How To Under-design

Stephen Greenberg

Wonderlab, the new interactive gallery designed by muf at the Science Museum in South Kensington, is a triumph – with a distinctive aesthetic of wooden trestles, easels and artists’ donkeys.  It is also an idea whose time has come – and it has taken a very long time, building firstly on Launchpad, the Museum’s interactive gallery, but also on a gradual institutional change over a much longer time span;  and building also, I suspect, on the quiet impact that the reconstructed James Watt workshop has had on the Museum, the ultimate man-shed space that reminds one that invention doesn’t require interior design.

Let’s go fast backwards in the Museum to the beginning of the millennium to the completion of the Wellcome Wing development.  When it opened Deyan Sudjic praised the Making of the Modern World Gallery to the rafters for its design, but detailed audience evaluation produced at the time revealed that visitors need more explaining, more way finding,  more context to make connections, in short what we now call interpretive design. Meanwhile the Wellcome Wing itself was – and still is – bathed in a James Turrell inspired, blue shift, Doppler gloom – a bad architectural metaphor by the architect, the late Sir Richard McCormac (thus achieving what Rowan Moore, in describing Norman Foster, calls ‘the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything).

Now fast forward several directors and 18 years later and the Science Museum Group has built a brilliant team of science interpreters in both London and Manchester who had developed a new generation of interactives.  They have recognised that designing an interactive exhibit is way harder than designing a building – you have to think about outcomes, understanding rather than just looking, the process and its robustness.  More than that, Wonderlab is under-designed.  Under-design is the hardest style to achieve, unless it has the naturalness of Watt’s workshop, whilst over-design is the default of most designers – confusing means with ends, fetishising the smoothly hewn, dimpled, laser-cut, perforated, coveted and polished.

Now the reason I am interested in, and so admiring of, muf’s Wonderlab design is that it had a precursor.  Way back in 1998 Bob Baxer and I were shortlisted for the Wellcome Galleries and we proposed a space where science could be ‘explored’.  Remember that no one back then talked about the San Francisco Exploratorium, let alone their ‘cookbook’, and it certainly wasn’t in the Museum’s briefing documents. But we ran with the idea and showed displays that were based on easels, trestles, and artists’ donkeys. We were proposing the artist’s studio as a place of exploration, a site for doing and researching.  We were positing that hi-tech is only a look, that with Wonder should come Doubt, and that our aesthetic would be a counterpoint to the faux hi-tech of the Wellcome Wing. We also had a series of spaces modelled directly on 18th century anatomy theatres, for demonstration and discussion, with grid-like structures, coloured liquids and artefacts on open display.

Now muf never saw our drawings of course.  The connection between their design and ours is simply that museological ideas evolve and there comes a time when their time has come.  Journeymen like Bob and I moved from museum to museum, project to project, subject to subject, and conversation to conversation, and although we inspired, the truth is that for an idea to work it has to be owned and developed by the museum’s community.

I’m excited that muf has shown that all the fancy pimpled metal and brackets with circular holes is an unnecessary distraction, excited that by under-designing they have created a world that visitors can connect with, that curators can change and where improvisation is possible.  Design should be provisional;  the problem with the hi-tech modernist aesthetic is that it offers the illusion of flexibility whilst being most inflexible.

In Wonderlab the museum makers are also opening up to the possibilities of co-creation.  It provides a language that is easy, a place and space that can be shared, with or without any prior knowledge.  In science, as in co-creation, none of us knows everything, and everything is provisional just like Watt’s workshop.

Image at top of page:  the new Wonderlab at the Science Museum, by muf

Hand-drawn images:  by Stephen Greenberg, 2,000

If ever there was a topical subject for our times it is the idea of Home (or the lack of it).  And now that local museums, which are the embodiment of Place and Home, are under threat from lack of funding, I have come to talk to Gillian Tindall, who is a historian of Place and Home.

I want to see if she can cast a sideways light on the questions, Why is it that human beings become so attached to a particular street, or house, or landscape?  What happens if you take it away from them?  And whether knowing the history of a place strengthens our attachment to it?

