Puppets in dresses venice cropped

Searching for the perfect Museum of the City

13th November 2013:   I am in search of the perfect City Museum.

It’s the writer Alberto Manguel who’s got me going on this quest.  Manguel writes beautifully on books, reading, libraries and the shimmering insubstantiality of all cities (but especially Buenos Aires, the city he loves most), ‘Like all great cities Buenos Aires does not exist, except in the memory of those who live or lived there.  It has no comprehensible form, no definable shape, it changes even as you walk through it . . .   Once when walking with Borges through that area of Buenos Aires known as El Bajo the old blind man described to me the seedy bars and gas-lit corners of his youth, when he could still see and which for him had the solid presence of brick walls and shuttered windows . . . Buenos Aires apparently had changed but the real, the unending Buenos Aires remained for Borges the same one of his earlier days.’

And this – give or take some poetic flourishes –  is what I feel about most cities, that they are as much about dreams and lives and memories and feelings as they are about bricks and mortar.  What is true of cities is also true of museums – each is an enclosed world and – in each case – no two people ever walk through the same experience.  And this being the case, why shouldn’t a City Museum, like the city itself, have a shimmering insubstantiality because it is alive with the ghosts of everyone connected to it?

So here are two interesting-but-not-perfect examples of city museums – both from Venice where I was last week – the Palazzo Mocenigo and the Casa di Goldoni.  Neither, to be fair, would quite describe themselves as City Museums – but both of them are about a house in the city and the family who lived there, so they are at least a part of the City’s story, if not the whole story itself.  And both of them are theatrical in the way they present themselves – but then why wouldn’t you be in Venice?
The Palazzo Mocenigo has just re-opened and I can see that a theatre designer has been this way because someone has covered the windows in scarlet, pea-green and yellow ochre rouched silks, so that when the sun filters through, each room sings out with a single, brilliant note of colour.  The effect is lovely but when I pick up the room guides I see that the explanations are still stolidly fixed on things – this painting, that table – and I am none the wiser about the Mocenigos as people.
Someone (the same person?) has filled some of the rooms with perfume bottles and I am charmed by the opportunity to lift the stoppers and sniff the different perfumes.  But the perfume story lies on top of the experience, it is not really embedded into the Mocenigo story, and again I am frustrated.  I have a minor temper tantrum in the bookshop (‘What, no guidebooks? Then how will I know what I am looking at?’) and another one when they tell me no photographs on my i-phone – but then how can I show my friends what I have seen and encourage them to come here?

And so I go on to the Casa di Goldoni, Goldoni being the 18th century Venetian playwright.  It’s a beautiful building with a water gate (‘Ah, so this is how they came by water’), a lower courtyard and a beautiful flight of steps to the upper storeys.

Once again a theatre designer has come this way, because someone has laid out playing cards on the tables (a lovely touch) and laid a dress across a sofa so that you can imagine the languid, reclining body inside it.  Someone also has hung the walls with 18th century puppets and laid out a puppet show – a major way of telling stories then – but now of course I want to know what Goldoni’s plays were like, or indeed an 18th century puppet show?  All I wanted was a film  – even silhouettes projected on the walls would be lovely  – to show me how the puppets came alive and what a Goldoni play was like.  But nothing.

But then I step outside and I am struck again by how very strange this city is. Not the Grand Canal (pretty though it is) but the silent rocking of green water in the side canals; the half-drowned look of the place as if I had stumbled upon an apocalypse;  the single lamp that lights a window niche at night where my alleyway turns a corner;  the way doors open blindly onto water;  the figures that cross bridges, appearing and disappearing, or that appear at the end of alleyways, always walking away from me;  the echoing footsteps;  the sensation of a labyrinth.

I wonder if Venice was as astonishing to Marco Polo as it is to us (probably not – cities were more wondrous then, if his book is anything to go by).  And I wonder why it is that we see an eerie, haunted, dream-like quality in Venice (a ‘Don’t Look Now’ feeling) whereas for Goldoni it was a gentle backdrop to gossip and domesticity.  So what did people dream of in the 18th century if not of ghosts and hauntings?

And then of course it dawns on me – as it has probably dawned on you already – that if ever there was a city that won’t have a great city museum it is Venice, because here the city is the museum and the museum is the city.

And so my search for the great Museum of the City goes on.  Do you know one?

By Rachel Morris