Have I said before how much I like the history of museums?  I used to think it was the early stories that I liked so much – stories of saints, scoundrels and pretty much everything in between – but these days I think it is the 20th century story of museum-making that’s so interesting.

So here’s a story, one of thousands, about exactly that.  The Museum is Verulamium in St Albans and the story that of Tessa Wheeler, archaeologist and wife to Mortimer Wheeler, the most famous archaeologist of his day – and possibly the least faithful.

The Wheelers excavated Verulamium in the 1930’s.  It was a Roman town that was turning up spectacular finds.  Tessa was a careful archaeologist – good on detail – and mostly she ran the site whilst her flamboyant husband travelled.  There’s something obsessive about archaeology.  If I were Tessa Wheeler I too would have become obsessed with resurrecting this lost world.  The museum began onsite and was filled as the work went on.  Both Wheelers worked hard to make it permanent, attending endless meetings and writing endless letters, but it is clear that the driving force was always Tessa’s.  And so – when she died suddenly of a botched minor operation whilst her husband was travelling abroad with another woman – the museum became a memorial to Tessa.  It is full of the Roman mosaics that she was so adept at lifting and preserving, and of wall paintings in rich, deep reds.

It is hard to say that any one person made a museum – they are usually the result of many minds – but if anyone made Verulamium Museum you could say that it was Tessa.

It was a time when women were moving into museums.  Society assumed that it was a woman’s role to conserve, protect and teach history – and so museums were felt to be a natural place for them.  Women archaeologists were also moving into museums because it was so hard to find a foothold in the macho world of archaeology.

Tessa was much liked and mourned and perhaps because of this Verulamium Museum feels so full of a startled acknowledgement of her ghost.

But even so,  most museums make very little of their own histories, even though there are dozens of stories as moving, interesting and revealing as that of Tessa Wheeler.

So why, I wonder, is that?

One reason, I think, is this.  In recent years every other discipline has become self-referential and full of self-doubt but museums still have directness and simplicity built deep into their DNA, and so they like to go straight to the deep past, missing out the moment of discovery as if it wasn’t relevant.  There are still some museums – white-painted walls, minimal labelling – that feel as if the objects had dropped out of the sky with no help from anyone.  But the truth is that the place of discovery changes what we discover – and the stories of the discoverers change how we see their discoveries.

To make your own history a part of the story, to draw back the curtains and reveal how the museum was made – as opposed to implying that it has been there forever – all this feels post-modern and therefore suspect.

But I like a bit of post-modernism and sometimes dismantling the story (like turning verbal somersaults when you write) is revealing.  And Verulamium Museum?  It’s atmospheric and full of ghosts – not only of Tessa Wheeler but also of the inhabitants of this Roman town, who thought that this place was theirs, not ours.

The story of Tessa Wheeler is told in Charlotte Higgins, ‘Under Another Sky’, and also in Lydia Carr’s book, ‘Tessa Verney Wheeler:  Women and Archaeology before World War 2.’

To James Rebanks’ fell farm in Cumbria, where we sit in the farmhouse kitchen with James and Helen and the kids, talking about Time, Memory, Viking stonewalls and how to choose a breeding ram?  So all the interesting questions in life.

James has just had a best-selling book published about farming, but when the  Museum of Marco Polo knew him he was an adviser to UNESCO’s Heritage programme.  Now it turns out that he is also a fell farmer and proud owner of 1,000 sheep.  Open up his book on farming and you will discover that it is packed full of Time and Memory.  Read a little into it and you will discover that he was born on a fell farm, was one of those village children who are lost to education (that’s his own description), but then got a degree from Oxford and now has come back home again to farm the same valley his family has farmed for hundreds of years.

So how, you wonder, does all this knit together?

So to start with his farm and his valley.  We are not far from Penrith, and yet this is a world of its own – a world of long, narrow valleys, broken fields, stone farmhouses and fells rising up like green walls.  It is also a small world, a handful of interlocking valleys where a system of managing sheep has survived that goes back for thousands of years.  In the winter the sheep are brought down to the valleys.  In the summer they are walked back up again to the open grazing land on the high fells.  The fell farmers have grazing rights in perpetuity up there on the mountains that they wrested from the landowners, and not even the landowners can overturn these rights. (Hence, I guess, the stroppy individualism that you see everywhere in these valleys.)