So Gillian Tindall, in case you haven’t come across her books, was part of that lucky section of society that had just enough money to buy an old house in London after WW2, when nobody really valued them and so they were going, relatively-speaking (and it was only ever relative), for a song. I would say that the concept of Place interests her but that wold be to hugely understate it.  Place for her is everything. Wherever she’s lived she has made herself at home by researching the past of everything nearby or under her feet.  She tries to understand one small patch of earth as a way of understanding all of it.  She writes passionately about the rights of everyone to hold on to their part of the earth, and not to have their landscape turned upside down.

Her books are vividly written, astringent, myth-debunking books – but the ones I know best are the ones about London and especially north London and Kentish Town – Kentish Town being her home, but also once my home and the place where I still feel that I belong. She has that double vision that historians have, seeing the past and present simultaneously. She knows the local dynasties, men and women who came to Kentish Town to work on the railways or in the piano factories in the 19th century and whose descendants have been here ever since. Where other people see simply roads and traffic she sees the original country paths and the fields beneath.  She bought a house – an old workers’ cottage – in Kentish Town and for fifty years she’s been raising ghosts by unearthing the lives of the previous inhabitants.

When she first came here there was a different kind of housing crisis.  The post-war planners were intending to knock down most of west Kentish Town and replace it with high-rise flats.  That would have dealt with some slums, it is true, but would also have knocked down endless Victorian houses where old ladies let out rooms at prices that students and twenty-somethings could afford.  These plans were partially resisted through a series of painful local battles and finally finished off by the unanticipated rise in house prices which began in the 1960’s.  (Yes, there was a time – astonishing to believe – when house prices stayed still, or even drifted downwards.)

‘Again and again,’ she says, ‘I found exemplified the importance people attach to their roots and to their physical habitat, actual or remembered – an aspect of the human psyche which has been treated with the most cavalier disregard . . . ‘

If there were a Museum of Kentish Town – which there isn’t – and if it were a museum that told its story through many voices, then hers would be one of those voices, telling that key part of the story, the story of the housing stock, the bricks and mortar and how people made their homes from it.

And that I think is one small pity, that there is no local museum in Kentish Town (there are in fact very few local museums anywhere in London), because a local museum can be (should be?) a place where people can visit their lost and beloved pasts and therefore feel at home in our big cities where it is getting harder and harder to make a home of one’s own.

Gillian Tindall’s latest book is ‘A Tunnel Through Time’, published by Chatto and Windus, and exploring what Crossrail uncovers as it tunnels through the layers of London’s history.

Through my letter box there comes by serendipity a review copy of Stephanie Victoire’s fairy tales for grown ups, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’.  And though I didn’t know I asked for it I am very pleased to get it, because there’s a definite affinity between museums and fairy tales that makes me a big fan of them both.

What they share in common is a willingness to invest the world of things with a kind of magic.  When it comes to fairy tales think of the little red dancing shoes or Aladdin’s lamp or the tinderbox – all things that have a magical power.  And when it comes to museums, think how visitors are charmed by the magical power of objects, because of the illusion they give us of time travel, of going back in time.  It’s true that museums usually see themselves as dealing in everything that’s plain and practical.  But museum visitors are another matter. For many of them museums are about awe and beauty, the magic of time travel, those transcendental moments when you think, ‘Ah, this was made by someone who lived and died hundreds of years ago.’

Museums and fairy tales both deal in the magic of Thing Worlds.

But it is not easy to write a good fairy tale.  You have to be able to breathe a kind of numinous significance into a place or a thing or a moment in time, to invest them with some kind of indefinable meaning that you feel like a breath on the back of your neck.  And Stephanie Victoire is very good at this.  She’s an economical writer, building up her effects quickly and with conviction.  She knows how to get the reader to swallow a huge fiction by getting it over in the first paragraph, how to cast a spell over the reader by summoning up an atmosphere that feels strange and off-kilter, and how to tuck a lifetime of stories into the structure of one short story. I loved ‘The Earth-Bound Express’, for its cool, compelling imagining of the voyage of the souls, after death, between lives.  And I loved ‘The Cemetery Pilgrimage’, whose protagonist is stealing genius from dead bodies in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.  The numinous objects in her stories are snowflakes, axes, the statue of a lover, an animal mask – all bathed in an unearthly light.

