When a museum is a work of art

Marco Polo’s Daughter

February 2013:    When Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Museum of Innocence’ opened in Istanbul last year it joined a tiny group of museums that are real but also fictional – and so seductive you wonder why fictional museums don’t open every week. Naturally the Museum of Marco Polo takes a great interest in these developments.

The Museum of Innocence is real enough. But it is also fictional in the sense that it is a recreation in three dimensions of a fictional museum in Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘The Museum of Innocence’. In the book the Museum is the memory of a one-sided and passionate love affair between Kemal and Fusun, which lasts a lifetime. In real life the Museum, also by Orhan Pamuk, is about memory, the meaning of things, Istanbul in the 1950’s and how painful is the passing of time. It is also extremely beautiful and in this way reminds me of another fictional museum, this time in Los Angeles, called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Both are the creations of artists and each is a work of art. The fact that each is threaded through with fiction only seems to enhance their charisma.

The Museum of Innocence is in a tall, skinny house in one of those steep, narrow streets that run down from the Istaklal Caddesi to the edge of the Bosphorus not far from the Galata Tower. Step inside and you’ll see that the story is told through boxes. Each box is a window on a lost world, and each mimics the way that memories come to us in lightning flashes, each flash illuminating the fingers that tap the cigarette; the clock that ticks in the corner; the dregs of coffee in the bottom of the cup. Collectively the Museum’s boxes evoke the lost world of Istanbul in the 1950’s when rich young men drove sports cars and old men were patriarchs and wore mufflers and heavy overcoats and had sets of shaving brushes with feathery ends; and chemist shops were filled with little bottles lined up on brown wooden shelves; and wealthy women were bosomy and wore off the shoulder dresses and had big, flashing smiles and beautiful temples. Woven through this world is the love affair of Kemal and Fusun.

In one of these boxes a small child in a home movie squints into the sunlight with a look of innocence and bemusement on her face. It is that innocence and bemusement, as life hits us like a train, that is the subject of this Museum. Its other theme is Time. ‘It was the happiest moment of my life, although I didn’t know it,’ says Kemal, the hero of the story, and straightaway you know that in the Museum of Innocence time runs backwards and that all that is best in life, indeed all its meaning, resides back there in the past.

So if I were being picky I would say that the boxes are a strength, but also a weakness, that they hold the story in too tightly and stop it from leaping out across the rooms, that what’s the point in being able to tell a story three dimensionally and then confining it to two? But this is the pickiness that comes over you when you look at something really good. You want it to be better.

And what really strikes you as you stand in the museum is how eloquent objects are. I don’t mean grand art objects – which speak their own international language – but ordinary things – home movies, cheap toys, photographs, bottles of soda, hair grips, a summer’s dress, clocks, cooking utensils, house keys, summer gloves, a single tennis shoe, each and all of which has been laid out in the boxes. All these objects Orhan Pamuk deploys, just as in his other life he lines up words, to say something that’s in his heart. The objects conjure up an atmosphere and a time, and achieve a tone of voice – smoky, nostalgic, painfully sweet – that words struggle to keep up with. Words are more exact but things can do something different – bypassing the brain and going straight to the heart.

This Museum is emphatically one man’s voice and one man’s vision, and that is its great strength.  The Museum is as personal in its way as a novel, and just like a novel it has its own distinctive voice. You can like it or hate it but either way the novelist/museum-maker shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I’m sorry but that’s how it seems to me. Your past is your past. This is my past. If it doesn’t feel true to you then make your own.’

And he would be right of course. There is nothing to stop each and every one of us using things, just as we use words, to create our own museum, which would be the story of our lives.  By Rachel Morris



Have been reading Marina Warner’s book on the history of the Arabian Nights – and so have become briefly possessed by the concept of  ‘thing-worlds’ and what they mean for museums.

The phrase ‘thing-worlds’ is Marina Warner’s, and captures that distinctive quality of the Arabian Nights, in which things – carpets, rings, lamps, flasks, weapons – are given a life of their own and the magic powers to entrance, trick and seduce their owners.  Life and vitality rush through all these objects.  They speak, they obey or disobey, they yearn to stay alive, make extravagant promises and rail against their always-looming fate, that they will lose their vitality and turn back into lumps of wood or stone.  The yearnings of the thing-world run like threads through the Arabian Nights, and are a large part of what makes the stories both sad and glorious.

