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Making A Drama Out Of It

Imagining the past is something close to our hearts here at the Museum of Marco Polo, which is why we are interested in the trend that’s working its way into museums, towards ‘living history’.  Performance and theatre are just some of the ways in which museums are trying to do this.

I have always thought, since I was a small child dragged unwillingly around museums, that a museum should be more than the sum of its parts.  A single object meant nothing to me, even when explained laboriously by my patient mother.  As a child I wanted something more, something exciting, a complete story to swallow me up.  In some ways, I think I was more demanding of my museums as a child.

This, it seems, is why the National Maritime Museum has announced a collaboration with Punchdrunk Entertainment.  Sarah Lockwood, head of interpretation and learning at the NMM, tells me they want to create a unique and emotional experience.  She fizzes with enthusiasm for the project, saying that she wants it to guide the way for the Museum’s future.  I admire her ambition hugely, and the light touch of imagination she is pulling into the  Museum.

I ask her why they’ve gone for kids, and she says that there’s a certain age group, between around six and twelve, where they have lost the fear and shyness of joining in, but are still willing to believe.

‘Against Captain’s Orders’, a performance aimed at this age group, will be in a special exhibition space, a blank canvas in which stage sets and stories can be created – what they’re calling an ‘on your feet, atmospheric and immersive’ experience.  It is inspired by the collection but doesn’t involve any objects, nor any of the museum’s permanent galleries.  So really, it’s largely performance and not much museum.  But it is fictional living history, trying to bring alive a story with some tissue of truth behind it.

I ask Sarah what museums can learn from performance and she talks about storytelling, contextualising and bringing objects to life, and says that children learn better with an interactive learning experience.  But I wonder if the same isn’t also true for adults?  That the capacity to suspend disbelief may never go away, particularly when something seems so convincing within its own world.  Novels, theatre, films, storytelling of any kind can all suspend disbelief for all age groups!  So why can’t a museum?

As Sarah and I ponder this question, Historic Royal Palaces come up.  We discuss the Enchanted Palace exhibition which in 2010 divided audiences so heavily, that a proportion of them simply asked for their money back.  Sarah admired it, and thought it was extremely brave.  One room in particular stayed with me personally:  Queen Victoria’s bedroom, a pile of mattrasses as in The Princess and the Pea, and an enormously tall chair, like a lifeguard’s watchtower, because every aspect of the young princess’s life was scrutinised.  It was a still, dimly-lit room, filled with the echo of ghostly whispers, and the floor littered with toys and books. It touched me as an adult but perhaps it was the small, lonely child that sang out to me?

So do adults suspend their disbelief and become children again?

This brings me nicely to the Dennis Severs House which in many ways is more of a stage set than a museum but is still to date the only truly completely immersive historical experience that works for adults.  Its atmosphere, smell, colours, sensations and details are extraordinary – and suggest that every aspect has to be totally convincing, with no moments of self-reflection or recognition. This is why David Milne, its director, enforces silence.

But the other really interesting thing about Dennis Severs is that many of the objects are either present day or not from the right period.  Sarah and I discuss fiction through the Longitude Punk’d exhibition (the Maritime’s current exhibition) which explores fictional machines for solving Longitude).  I suggest that museums are seen as places of authority, and so performance, fiction and imagination sometimes get sidelined.  She agrees but says that there’s a different between being a place of authority and being authoritative, and that performance is a way of presenting history that can be questioned. In fact she thinks that Punk’d worked because at the time ideas to solve Longitude were so whacky.

I suppose children are much easier to engage as well as much more willing to question, but the truth is that much as I have grown up, I want that feeling again – the feeling I get at the Dennis Severs house, of being picked up and swallowed by another place. Surely that’s history and museums too?

Sarah Lockwood is Head of Learning and Interpretation at the National Maritime Museum.

‘Against Captain’s Orders’ will open at the National Maritime Museum in January 2015.

To find opening hours for the Dennis Severs Christmas Installation, head to dennisservershouse.co.uk