Sometimes I think that the whole of museum-making can be boiled down to this one question:  how best to express the meanings of things?  All the fancy accessories of museum-making – the lighting, the graphics, the glass, the colours, the iPads and iPhones, the screens and projections, the audio and the living guides – are all in the service of this one ambition.  To leap time, to light up an object, to bring the past alive, to give an object meaning, to take you back in time.

But oh dear god, it isn’t easy.

So this article is about two examples of meaning-making that I came across this week. Each one is startling, touching and unexpected, and each one worked for me and may well work for you as well?

But first, a true confession.  When I first got into museum-making I thought the problem of how to express the meaning of an object was – well, it wasn’t rocket science.  Find 100 beautiful words, I thought, print them up, put them next to an object – and there you are, job done.

Only of course it’s not as simple as that. Doubts and questions fall into three areas.  Firstly if an object has a thousand meanings – and they always do – then whose meanings are we telling and why are we prioritising this set of meanings over that?  Secondly, if there are dozens of different ways to express the meaning of an object – and there are – then how do we choose which way to tell it, and why do we prioritise this way over that?

Even more tricky is a third set of questions.  There are plenty of people, including lots of curators, who feel that things and words don’t go well together, that however carefully you choose your words, words are clunky whilst objects are subtle.  Or, as someone said of the Pitt Rivers’ collections, ‘the richness of things exceeds that of language.’  There have been some bitter, museum-making arguments over the last two decades and a surprising number of them are to do with things and their words.

Which may be why it is that over the last few years a fashion has grown up to get artists,  not interpreters, to do the interpretation.

Which brings me to the examples that I have discovered this week, both of which are in the Foundling Museum not far from Russell Square.  The museum tells the story of Thomas Coram, an 18th century sea captain, who bought up land round here when all this was on the edge of Georgian London.  Here, on what were fields and streams and woods, he built a foundlings’ hospital, which later on grew famous.  For a long time the hospital prospered but in time the city grew and swallowed up the fields, the hospital was demolished, and now all that’s left is a charity, a children’s playground, some tall, old trees, a museum and a folk memory of a sea captain and of the foundling children.

How would you tell that story?  Here are two ways that artists have come at it. The sound recordist Chris Watson knew that families of songbirds stay close to the same territory into which they are born and that there is therefore  a genetic link between the birds who sing here now and the birds who sang here for the 18th century foundlings. And so one morning he recorded the dawn chorus in the local playground. Ask at the museum desk and they will switch it on for you, whereupon a flood of bird song will come spilling down the museum’s 18th century stairs.  The sound is stunning but it’s the knowledge that these song birds are the descendants of those who sang to the foundlings, that gives you the magic of time travel and time jumps.

And the second example?  Go out of the museum and look to your left and you’ll see a child’s small mitten fixed to the railings in the street.  Only it’s not a real mitten;  it’s a tiny sculpture by the artist Tracey Emin, in acknowledgement of the tokens that the 18th century mothers left here when they left their babies.  I defy you not to reach up and touch it, so’s to feel the magic.

These are two examples of how artists impart stories – indirectly, allusively, touchingly, emotionally – teasing out a concept then building the art around it.

The concept behind the recording of the bird song is so painfully sweet I wish I had thought of it myself.

Both are ways of doing interpretation that avoid the fight between things and their words as well as the clunkiness of imparting direct information.

On the other hand unless you knew that the child’s mitten was there I doubt that you would have found it  And if you didn’t know anything about the foundling hospital would it have had the same effect, or would it have  been less meaningful?

What do you think?  Do you prefer the way that artists tell stories?  Or Interpreters?

The image at the top of the page is from an 18th century map, showing the foundling hospital on the right hand side.

Temples of Delight

Rachel Morris

We are just back from Turin (city of baroque streets and shops selling hand-made, mens’ pyjamas) where I have fallen in love all over again with the Cinema Museum, for its wit and imagination.  (And if you haven’t been already you should go at once.)

The Museum tells the early history of Italian cinema of which Turin was once the capital – until Mussolini moved it to Rome in the 1930’s to punish the Torinese for their uppity and anti-fascist behaviour.  A woman called Maria Adriana Prolo saved the collection from destruction when Turin was bombed (first by the Allies and then by the Germans) and then added to it from the flea markets of the ruined, 1950’s city, where she found magic lanterns slides by the hundreds.

Acres of pleasure lie before you but my favourite artefacts are the toy theatres, old cameras, magic lanterns, peepshows, zoetropes, an Eidophusikon, a Praxinoscope (the names are wonderful) and all kinds of other 19th century optical toys.  The magic lanterns are made of wood and look like Russian stoves with wooden legs and metal hats and long, bronze noses.  The old cameras look like squeeze boxes, with wooden fronts and backs enclosing concertina-ed innards.  The magic lantern slides are painted with ghosts, magicians, monsters, skeletons, moonlight, sea serpents and skipping dogs.  They hark back to the world of 19th century Italian towns where pedlars sharpened  knives and sold willow baskets and entertained the local children with magic lantern shows.

It’s all part of the long, sparkling, exuberant pre-birth of the cinema that stretched from the 17th to the 19th centuries, before Hollywood and the money men and blockbusters moved in.  It makes me wonder if museums also were less serious and more exuberant at the beginning of their history?

The Cinema Museum is the creation of the Swiss designer Francois Confino and in exhibition terms he gets so much right. He makes a match between the playful subject and the playful treatment of the subject.  He remembers that in the cinema story nothing is solid and everything is an illusion.  And he gives the Museum that most valuable of things, its own tone of voice and style and personality, which is something that good novels have but museums much less often.  With its wit and exuberance it’s like Angela Carter’s novels or ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’.

One thing though is interesting.  The Museum revels in the wonder and playful magic of early cinema.  One hundred years later the web is in the same position and is just as playful as zoetropes and magic lanterns once were.  But the Museum was created before the advent of social media and before the web became so dominant.  And so there is an opportunity for a designer to come along and to effect the next bit of magic, threading the playfulness of the web through these displays and enabling the visitors to slip like magicians between the real world and the digital.

Images, top and bottom, are lantern slides from the Museum.