So ‘thing-magic’ is particularly prevalent in the Arabian Nights, but the truth is that you find it everywhere.  The Harry Potter stories are full of it – the Sorting Hat, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Goblet of Fire – and in fact it is probably a universal feature of childhood, as you can see from the story of the Bronte children – Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell – who used to play with a box of wooden soldiers that their father brought home from Leeds and weave around them a complex story about a country called Angria.  (‘Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest and the most perfect in every part,’ wrote Charlotte, who clearly ran to competitiveness.) The children wrote stories, poems, articles and the history of Angria, but it was the wooden soldiers that began it all.

‘Thing-magic’ is that conviction that there is life in inanimate objects. But if ‘thing-magic’ is so prevalent in the way that we all think, then surely we should see it in the way that visitors respond to museums, those temples to the glories and dramas of things?  And probably we would if we ever asked them.  But we don’t.  Because although museums use audience evaluation to test how visitors respond to interpretation they rarely ask visitors about the wayward, random and spontaneous daydreaming that visitors go in for when they wander through museums.  (Although the director of a London museum once told me that one of the objects in her Egyptian collection had attracted the attention of a group called ‘The Isis Worshippers of Bloomsbury’ who had written to her asking if they could worship it – so a classic example of ‘thing-magic’ at work – to which she apparently said, ‘Well yes, but you can’t dress up to do it because I won’t have long white robes in my galleries.’)

So there I was in the British Museum last Saturday afternoon, drifting through the galleries, watching the visitors and looking for objects that might excite thing-worship in the audience.  And I soon found one.  In one of the North American galleries in the Aztec section sits several human skulls, one of them clearly a child’s, and each of them studded with turquoise and adorned with black pyrite for eyes.  A crowd was gathered around them, with horror, shock and fascination written onto their faces.  The Museum is too delicate to wonder how the craftsmen came upon this small child’s skull – but as everyone knows, the Aztecs went in for human sacrifice, so it seems likely that this child was murdered.  Nor does the Museum tell us how they happen to have these artefacts, although the scholar Antony Shelton speculates that they may have come from the collection of an early Italian Cabinet of Curiosities, maybe even the collection of the Medici family.  It is even possible that they were part of one of the original consignments of treasure that Cortez sent from the New World to the King of Spain.  Although, as Shelton says, that’s exactly the kind of myth that tends to hang about these objects.

The masks are curiously powerful.  Try rushing past them without looking and you will find your footsteps slowing and your eyes drawn despite themselves.  And so you stop and stare along with everyone else, wonder who the child was, and how the skulls came here, and to where – sometime in the future, when the British Museum is nothing but a ruin – they will continue on their journey.  Because one thing is for sure, these are artefacts that will outlive any museum – and so are classic examples of artefacts that are infused with ‘thing-magic’.  (RM)


On Lost Museums

Marco Polo’s Daughter

It may be because so many museums are currently under threat that I am finding stories of lost and vanished museums so compelling.  There are of course far more lost and vanished museums than we could ever name or count, and each of them has a pathos – because museums are not meant to crumble away and die;  as storehouses of our memories they are meant to last for ever.

But they don’t.  At the turn of the 19th century William Bullock ran a spectacular and very popular museum of Egyptian antiquities in Piccadilly.  The museum vanished more than 150 years ago although its star turn – a stuffed tiger wrestling with a python – still exists, in a small town museum in Pennine Lancashire.  (I saw it there the other day.)  And the Hapsburg Emperor, Rudolph II had a Cabinet of Curiosities that was so spectacular it was the talk of Europe.  Amongst all the usuals it contained a living lion and a troupe of alchemists busy turning lead into gold.  But then the Saxons invaded and the first thing they did was to destroy the museum.  Fifty years later bits and pieces from it were still turning up in the junk shops of Prague.