But what about museums? How do they invest their artefacts with a larger than life meaning?  Well, sometimes the artefacts, having huge personalities, do the work themselves.  The Chinese Terracotta Warriors, displayed for the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum, were like this.  However you laid them out their off-beat personalities shone out.

But other times it’s the skill of the museum designer that invests an object with a powerful meaning, by the way that he or she places it, or bathes it in light, or the colours it is set against.

And if there is one museum that achieves this oddball, fairytale strangeness from beginning to end it is the Musee de la Chasse in Paris (which we reviewed here two years ago). It tells the story of the medieval forest, a lost and mysterious world both savage and beautiful, that was inhabited by Virgins and haunted by wolves and unicorns.  As with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire’s for instance) it has its own distinctive atmosphere, and as with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire again) I can’t quite pin down how it works, just that it does.

Stephanie Victoire, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’, published by Salt. On 15th November 2016

La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris, France

Love In The Museum

Rosa Campbell

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships (MOBR) when everything was boiling.  The Zagreb summer, the fights we were having, a rolling, endless boil between us.  I went to the Museum to be immersed in other people’s difficulties in love;  for comfort and solidarity and I found this, but I also found insights into the meaning of time and of objects in love too.

The MOBR is a museum of objects, each representing a romantic relationship that has ended. There are objects you might expect;  wedding dresses hang sadly, a Valentine’s day bear holding a red ‘I love you’ heart is accompanied by the note ‘LIES DAMN LIES! This is just what you think when you’re young and naive!’ There are some more unexpected objects too; a garden gnome with a bashed-in face and a large, blue sharply bladed axe, which the broken-hearted used ‘every day’ to

‘axe one piece of her furniture.  Two weeks after she left she came back for the furniture.  It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood.  She took that trash and left my apartment for good.’

The objects at the museum are all contemporary, due to the collection being made up of recent donations but we have known for a long time that objects are important in the romantic relationship.

Artist Leanne Shapton in her fictitious auction catalogue tells the story of Hal and Lenore’s relationship through objects.  Shapton and the Museum of Broken Relationships expose the particular way objects are fetishised in love, where to fetishise means to give the object symbolic value which transcends its ‘real’ attributes (as Marx knew).  To be clear: these objects are already loaded with meaning, already fetishised as commodities.  The porcelain dog set already represents a class of people who have knowingly ironic vintage home ware in their Brooklyn lofts.  But Shapton loads them with something specific to the romance between Hal and Lenore and it’s up to us, as readers, to decipher the way the dogs have been specifically fetishised between them and given a place in the story of their romance, reaching far beyond their painted-on smiles and shiny glazed tails.

We can relate to Shapton’s book and the MOBR precisely because when in love we fetishise the objects related to our lover to the extent that the objects stand in for the one that we love.

Sometimes these objects are banal, or rubbishy or a bit disgusting, like the pair of pants in the MOBR or a brush clotted with hair in Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel ‘Patience’.  The protagonist will settle for sticking his nose in the hairbrush of his beloved, in place of her.  In love, other objects, unattached to the love relation, usually weighty with symbolic value, hardly matter.  In my case I like art and books, and I fetishise these too, usually.  Except when I’m in love and alone;  then only the things of my beloved – a cinema ticket stub left by my bed,, an old woolen navy jumper – have any significance.  I’m bored of Miro, tired of the new Granta magazine, which lies unloved beside me. This is what Barthes means when he says ‘I am dead to all sensuality except that of the charming body’ and what Sinead O’Connor means when she says ‘I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant, but nothing compares to you.’

And speaking of being alone, time too is different in love.  Usually when I visit a museum – especially the big hitters like the British Museum or the Imperial War Museum, time is presented as linear, progressive and regular.  These institutions tell us that we can learn from the past and try to caution us against repeating historical mistakes. But as the Museum of Broken Relationships shows, time in love is not linear.  The objects here represent a series of messy endings and circles, of people ‘seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.’  (Chris Kraus).

