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Museum of Marco Polo meets the world’s first blogger

1 March 2014: I was intending to post an article here on Museums and their Stories, and was just about to press the Publish button when I realised that I no longer believed what I had written.

This was bad news.  The thing about writing for the web is that you are allowed to be provisional – in fact it’s better that way because it allows other people to step in.  On the other hand you do have to believe – at least to some extent – what you have written.  Also, the Museum of Marco Polo is brought to you by moonlight, after a day of museum-making, and there are only so many hours in the night for rewriting.

So just as I was hesitating I looked up and saw Samuel Pepys’ Diary on the shelf.  It has been sitting there, unread, for at least a decade, because I have a list as long as my arm of books I’d rather read first. Samuel Pepys – who was a naval administrator and kept a diary in 17th century England – is the kind of writer whom you always think you’ll read in ten years time – and never do.

And so I was taken aback, after reading a couple of pages, to discover that he writes like an angel, in that kind of nonchalent prose that works so well on 21st century blogs.  He invented that lovely diary style in which everything is very quick and economical, and all verbs are in the present tense or don’t exist at all.   For instance –

‘Up, mighty busy all morning at the office. At noon with Lord Brouncker to Sir D. Gawden’s at the Victualling Office for dinner, where I have not dined since he was Sheriffe;  he expected us and a good dinner and much good company and a fine house, and especially two rooms very fine he has built there. His Lady a good Lady, but my Lord led himself and me to a  great absurdity in kissing all the ladies but the finest of all the company, leaving her out I know not how . . . . Thence stole away to my cousin Kate’s and after sitting with her and company a while, comforting her, though I find she can, as all other women, cry and yet talk of other things in one breath, so home and there to cards with my wife, Deb and Betty Turner, and Batelier.  And after supper and late to sing but Lord, how I did please myself to make Betty Turner sing to see what a beast she is at singing, not knowing how to sing one note in tune but only for the experience, I would not for 40 shillings hear her sing a tune – worse than my wife a thousand times so it does reconcile me to her a little . . . and so, late to bed.’

He writes about plays and moonlight and tax returns and quarrels with his wife and kissing his girlfriends.  It’s the fact that nothing is ever justified or explained – because this is a diary and therefore has no readers and therefore nobody who requires an explanation – which gives it a kind of artlessness and a sparkle of which frankly I am envious.

(I love museums but it’s alarmingly easy to write boringly about them.)

I then began to wonder whether the Diary is as naive as it first seems but though I looked very carefully I couldn’t see any signs of its effects being planned or calculated.

In fact I was so entranced that for a minute or two I speculated on taking the Museum of Marco Polo down an invented diary route – until I decided that life is complicated enough without making it all up as well.

And so I can tell you that everything you read below the bar in the Museum of Marco Polo – opinions, observations, ideas on museums and the past – are exactly what they seem.  As for what you find along the bar – such as the History of the Museum – well, that’s another story.

And so to bed and next week back to Museums and their Stories.    By Rachel Morris