So history is full of lost museums, but my favourite lost museums – the ones I wish I’d seen – were two:  one created in 17th century Rome by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher and the other by a certain Alejandro Favian in the town of Puebla in New Mexico.  Their story is told by Paula Findlen in her book on Athanasius Kircher and goes as follows.  Kircher was a polymath, obsessed by his desire to understand magnets, comets, volcanoes, plague, the physics of sound, hieroglyphs, pyramids, romantic love – pretty much anything and everything. He had a talent for friendship – thought of it like a magnetic current connecting us around the world – and was not only endlessly curious but also intrepid. He once had himself lowered into an erupting volcano in order to see what was going on. His museum was in the heart of Rome; it was filled with machines that seemed magical – clocks, magnets, telescopes, automata – and was the talk of Europe.

Favian was a young Mexican priest living in Puebla in the New World.  He had got hold of one of Kircher’s books and was so filled with admiration for it that he adopted Kircher as his intellectual father and decided to make a copy of Kircher’s museum in the New World.  We have the letters with which he bombarded Kircher, describing his ‘new museum of magnificent architecture and genius that I have built in a most appropriate and delightful location, in imitation of your Reverence.’  The museum had everything else but what it lacked was Kircher’s machines, and now Favian was asking for a singing mechanical rooster and a telescope, just as Kircher had.  The New World, he said, was not sufficiently peopled with artisans who knew how to make such ‘artificial things’.  In return Favian sent Kircher the best treasures of the Americas – money, chocolate and Aztec feathers.  He even took a picture of Kircher from one of Kircher’s books and commissioned a local artist to recreate it in the Aztec manner – with feathers and gold – and then sent it by ship to Rome ‘in eternal memory of our friendship, as the greatest and most expensive thing I can send you from these kingdoms.’

But what he really wanted – even more than a singing rooster – was to be someone of importance, and I suppose it is because I was once a precocious child stranded on a council estate in a remote corner of Essex that I can sympathise with Favian’s yearnings to find his way to the far-off heart of the intellectual world.  Favian wanted to become bishop of Michoacan but it is unlikely that he managed it – another friend of Kircher’s said of Favian, both cryptically and snobbishly, ‘This is the barbarous genius of the Americas’.

Favian and Kircher’s museums have long since vanished, and I find it hard to imagine what Favian’s must have looked like, although along with the magical machinery and other paraphernalia of the Old World it probably also contained fragments of the lost world of the Aztecs.

So now we live in another time when museums are under pressure and some of them likely to vanish.  What contemporary museums would I miss if life as we know it now ended and we all went back to living on small holdings with a cow and some chickens at best?  Well, in this case what I would miss (along with coffee, novels and music) would be my favourite museums, the ones that feel to me most like works of art – which for my money (though you may rate different ones?) are the Cinema Museum in Turin and the Plaintin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.  By Rachel Morris

There is a house at 18 Folgate Street in Spitalfields in London, which – if you pass it on a winter’s night – gives you a peculiar sensation of time travel.  Look in through the door and you’ll see the 18th century.  Not a fake, 21st century version but what seems like the thing itself.  Candles burn in pools of light.  A deep browny darkness gathers in the corners.  There is a half-drunk glass of wine on the table, a slice of fruit on a blue-patterned 18th century plate.  Upstairs in the bedroom a dress is strewn across the floor, a fire burns in the hearth, there are voices faintly heard and the sounds of tinkling teacups.  Look into one of the mirrors with its silvered, 18th century glass, fringed with feathers and strings of pearls, and you will see your startled, 21st century face look back at you.  This is the Dennis Severs House, the inspired creation of a young American who came to London in the 1970’s.  We all live in the Past in different ways but Dennis Severs lived there more strangely and more creatively than most of us.

His father ran a petrol station in Escondido in California.  When he was little his father took him out hunting, left him for hours in ruined towns in the American outback where he passed the time looking through the windows of abandoned houses.  When he was sixteen he saw a painting and thought, ‘That’s the light I want to live in.’ It was the light of 18th century England.  And so he came to London but this was the 1970s and the Past was deeply unfashionable.  At first he drove around in a horse and carriage, then he found the house, an 18th century weaver’s house in a dirty and unfashionable part of London, and set about bringing it back to life.  Which he did by ripping out all signs of the 20th century – the boiler, the bathroom, the electric lights.  He lived in the house by candlelight, peed into a chamber pot, inhabited the house with a family of 18th century Huguenots, called the Jarvises, who gradually took over his imagination.  His mother was dead by now and his father never came to visit.