Neither does time march regularly in love and this is reflected in the collection of love letters sent during war time, held by the Imperial War Museum.  Many of these moving and intimate letters speak of the soldier’s hell of waiting for post from lovers, the joyful speed at which letters are read and digested and so the way this joy is then quickly replaced again by waiting. There is nothing even and uniform about time in love.  As the letters show, anxious waiting slows time down, whilst time spent in passionate intimacy with another makes time fly.

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships that summer in Zagreb, to get some perspective beyond us.  And I got it, in the form of a difficult question:  if time is not linear, progressive or regular in love, is it ever?  What do you think?

Books I had in mind and referenced when writing this piece were –

‘Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry,’ by Leanne Shapton

‘A Lovers Discourse,’ by Roland Barthes

‘I love dick,’ by Chris Kraus

‘Granta Magazine, 96,’ ‘Loved Ones’

‘Hot Milk,’ by Deborah Levy

‘Ugly Feelings,’ by Sian Ngai

‘Monkey Grip,’ by Helen Garner

‘Marx on the Commodity:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/commodity.htm (taken from Capital, Vol 1)

So here’s another reason why museums should exist – because they enable novelists and artists (and maybe all of us?) to play imaginative games with ideas around Time and Memory and Remembering and Forgetting and Story.

Museums are a gift for novelists.  It’s as if Museum is a language that novelists like to speak.

So here is a brief history of fictional museums, compiled in the Marco Polo office – and note how neatly these fictional museums follow society’s changing attitudes towards the Past.

We begin our list in the Victorian and Edwardian periods when writers like E. Nesbit and H.G.Wells could use fictional museums to explore the period’s mania for magic, seances, occult, mediums, theosophy, reincarnation and all the rest. Try E. Nesbit’s children’s book, ‘The Story of the Amulet’ in which a Babylonian queen travels forward in time to the year 1905 and invades the British Museum to recover her stolen artefacts. When the curators throw her out she works a bit of magic and the artefacts come floating after her – ‘great slabs of carved stone, bricks, helmets, tools, weapons, fetters, wine-jars, bowls, bottles, vases, jugs, saucers, seals, the round long things, something like rolling pins with marks on them like the print of little bird-feet, necklaces, collars, rings, armlets, earrings – heaps and heaps of things, far more than anyone had time to count.’

We then fast-forward to the 1970’s and to Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, ‘The Golden Child,’ which was published in 1977.  It features a thinly disguised version of the British Museum and is as sharp as crystal and suffused with all the mockery you would expect from a decade when we still loved the future and felt the past to be tired and dusty.

And then we come to the eighties at which point fictional museums start to become stranger, wilder and more serious, as you can see in Angela Carter’s book ‘Nights at the Circus’ in which her heroine Fevvers has to escape from Madame Shreck’s Freak Show.  This is a museum that categorises, confines and controls us – but then this is a book about the desire to be free.

So then fast forward once again, up until the early 2,000’s when the Past no longer confines us but consoles us, a neat example of which is Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’, a novel in which a museum is created by the main character as a way of consoling himself for the unattainable-ness of love and the passing of time.  Or – another example – try Peter Carey’s ‘The Chemistry of Tears’, a novel about a curator and the things of the past and their power to console us.

But my current favourite fictional museum is none of these.  It is – and here I should thank Rosa Campbell who put me on to this – the Museum of Civilisation in ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel (published a couple of years ago).  It’s an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world novel, saturated with a piercing, elegiac wistfulness, a love letter to a  world (ie. our world) that has vanished in a cataclysm.  The world that has replaced it is small and cramped and local and dangerous – and it is into this small world that there bursts the legendary, the mythical Museum of Civilisation, a museum created after the end of the world to carry the bitter-sweet memories of a world that is gone.

But look beneath the surface and you’ll see that the book is also about the terrible-ness of being old enough that, although you know you have to look forwards, you can still remember backwards – an ambivalent acknowledgement that maybe forgetting might sometimes be better than remembering.

Embedded in the concept of a museum are all the big themes in life – Time, Memory, Thinking, Remembering and Forgetting, Endings and Apocalypses.  And what could be better than that?