But to understand this farming world you have to understand Round Time and Long Time.

Round Time is the turning of the seasons (the farming life has no end) but Long Time is the chain of the generations on which you sit, like a bead on a necklace.  Long Time, or to be more accurate, Very Long Time is everywhere in these valleys.  Ask James why he rates winning a prize for his sheep higher than an Oxford degree and he’ll tell you that it’s all down to Long Time.

Building up a flock of sheep takes skill over many generations.  The flock is bigger than any one individual.  Winning a prize for the flock will honour the intelligence and talent that your father and grandfather put into them.  It make you the Man in the Long Time. Getting a degree? – well, that’s just a stunt in Short Time.

And later on, when I ask him why he came home to these valleys, he says, ‘Well, if you believe in Long Time, why wouldn’t you?’

We talk about the Gathering of the Flocks, which takes place every year – two hours to walk up to the high fells and two days (and many men and sheepdogs) to sort the flocks and walk them home.

We talk about how you learn to be a farmer – ‘You learn it from the generations before you’ – and the power struggle between fathers and sons that plays out on all these farms.  Sometimes the Father wins and the Son is cowed. Sometimes the Son wins and becomes bolshy.  And sometimes neither wins and the power struggle goes on.

‘My dad lived in Long Time,’ says James.  ‘The Farm was all he ever wanted.  He wasn’t like me, switching from one world to another. I found him frustrating growing up, because I wanted to talk about books and he couldn’t see the point.’

And we talk about rural novels and how they generally paint farming as a bitter, hard-scrabble existence.  ‘Like Tess of the d’Urbevilles?’ I suggest, to which James says, ‘Yes but they are usually written by the smart kid who got out and so they are bound to paint farming as something to escape from.’  ‘Like Thomas Hardy?’ ‘Yes, like Thomas Hardy.’

Later on we go down in his jeep to meet his neighbour Mason, and James says, ‘The thing is, there’s no sense in what we do.  There’s no money in fell farming and yet we keep on doing it.’

I can guarantee that if one of these farms came up for sale there would be young men trying to buy their way into farming even though they couldn’t possibly put together a convincing business case. We are all of us chasing the irrational.

‘So fell farmers are like poets, artists and lunatics?’  ‘Exactly.’

And then we meet his neighbour Mason, who is another fell farmer, with a dog called Dog, and stonewalls that go back to the Vikings (all of which is sheer delight for anyone who loves history).

I ask James if he has ever been to a farming museum that captured any of this?  ‘No’ he says, ‘Never.’  ‘Hence the book?’  ‘Yes, hence the book.  I wrote the book to prove that these valleys matter.  And because I believe in the power of books to change the world, even though it may happen very slowly.’

At which I think, It’s all romantic, beautiful stuff, saturated with Time and History and all coming back to the question of what kind of life should a human live?

Life in these valleys is very communal.  When James’ father died 500 people turned out for his funeral, big even by farmer standards.

‘You know,’ says James, ‘there’s a concept in small town, Nordic communities that for the good of the community you shouldn’t get too big for your boots because communities need genes for communal living and not too much individualism.  Sometimes I wonder whether it is in small valleys like this one that the genes are preserved by which human beings will survive.’

And the question in the title: ‘How to choose a Breeding Ram?’  Well, a good breeding ram has a massive value, far above the usual value which is based on the cost of its meat. But the question is, how to identify that value?  And so, come the autumn shows, each ram is examined in the minute-est detail with every farmer out to take a punt on a ram that may make the difference.  And if it works and you have chosen the right ram?  ‘Well then,’ says James, ‘it’s all a bit like Breeding Paintings.’

The sheep in the image at the top of the page are James’ neighbour’s.  Very beautiful.  James’ book is called ‘The Shepherd’s Life:  A Tale of the Lake District’.  Published by Allen Lane.  2015.

In 1998 I won the competition to masterplan the V&A.  The economic idea behind the Master Plan was simple, to remake the existing museum in 50 projects for £50 million over ten years, instead of building Daniel Libeskind’s extension, the Spiral, which even then was an £80 million project. The V&A would celebrate design across the widest range of disciplines and would employ many more companies, rather than building one building with fewer trades in larger packages. Thus it would distribute the spoils rather than put all its eggs into one basket.  It would encourage more benefactors to donate to a range of smaller projects. There would be grand openings every year, creating marketing opportunities and a real buzz.  And it wouldn’t suck the life out of any other capital spend in the museum for at least five years.