People laughed at him – which he hated – because he was a young American who was living in the Past in such a theatrical way.  When you came to dinner there he would take you down into the basement and bolt you in in the cold, dark back room where he laid out the rules of the Game.  You were to open up your mind, feel the sights and smells of the house, let it work on your imagination.  You were not to say, ‘I could have picked up one of those a couple of years ago’ or ‘What’s the paint finish on that?’  – because if you did you would be out on your ears in ten seconds.  And then, with that unpleasantness over, he would lead you into the warmth of the kitchen where a fire burned and supper cooked and you could hear the horses and the carriages go by.  Dennis’ tours became famous.  They cost £35 a go – not cheap in the 1970’s – and he only did them in the dark of winter evenings when the magic of the house was at its height.  It was an art installation and long before such things became fashionable.

But all this is in the past now because Dennis died and the house was taken over by his successor, David Milne, who is describing all this to me in a café on the South Bank.  David is not Dennis, although he was a friend of his and is just as obsessed by the house about which he talks as if it were a living, breathing thing.  Like many people who become obsessed with the Past, it was a childhood book that got him going – Arthur Morrisons’ ‘Child of the Jago’.  (It’s remarkable how often children’s books are about time travel.)  He came to Spitalfields when he was eighteen, looking for the characters in the book, didn’t find them but found Dennis and the house instead.

David trained as a set designer so he is more meticulous in his recreations than Dennis ever was.  Dennis took you on a guided tour but kept you at a distance for fear that if you got up close you would see that the wine in the wine glass wasn’t real.  With David you can wander at will because the sights, the smells, the sounds are absolutely real.  Even the tallow in the candles is made in the 18th century manner so that they burn with a peculiarly 18th century light.  This is not accidental time travel.  David works hard at his effects – look carefully and you’ll see in some of his still-life compositions an echo of a Hogarth drawing or a Zoffany.  But, although contrived, the experience is still intensely powerful – the nearest thing to time travel that I know.  I ask him if he would ever time-travel if that were possible?  ‘Oh yes,’ he says, without a hesitation.

The house is not a museum.  It is not filled with valuable artefacts, because the point is something else – the way the objects come together, a sense of atmosphere, of light and time travel. Nonetheless its magic is much admired – the house gets a steady trail of visitors from the National Trust and English Heritage, looking to see how he gets his effects. Because as these organisations know that it is the sensation of time travel that visitors love the most.

What David Milne does is much harder than it looks – as you’ll know if you ever hear him talk on doors, the gist of which is that a closed door says not much, a door flung wide open says even less, but a door that is left ajar so that it lets out a narrow shaft of inviting light – well, that is the perfect effect.  God – it is clear – is in the details.

Meanwhile Spitalfields itself is no longer the dirty and unfashionable area that it was when Dennis first arrived.  The City is on its doorstep.  The bankers’ towers look down upon the house.  Property prices are through the roof and the pubs are packed with city boys.   But you can still sit in the house on a winter’s evening looking at the fire and feel the peculiar peace that descends upon you from knowing that you have taken time out from your own century and that you are a guest in a different one where they did things differently and for whose foibles you are not in anyway responsible.  And what could be better than that?   By Rachel Morris

After the old man died the first thing that happened was that the stories got muddled up.  Some became attached to the wrong objects; others vanished altogether. The old man had foreseen this danger, and in the last months of his life had taken to buttonholing his grandchildren and trying to impart to them everything he knew.  But he had left it too late, his voice had grown weak and mumbly, and the children had no patience for listening.

Within a few years of his death they had forgotten what the golden passport said, the story behind the wolf-skin robes, and in which direction the compass pointed (the lettering was in Chinese).  An object without a story is on its way to bric-a-brac and dust. One day the smallest grandson took the compass out into the street to play with it and then dropped it in the canal and never dared confess.

The umbrella and the kaftan meanwhile had both lost their stories – they had died with the old man who could never bring himself to utter them.  And so no one knew that the child who had worn the kaftan had had blue-black hair like a bird’s feathers (he got that from his mother) and the wide-eyed look of the westerners (he got that from his father) and that when it rained he had liked to take giant steps from puddle to puddle although he was only four.