These are our favourite fictional museums.  What are yours?

The image at the top of the page is called Adventurous Vixen and is of Monterey, Ca by Micadew on Flickr

If you want to understand the Brexit vote you could do worse than start in the UK’s small, town museums. Each of them depicts a lost world (and some of them depict many): lost, agricultural worlds; booming mills and factories; fairs and hurdy-gurdies; worlds made by hand; the old craft skills; the travelling life of the Romanies.  The list goes on and on.

The 20th century was a time of loss, and nowhere captures these losses more vividly and more poignantly than small, town museums.

I am just back from St Austell in Cornwall, whose small, town museum (it is in the town’s 19th century prison cells) is stuffed to the gills with old photos, memories, agricultural implements, playbills, costumes, shop signs and stories – all documenting a dizzying number of lost worlds, most of which date back to the time when St Austell was at the prosperous heart of the Cornish China Clay industry. The industry still exists but is increasingly automated and employs far fewer people.

All of Cornwall voted Brexit but St Austell was one of the most Eurosceptic.

The decline of St Austell is reflected in many other small and medium sized towns across the north and the west.  (Interestingly, in most of the towns we go into it’s the collapse of the High Street that really upsets people – although this of course has nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with the ongoing, hollowing-out  effects of the Internet.)

If you are in search of the old, agricultural world try Dorchester County Museum or Honiton Lace Museum. And if you want to understand the camaraderie of the cotton mills try Queen Street Mill in Burnley.  (Or rather don’t, because Queen Street Mill is on the verge of closing.  Our museums document lost worlds until they themselves become one.)

Nostalgia was surely one of the factors in the Brexit vote – but it wasn’t misplaced – many towns have declined outside  London.  And nor of course is nostalgia necessarily sweet and cuddly.  It can be very bitter indeed.

Since the onset of austerity in 2010 museums have seen a role for themselves, a way of justifying their existence by becoming places of therapy.  And there’s plenty of logic in that.  Freud knew the therapeutic power of objects. He used to give his patients a small object to hold on to as they set off on their mental journeys.  Museums are indeed therapeutic places but such is the scale of the losses in the 20th century it looks like the entire country needs therapy.

Sometimes it feels as if there’s a war going on out there, and the Past is one of the battlegrounds on which it is being fought.

Which, ironically, puts small, town museums on the front line. And suggests that we should take their power seriously.

(The image is of St Austell’s High Street, bustling in 1960.)

It’s not as easy as it looks, collecting to tell the story of a culture and a time. You have to know and love that culture, understand its spirit, know that it is vanishing. But get it right and it’s as evocative as any film or novel.

So if you want to know what it was like to live in the remote and watery world of the Fens before the 1930’s, then the Museum of Cambridge is for you.  This is a ‘list’ museum – with stories lightly inscribed on top – and it overflows with sugar cones, green glass bottles, a bed-bug trap, a 19th century apple peeler, jelly moulds, a corner closet for powdering wigs, 19th century skating boots (for skating on the frozen Fens), notes on local witchcraft, a witches’ bottle, thatching tools, sun hats for horses, top hats, dolls, a child’s perambulator – the list goes on and on.

This lost world was a hand-made world – and so the museum is stuffed to the gills with the tools that made it.  Speaking as someone who is legendary in my household for my cack-handed approach to tools (although I am fairly nifty with words) I can  only gaze at them in astonishment and wonder who invented them?

Did I know that to keep a knife rust-free you have to put it in a warm, dry box near a fire? I did not.  And did I know that a salamander was a long, metal tool with a diamond-shaped end that you heated over a flame and then used to brown the tops of Victorian creme brûlée?  No, I didn’t know that either.

The ghosts who haunt this museum are the curators who built it – chief amongst whom were Reginald C Lambert and Enid Porter.  Enid was an expert on Fenland culture, history, customs, stories and beliefs. She collected in the middle of the 20th century but her achievements are easily overshadowed by the young, macho, stylish curators who came after her in the eighties (and who set out to save the remnants of Britain’s industrial revolution).

Enid with her cardigans and the scarf knotted under her chin, looks old-fashioned by comparison. But look again and wonder at what she made, by finding things and putting them together.