This fundamental idea has underpinned the V&A’s Master Plan (now called FuturePlan) as it has unfolded over the last fifteen years.  Although the cost has more than doubled over the ensuing period the museum has made that back in increased and repeat visitation – because there are so many more reasons to keep coming back. The Plan’s first three projects were a new Welcome Space in the Dome that has been the focus for parties, with a beautiful desk that becomes the bar for openings;  one of the best museum shops in the world;  and a new restaurant in the original 19th century dining rooms.  This was topped off with a new courtyard garden described in 1998 exactly as it turned out, and around which the museum ‘spins’.  And then there are the refurbished galleries, the learning centre, and a myriad other projects.

The beauty of this model is that it is incremental, flexible, iterative, provisional and changeable;  and that overspend is distributed and manageable.

But although never built the Libeskind Spiral has come to epitomise a cultural default position, our growing addiction to massive capital projects. The reasons are numerous. These ‘grandes projets’ respond to a compulsion that we have to build, without which we feel that our time has no value.  They are a multiple whammy, a honey pot that seems to spread nectar.  Museum directors and senior colleagues, patrons, architects and politicians all get something out of them – fame, prestige, peer recognition, career definition, proximity to creativity, power, the privileging of wealth and power and gongs – and the more lavish the building the higher the fees.

The V&A is a model of the exception.  The museum has stayed with the programme even though it has now opted for building a new temporary exhibition space where the Spiral would have been – although on a more modest scale and also making a far more powerful contribution to the public realm of Albertopolis, with a new courtyard that flows into Exhibition Road and also into the central courtyard.

Meanwhile our addiction to capital projects in the Capital shows every sign of increasing with inward capital flows, a fourth runway, HS2 and Crossrail.  And the budgets are mindboggling.  A new concert hall for Simon Rattle could be £400 million – Hamburg has built one and so has Paris so we had better have one too, and never mind that far fewer people go to classical concerts.  The numbers go on.  The Garden Bridge at £250 million, a lovely idea but arguably in the wrong place and clearly a vanity project for the Mayor.  But the project has been proposed by Joanna Lumley and who is going to argue with a national treasure?  The London Museum will relocate to Smithfield, for a good £250 millllion, at a guess, and way more than the disposal of its existing site.  That’s before we include projects at the Science and Natural History museums. These are today’s published numbers and it is almost a rite of passage for the budgets to increase since it is in the contractor’s interest and also in the designer’s;  more expensive equals more fees.  Meanwhile our epoch is characterised by the most expensive must-have, globally sourced materials possible, titanium, copper, marble  and intelligent-glazing.  Sustainability hardly comes into it any more.

So add together the Bridge, the London Museum, Olympicopolis and the proposed new concert hall, to name four new London projects, and you are already north of one billion pounds of cultural projects. (And this on top of the Tate Gallery extension that has already cost £215 million.)

This raises a number of issues.  Firstly they are funded partly out of lottery tickets.  The HLF sustains many jobs and businesses in the cultural sector – but the relationship between the location of those who purchase lottery tickets and where it is dished out is like first past the post versus PR.

Secondly none of these projects will ever ‘wash their faces’ without subsidy, patronage, and a hefty HLF grant or one-off cheque from the government. Then there is the question of whether London really needs all these new buildings and in these locations.  Who will come? I remember with the millenium lottery fund seeing umpteen projects with the same visitors predicted by the consultants going to each project. Are the numbers really there?  Who has the time or the money? The tourists on a three day break aren’t going to schlep out to Olympicopolis and the locals may not be regular Smithsonian goers.

And there is something else.  Over the last two years I have been working on projects in Bath, Blackpool, Edinburgh, Manchester, Paisley, Salisbury, Winchester, Windermere and York, to make lovely museums with national collections of international importance.  These projects are of value to our heritage, to who we are. They will increase visitor numbers, supplement schools and the curriculum, covering science, archaeology, social history, technology, textiles, design and poetry.  They are all regeneration and public realm projects, and provide a cultural heart to their city, town or hamlet.  They could all be completed for less than the price of the Garden Bridge.  And if that isn’t startling enough, the sum of their projected visitor numbers in a stabilised year is in excess of four million people.