Not long after this the Polo family fell upon hard times – and so they melted down the golden passport for money, and sold the salamander cloth to an up and coming merchant.  The gunpowder was frittered away in small boys’ explosions. The wolf-skin robe was left out for the children to play with until it grew too threadbare to be comfortable.  The umbrella, the kaftan, the Mongol armour, a bolt of silk and both the books, one with the map folded inside it – all this was packed away inside a trunk and left in the corner of the room to be forgotten.

Meanwhile the old man’s extravagant stories, which had been written down and passed from hand to hand the length and breadth of Italy, now began to blow back on the wind in ever more fantastical forms.  But as the Polo family said, ‘There’s no money to be made in stories.’






Marco Polo grew old and the older he grew the more he remembered.

In the eighth year of his travels he had come to the city of Hang-Chou.  It was not long after the Mongols had over-run the Empire of the Song, and the streets of Hang-Chou, the old capital, now swarmed with Mongol soldiers. Hunger swept the city, but the Song, those indefatigable pleasure-lovers, were unwilling to give up their old habits.  The Song artists were still taking views of the Heavenly Mountain; the Song girls were boating on the Waters of the Moon, the lake between the city and the mountain; and the Song bureaucrats, who were as eternal as the rising sun, had returned to their desks to record the city’s wealth (though it was much diminished) for the purposes of taxation.

But the Great Khan didn’t believe their figures and instead had sent Marco Polo to make a tally.

And so it was that Marco Polo, dressed in gaudy, Mongol robes and with his hair tied up to one side in a Mongol pigtail, was walking through Hang-Chou’s ruined streets.  He was twenty-four, skinny and good-looking, and much beloved by the Great Khan, who now bestrode the world.   At this moment Marco Polo thought that he might live forever.  Behind him trailed his entourage of Mongol soldiers and downcast Song officials.

In due course Marco Polo and his entourage came to the Palace gardens and to the Museum of the World, which the last Emperor – only eight when he died – had created for his even younger consort.

The Museum resembled a temple.  At its heart the Emperor had laid out the achievements of the Song – the dragon ware, the flawless porcelain, the landscapes painted onto silk, of tiny travellers amidst wooded hills and towering gorges;  even an encyclopaedia of the known world, which ran to several thousand volumes. Around these he had laid out the possessions of the lesser people, the Jin and the Tanguts.  And around these, in a further ring, he had laid out the monsters who dwelt in the deserts and mountains, and the huge fish who swam in the sea.  Deserts, mountains and Ocean together guarded the Empire’s frontiers, except to the north.  It was from here that the Mongols had come.  After the Empire had fallen the Emperor’s Chief Adviser had taken the eight-year-old Emperor in his arms and leapt with him from a high cliff into the Ocean, rather than surrender.

Marco Polo stopped in front of a huge bronze fish, and behind him his entourage paused also.  He thought, ‘This was the kind of fish the Emperor would have passed as he sped like a comet to the bottom of the Ocean.’  For one moment his excitement paused – before its bubbles started up again on their upwards trajectory.

On he walked until he reached the back of the temple, where someone had laid out scraps of pottery and other odds and ends that had not yet been categorised.  A piece of coloured glass caught his eye.  To his amazement he saw the Lamb of God, curly-haired, curly-horned, big eyes drooping downwards mournfully at the outer corners.

He bent down to look at the label:  ‘A piece of Christian glass.  From a barbarian town on the Western Ocean.  Possibly Venice.’  Sharp as a knife a memory stabbed upwards under his ribs and he gasped.  The sun dimmed. Hang-Chou turned to ashes.  ‘Oh my mother,’ he thought, ‘Oh my sisters.’

It is the fate of travellers to be ghosts in the countries they leave behind, and ghosts in the countries they come to.  All this Marco Polo tried to say but the words wouldn’t come out.

All his life he had been telling stories. First to the Great Khan in his summer tents out on the steppes.  Then to the children of Venice in those first hard years when he had come home to find himself forgotten.  And then to his Genoese jailors after the ill-fated Battle of Curzola.  But compared to all these audiences she was by far the trickiest.  He had married her in the years when he had grown prosperous by trading on the rubies that the Great Khan had given him.  She was a merchant’s daughter, a little thing and Venetian through and through, with pale skin, dark hair, long eyes and pale, small lips.  She had a high bosom and narrow hips, and she had terrorised his suppliers, fought with his creditors, entered the figures every day in the big ledger book.