She also interviewed William Barratt, the storyteller of the Fens, who in turn got his stories from Chafer Legge, a renowned Fenland skater and bare-fist fighter, who heard his stories from his grandparents in the 18th century.  She never recorded her interviews – she didn’t want to frighten off her interviewees – but memorised them and wrote them down afterwards in diaries that are beautifully inscribed with poems and maps.

There are plenty of East Anglian storytellers who admire her enormously.

The Museum of Cambridge is one of those museums that are accidental works of art, created by many people, some named and some anonymous.

The Museum of Cambridge is at 2/3 Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 OAQ

Sewing Your Past

Rachel Morris

Where do you keep your past, how do you remember it, and would you care if you forgot it?

There is probably no art form as human, as personal, as full of memories and stories as the textile arts.

Or so I think as I stand in Gawthorpe Hall in Lancashire on a damp, green, chilly summer’s day.  There are hundreds of textiles here and every one of them has a story sewn into it. The result is like a museum of stories.

Textiles and stories have gone together ever since Helen of Troy wove the story of the Siege of Troy (and put herself into the action) whilst watching the battles unfold outside her window. And textiles have been woven through the history of Gawthorpe Hall ever since Rachel Kay Shuttleworth, the bossy, well-meaning, talented daughter of the 19th century owner, decided that the craft skills of the local women were dying out and that it was her job to save them.  Trying to save a world is how lots of museums begin. (And it’s not surprising that many museum directors have been wilful and dictatorial – if you don’t believe me read Frank Atkinson’s biography – he was the man who built Beamish – because how else would they get anything done?)

The Hall has Rachel Shuttleworth’s desk, her chairs, her letters and diaries and collection of fabrics – the robes and shawls and bedspreads, all examples of quilting, crocheting, weaving, embroidering and making lace.

Rachel Shuttleworth didn’t want to make a museum;  she wanted to create a working tool for people to learn from.

She didn’t believe in ropes or barriers or glass in front of objects. She doubted the power of sight but believed in the power of touch (although this is an anathema to many museum people). And she collected through a network of friends and by the exchange of gifts.

She also understood the power of story, was known to be a great raconteur, and collected the stories of all her objects, writing them out carefully in her habitual green ink.

So now in the same spirit there is a new textile exhibition at Gawthorpe that celebrates the story of mending – not discreet, disguised, hidden mending, but bold mending that turns repair into an art form and tells a story.

Step into the room and you will see that beside each garment there’s a story.

So next to a family quilt, belonging to Coreen Cotham are the words: ‘This quilt was made by my father’s mother in 1964 as a wedding gift for my parents. Its backing holds the secret of its warm weight: leftover scraps of tweed and heavy, worsted gathered together by my tailoress grandmother. This is my favourite part of the quilt, its muted tones quietly functional beneath the breezy gaiety of the other side. The repairs i have made to this worn old friend are as decorative as they are practical. My stitches celebrate my granny’s creativity borne out of necessity.’

And next to a Japanese Boro Jacket, with big, bold repair stitches snaking their way down the spine of the jacket: ‘This is a Japanese Sahiori ‘Boro’ jacket, with plain, cotton sleeves.  I bought it from a friend who had found it in a Japanese market almost 20 years ago, and swapped it for English patchwork quilt, something the lady owner had always wanted.’

And next to the Wrangler Jacket, belonging to Angela Maddock, where the repairs have been carried out by means of a cloud of bright stitches:  ‘Worn by a brother, repaired and worn by his sister. This denim Wrangler is one of three jackets inherited on my brother’s death in 1982. Early on the right cuff separated from the sleeve. I chose not to repair it, believing that the separation was evidence of his wearing and separation. Then, caught on a door handle, it ripped. Stitched with colourful threads and patched with the trimmed edge of an embroidery worked for my son, it is our continuing bond and a celebration of his life.’

It’s the first person stories, human, poignant and direct – the ‘I’s’, my’s and we’s – that make this exhibition work.

It would have died a death in the usual, third person, museum-y voice.  It wouldn’t even have worked if the curator’s voice had book-ended the first-person stories.