(The image at the top of the page is from the new galleries at Salisbury and South WIltshire Museum.)

Lady Drury’s Painted Closet

Museum of Marco Polo

At the Museum of Marco Polo we are on a quest to understand the ways in which women’s lives connect with the history of museums.

Which is why it is that on a day when I have so many things I should be doing in London I am standing in Christchurch Museum in Ipswich, gazing in baffled wonder at the Painted Closet of Lady Drury.

If you ever wanted to prove that the past is strange, this would be your evidence – a tiny closet, closely painted with mysterious symbols, where Lady Drury, recently bereaved of her only child, a 14-year-old daughter called Elizabeth, sits and and prays alone in her country house.

It is the year 1610, and her hot-tempered husband Robert is away as usual at war or on business.  Lady Drury comes from a humanist family where the girls are as highly educated  as the boys.  One grandmother is the daughter of Edward VI’s tutor and can speak four languages fluently.  One of her uncles is the philosopher Francis Bacon. She herself is highly educated and deeply serious.  For they are not only a humanist family, they are also a Puritan family, and the symbols in her Closet have been painted at the instigation of her personal chaplain, the puritan Joseph Hall, who believes that he has found a way to allow Puritan women to meditate without looking on sinful images.  The symbols are beautiful but strange and hard to interpret – the sun, the moon, flying monsters, men that look like wizards in long robes and tall hats – and the Latin titles that accompany them are saturated with self-punishment and self-denial to a degree that is painful to read.  Trust is never assured.  I have hope and I have perished.  There is no rest for me here.

This is not the 18th century made familiar to us by Jane Austen. Nor is it the 16th century where Hilary Mantel is our guide.  It is the strange 17th century, filled with puritans, witches and revolutionaries.  Sometimes this is how the past comes at us, ice-cold and startling.

And whilst you can re-write words to make them less strange, you can’t re-write an object.  It is what it is, in all its strangeness.

If you had told me that Lady Drury believed in unicorns and fairies (which actually she probably did – people tended to in those days) the past could not seem much stranger.

And here is my problem.  Because now I am curious to know more, to know if there are any other Painted Closets, to imagine where Lady Drury lived, and to understand what it felt like to be her, but when I ask around the Museum no one can tell me. There’s a leaflet in the bookshop, a graphic panel in the room, and a nice woman behind the desk who apologises for her ignorance and suggests that I contact the curator – although, as she says, the curator is rushed off her feet and unlikely to be able to answer my questions any time soon-ish.

All this of course is down to the cuts. Five years ago, at the height of UK museum-making, it was fashionable to complain that objects were being over-interpreted, that objects should be allowed to speak for themselves, but under-interpretation is far more infuriating.

It occurs to me that I have been in half a dozen museum bookshops out of London in the last few weeks, and that (with the honourable exception of Arbeia Roman Fort in South Shields) not one of them has had a single book that takes you deeper into a subject.

The problem is that when you don’t explain things it doesn’t make visitors curious to know more;  it makes them more likely to walk away quicker.

All of which is why it is that on the train back to London (past the green-black trees and burnt-yellow fields of Suffolk in high summer) I am hunched over Google on my mobile phone, trying to discover more about the strange and lonely life of Lady Drury.  It is Google that tells me that Lady Drury comes from a humanist family that rated women’s education.

By the time I get to London I have also remembered a novel by Robert Graves, called ‘Wife to Mr Milton’ which I read one summer when I was sixteen and had absolutely nothing else to do.  It’s a story about 17th century Puritanism and I remember that I dropped it in shock at the idea that people could willingly embrace such a harsh and unforgiving doctrine.  But for lack of any other interpretation I decide that this novel will probably take me as close as I can to understanding the strange and mysterious world of Lady Drury.

There is one postscript to all this.  Lady Drury also commissioned the poet John Donne to write a poem to her daughter, which he called ‘An Anatomy of the World, wherein, by occasion of the untimely Death of Mistris Elizabeth Drury, the frailty and decay of the whole World is represented.’

If I were Lady Drury I would be more consoled by Donne’s poem than by Joseph Hall’s meditation techniques.  But I am not Lady Drury of course – and the past is very mysterious.

The image at the top of the page is from the Painted Closet.  You can find it in Christchurch Museum in Ipswich, about 20 minutes walk from the station.