She was mightily unimpressed by him, with no time for poetry and not much time for fashion and so it was all the more surprising that on cold winter nights, when they lay together in the big double bed, dressed in the wolf-skin robes, courtesy of the Khan, and with bed socks and night caps as well, she would stretch out her hand across the double bed, which was as wide as the Silk Road, and say, ‘Tell me a story.’  And the story that she asked for more than any other was the story of the treasures in his museum.

All night he talked as the mists came in across the lagoon. Sometimes he fell asleep in mid-story and when he woke it was daylight and the first rays of the sun were shafting through the mists and turning them into heaps of vaporous-looking laundry – whilst downstairs in the kitchen he could hear Donata dishing out the grief to the scullery girls.

After a while he saw what she was up to.  Although he had never said anything she must have guessed that the owner of the umbrella was someone who had been dear to him.  And so, as fast as she tried to lead him towards the Chinese girl’s umbrella, he tried to lead her away from it.  He thought he would die before her and he feared for the fate of the delicate umbrella.  But he got it wrong. Donata died before him, giving birth to their third child.  ‘You never asked me for my story,’ she told him and he was stricken to see the tears in her eyes.  Afterwards he realised that the Chinese girl was dead as well.  Somehow in those long nightly battles when he had tried to protect her he had lost the vivid image on his inner eye, and the Chinese girl had died as well.

They say that he came home a rich man and was able to buy himself a house overlooking a Venetian canal.  It had a chequerboard floor in the hallway, a flight of stairs that curled in both directions at the first landing, and a mirror that he had brought home from his travels, the largest the Venetians had ever seen – it was 8 inches across – and had magical properties, because when you looked inside it you saw the staircase doubled and quadrupled.  But he couldn’t settle to Venetian life.  On autumn nights he was haunted by a wind that blew from the east across the lagoon’s cold waters. And so one day he opened up his trunk and took out all his treasures – because how else was he to console himself?  –  and laid out his own museum.

These were the treasures that he brought back from his travels and that he laid out in his museum:

  • the golden passport given to him by the Great Khan to keep him safe on his travels.
  • a compass – it was no more than a magnetised needle in a jade box with a crystal lid to cover it – but it was the only one in the whole of Italy.
  • the map he had taken with him all those years ago of the animals he might meet on his journey.  It had been illustrated hopefully with crocodiles, giraffes, unicorns and a dragon.
  • a suit of Mongol armour, made from tiny metal squares sewn onto animal skins, which they had given to him the first time he went into battle – to the sounds of much laughter.
  • a pinch of gunpowder.
  • two wolf-skin robes, given to him by the Great Khan, who had slept under them in his youth on the freezing steppes.
  • the dead child’s kaftan – they had buried him in Qinsai, the old capital of the Song, in one of his two best kaftans.  The other he had brought home with him.
  • an Arabic translation of the Old Master Aristotle and another of the Iliad, which he had bought in the Book Bazaar in Samarkand. In the margin of the Iliad was a rare fragment of the old Greek poet Sappho, dead by now a thousand years although he didn’t know it.
  • bolts of Chinese silk, woven with cloudy images of gorges and wooded mountains.
  • a length of salamander cloth that had been made from threads mined from deep within the mountains of the Sun on the borders of Cathay, and then strengthened by being thrown into the heart of a fire.
  • and an umbrella made of painted silk and paper and with a mechanism to open it that would not be seen in the West for another two hundred years.

It was the umbrella that caused him most pain.  Even now as he fingered it he saw the ghost of the girl whom he had first seen boating on the lake in the old capital of the Song.  It was she whose fingers first slipped the catch and, as she raised her chin, saw the paper petals springing outwards and a shower of painted blossom falling earthwards.

But it was in his heart that the blossom fell, in a sharp rain just sweet enough that it didn’t kill him – and ensured the umbrella’s survival.  For Marco Polo was heartsick and so brought the umbrella home to Venice – which we know because it is mentioned in his will:  It.em: Umbrello doro con piere & perle –  and laid it out in his museum to ease the ache in his heart, even though – or perhaps especially – because the girl was dead.