In the Museum of Marco Polo’s on-going quest to find the perfect relationship between a thing and its words, this could be a contender.

The image at the top of the page is of Rachel Shuttleworth’s desk at Gawthorpe, as laid out by Metaphor, the  Museum of Marco Polo’s sister company.

Gawthorpe Hall is just outside Burnley in Lancashire.  You can reach it by car, or by train and then bus.  The exhibition on Mending is open until the 19th June 2016.  Even after it closes the permanent exhibitions will remain open.

What We Have Lost

Stephen Greenberg

Malcolm Maclean grew up in Uig in the Outer Hebrides.  I grew up in north London. We are around the same age.  Malcolm grew up hearing and speaking Gaelic.  I heard Yiddish from the old people from the old country and cockney in accents that have vanished from London.  He saw the Co Op van come over the hill for the first time, bringing baked beans and condensed milk. They had delicious milk straight from their cows, but that’s the power and lure of modernity, that it tells you that you need something you don’t.  It starts with tinned milk and ends up with genetically modified crops.

Lately I heard that Vivien Sansour is creating the Palestinian Heirloom Seed Library, a seed bank of the last plants that sustained a landscape for thousands of years. According to the Observer’s Peter Beaumont ‘a form of farming that informed both Palestinian culture and identity – seeping into the language, songs and sayings – has increasingly come under threat from a combination of factors, climate change, Israeli settlement, and agricultural companies’ marketing of hybrid varieties to farmers’.

Here’s an irony of language and seed.  There is no difference between saving seeds and saving words, and no price we can put on that saving, whether it be Yiddish, Hebrew, Arabic, Gaelic, hardy fennel or chard.

My grandfather Dave was in awe of the Co Op form of modernity.  His was a rags-to-comfortable story.  I remember his excitement in the early 1960’s as he watched London’s Centre Point, an office building that remained empty for years going up from his small workroom factory in Soho when it was full of small, rag-trade workshops.  To people like my grandfather, Modernism was a visceral compulsion, a secular belief system.  It occurred to no one to question progress.

Modernism’s latest organising principle, neo-liberalism, has been devastating for intangible heritage.  A photo taken in 1900 of the school room at St Kilda has more children than in the current primary school in Uig, although Uig is not an outcrop 40 kilometres into the Atlantic but on the west coast of Lewis. It is more than a warning of what could happen to so many Gaelic communities.  Spending time in the Hebrides I am convinced that we can only sustain these communities in the long term through subsidy.  They need good and regular bus services, affordable rentable housing and high-speed broadband. Then it will be possible to work in Stornoway and commute from across the island, the school roll will increase and with it Gaelic culture. Otherwise Lewis and Harris will become mini Long Island’s, seasonal wildernesses for the wealthy.

If we do not hear Gaelic, even if like me we don’t understand it, then we lose a thread to the stories and fables, and to the toughness and strength that built the ships, locomotives and railways across the Empire, sailed the merchant navy and died in droves in Flanders. And we’ll lose a way of living just at the moment when it can  move from subsistent to sustainable, with exciting and simple technologies that Malcolm’s grandparents couldn’t dream of – double glazing, wind power, insulation, refrigeration – the best of modernity.

The Yiddish language miraculously survived fascism, one of modernity’s other destructive political systems. It survived because of writers like Isaac Bashevis Singer writing in New York in a Yddish Daily newspaper and in novels, and above all because of a charismatic Rabbi in Brooklyn who revived Hassidism from a handful of Holocaust survivors into a world movement.  It was saved by a diaspora in a landscape of the mind, of places and fables that were no more – not in the shtetls of Eastern Europe.

The Heritage Lottery Fund pays for buildings but not for running bus services.  Soon we will not know who we are, only what a search engine knows that we like, whilst the words and seeds that transformed Mesopotamians into farmers, town planners and philosophers, and Gaelic woven together with Welsh, Norse, Cornish, the seeds of our rich, cultural diversity, will be carried away on the wind.

The image is of the St Kilda Mail Boat – the main method for hundreds of years by which the islanders of St Kilda stayed in touch with the rest of the Hebrides.

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.