafing through the books in the Business section until I come across a book called ‘The Curve’ by Nicholas Lovell.

It’s not the only book that lays out the new rules for survival but it is a particularly clear exposition of the problem and the possible solutions, which (with apologies for the marketing-speak) goes like this – that in a world where huge amounts are given away for free across the web, businesses will survive by moving their audiences along the demand-curve, from spend nothing to spend a little to spend a lot, that the long battle to fight free content wlll prove pointless and that a cleverer response is to acknowledge that there will always be customers who stick to the free stuff, others who voluntarily pay something (out of guilt or pleasure) and a proportion who are real fans and who will pay a lot in return for feeling special and a part of what we do.

I am just about to put the book back on the shelf (thinking, How can this be?) when I remember the busker outside in the street.  Do you give money to buskers?  I do, even though I don’t have to – their content is free – and even though they have never yet changed my life forever. (Because that’s not what they do.)  I give money when they are good and when they give me a momentary buzz – which I reckon is worth a small transaction.

So museums are not stupid and the last three big ones I have been into have all asked me if I want to become a Member (their equivalent of moving me along the demand-curve).  But small museums, in my experience, don’t make the same proposition – even though what they have to offer feels in some ways more special and more unusual than the big museums.

Meanwhile the idea that museums – complex organisations with many employees – will be dependent for their income on charming, enlightening and entertaining their audiences, is mildly terrifying – although you might say that cinemas, theatres and all the rest have been doing this forever.

And there’s another point.  It seems that the psychology of how we all pay for something, anything, is getting more complicated. When historians come to write the history of the 20th century they will note the process by which companies have tried to standardise payment and make it feel like second nature, a law of physics, to hand over money in return for a product sold at a fixed price.

But it wasn’t always like this – and still isn’t in large parts of the world. Back in 15th century Venice (don’t ask me how I know this) you would have haggled in a bookshop for the cost of a book. Now though there are some people who suggest that the process of payment has become so boring (in – for instance – the big supermarkets) that this is one reason why we are abandoning them in droves in favour of smaller shops and markets, where the transaction feels more entertaining.  And it is true that it is peculiarly difficult to hand over money to someone who looks bored at the idea of receiving it.

And so it may be that if museums ever go back to charging, they won’t find the process easy or straightforward anyway.  Our audiences will expect a lot for their money, and – with the old standardised process of buying and selling going forever – we will, like buskers, have to put on a good show.

And so back to the office, pausing to buy a strong coffee on the way, to listen to the busker – and feeling quite weary.

(Image is from the Dreamstime website.  Much recommended.)