Boat Stories

Museum Of Marco Polo

Museums are thing-worlds – it’s what makes them so peculiar and compelling – but even thing-worlds need words sometimes. And so, because words are what I love, I’m pursuing my usual geeky obsession to understand how things and their words work together. I don’t suppose this is the last time I’ll be posting on this subject.

So here are two very different ways in which things and their words work together, both of which I have seen recently.

The first I almost missed as I was going through the National Portrait Gallery.  First I saw the poem, or the shape of it, printed on the wall, and then I saw the painting next to it, of a young man, skinny, poised and enigmatic, with a far-off gaze and the folds and shadows in his turban painted a beautiful, greeny white. Truth be told, I would have rushed straight past this painting;  it was the surprise of seeing the poem next to it that made me stop and stare.  And although the painting enhanced the poem, the poem (which is by Ben Okri) also enhanced the painting, breathing life into it, puffing out its meaning, setting it free to float. The poem is called ‘Diallio’s Testament’.

‘I am one,’ writes Ben Okri, in Diallio’s voice, ‘on whom providence has worked its magical reversals.  Behind me are silent stories, like a storm . . . ‘  The poem meanwhile sits on  the wall with the same chunky presence as an artefact.

Later I ask someone who works there what visitors do when they read this poem.  ‘Sometimes they cry,’ he says and I think, ‘Good, that’s what museums ought to do to people.’

The second example is quite different.  This time I am sitting beside the Thames at Greenwich on a morning when the river is breezy, sunlit and empty. I am talking to a museum storyteller called Richard Sylvester whose job it is to take a concept – say, Empire – and to weave a story on the spot and perform it to the audience, to be accurate and informative, entertaining and enlightening, to keep the audience’s attention whether they are two or seventy-two, to let them be part of the story-making and to send them away wanting to come back.

I ask him what made him become a storyteller and he says that it began when he was beachcombing along the shores of the Thames.  He was picking up 18th century clay pipes and noticing the initials SB on them, which turned out to stand for Sarah Bean, whose family ran a business making clay pipes from Crane Street which is just round the corner. And that, I think, is the heart of it – a thing, a place and out of the two, a story, which is more often than not a fragment of bottom-up history – the history and memories of ordinary people, the kind of history that until recently was not even acknowledged as such.

It’s not easy being a oral storyteller.  It’s an art form (and it is an art form) whose status has been under threat ever since Caxton developed the printing press in the 15th century –

Whereupon the printed word gained the upper hand – and has it still.  The written word has status because we believe it will last for ever.  But the spoken word is different – it comes and goes and drifts like smoke, although it is remarkable how swiftly the right words go straight to the listener’s heart.

The conversation loops around.  We wonder if you tell stories better with an object in your hand – and maybe even better if the object is authentic? – and whether the listener also listens better when holding on to a thing?  And we wonder why it is that children always ask, ‘Is that a true story?’ even when quite plainly – to adult eyes – it isn’t.   We decide that the question must be a compliment to the storyteller’s skills. (‘Wow, you mean a dragon took it?  I so want to believe that.’)

I ask him to give me a good example of when a thing and its words have worked beautifully together and he describes a time when he was commissioned to tell a story about Prince Frederick’s Royal Barge.  First he got the audience singing with him, ‘The river is deep, the river is wide, row your boat to the other side’ and then, because he wanted them to have the physical, visceral feeling of what it was to be a waterman (all of which he researched), he described the waterman sitting in his boat on the river, waiting for the tide to turn, and judging the moment of change from how the weed in the current stopped flowing in one direction, became still and then flowed in the other.

As he speaks I am standing beside the 18th century boatman, looking down into the clear, brown waters of the 18th century Thames, watching a thread of green waterweed, how it stretches itself in one direction, then pauses and stretches itself in the other.  ‘Ah,’ I think, ‘it’s the detail that makes it work.  A nice bit of storytelling.’

By Rachel Morris

We are lying out on the cliff tops not far from Lyme Regis, having visited an awful lot of small and medium-sized museums in the last few months.  And now I am making in my head a classification of small museums (a mental museum of small museums?) and thinking that the trickiest thing in the world is to shift a small museum from one type to another.

So these are my categories:

Town museums, telling a local story and with a little bit of everything.  Letters, paintings, pub signs, old prams, fishing nets, some nice bits of ceramics, flint knives, agricultural implements, a Victorian dress or two, a fine 18th century sampler, a Roman gravestone. Museums like this are accommodating but robust and can take a whole range of showcases from new to tatty without looking strange. It is quite hard to ruin a good town museum.

Museums that tell a single story and chart an obsession – lace, canalboats, Victorian toys and so on, Honiton Lace Museum down the road being a nice example.  Again so long as you run them with the same obsessive passion as the original collectors, keeping the quirkiness and avoiding a corporate look, it is quite hard to ruin them.

And my third kind?  Victorian encyclopedic museums, some of them very small but which in their hearts are big museums and so set out to be encyclopedic and to tell the story of everything.  Like the British Museum but on a miniature scale, these Victorian museums aspired to be complete worlds.  They had local geology but also Egyptian mummies;  Victorian dress but also Assyrian reliefs;  stuffed foxes from the local woods but also African wading birds.

It is these museums, which – if they have to be unpicked – should be unpicked with great care.  For despite their random look, they actually have an organic completeness (at least by Victorian standards), and their beauty comes from the feeling that they were like clockwork machines in which each part has a role.

And yet, of course they come out of a world that has gone.  At the beginning of the 21st century we are a much more story-ish culture than the Victorians were, no longer as interested in classifying the world as in telling stories about it.  And anyway these museums are expensive to run (all those skills, all those showcases needing different environmental conditions) and so there is a temptation to unpick them totally.

But museums, more than any other organisation that i know, are formed by their pasts.

Bolton Town Museum and the museum in Saffron Walden are two examples which haven’t been unpicked, where the basic structure has been kept but film, interactives, personal memories, contemporary stories have all been added in –  because Victorian encyclopedic museums are very easy to update.

And examples where they have been unpicked?  Some small and medium-sized museums that now feel incoherent, where you stand in the entrance foyer and think, ‘Where have all the objects gone?  I don’t understand what this museum is about, what is it the museum of, what story is it telling?’

So how should you unpick a small Victorian encyclopedic museum (apart from with great care)?

One way is to look for the strongest and most compelling themes, and especially the ones that best explain your town – and major on these whilst letting the other collections and stories – not vanish exactly but slide a little into the background.  Gradually it will cease to be a museum that covers every subject with equal weight and become a museum of major and minor notes, where some stories occupy the foreground and others paint a supporting landscape.

But here’s something else I would love to do – and that is to leave a Victorian Museum untouched – or at least a part of it – whilst building round it a more modern museum. So that the two museums and the two centuries talk to each other.  Now that would be interesting.

(The image at the top of the page is from the Museum of Fruit in Turin, a quite beautiful museum from about 1900 dedicated to cataloguing the different types of apples grown in the Piedmont valleys.  Who would have thought fruit could be so beautiful?)