28 August 2013:   Have become  briefly possessed by the unlikely subject of classification.  It is all the fault of Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish classifier of plants, who – I have just discovered – defined a category of human beings called Homo Sapiens Monstrosus, that included the Patagonian giant and the ‘agile and faint-hearted dwarf of the Alps’.  He also defined another sub-species called Homo Sapiens Ferus, that included wolf boys.  Sometimes mistakes are as interesting as successes.  Imagine a world, not that long ago, in which men (no, scientists) believed in the ‘agile and faint-hearted dwarf of the Alps’.  It’s the mix of myth and science that’s so startling.

The Victorians were great classifiers, but the subject has fallen out of fashion these days. It doesn’t match the free-spirited 21st century and anyway we can see all too easily how it led to the 19th century obsession with racial types (and look where that took us).  Nonetheless classification is deep in the DNA of museums – somehow you have to group the artefacts – and for some museums, such as natural history museums, who identify the species and the steps in the evolutionary process, it is one of their major functions.

But there is something about the classificatory mind that is hopelessly eccentric.  Look at Melville Dewey, creator of the classification system by which most American libraries ordered their books and a man driven by a hopeless passion to make order in the universe.

As a child he made an inventory of his mother’s pantry and then set about re-ordering it. As an adult he not only devised a new system for classifying library books – the Dewey Decimal Classification; he also campaigned for spelling reform, writing crossly that ‘Speling skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentific, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind’.  When he created the Lake Placid Health Club he persuaded the restaurant to serve up ‘Hadok, Poted beef with noodls, Parsli or Masht potato, Butr, Steamd Rys, Letis, and Ys cream’.

Any classificatory system has to figure out how to divide up intelligently the total of everything that human beings know. (Encyclopedias are different. They are organized alphabetically, a system which is easier because it is also meaningless.)  Dewey’s solution was clever – up to a point.  He divided up all knowledge into ten fields, then divided each of these fields into ten more fields, and then divided the ten more fields once again by ten.  After that comes a decimal point and then the process of division starts again.  In terms of content, he makes knowledge descend from the general to the specific in ways that feel natural and that are infinitely extendable, at least downwards – although going sideways is another matter.  Suppose you believe that all human knowledge begins with eleven or twelve fields of thinking, not ten? Sorry, that’s not possible.

And as always the system is a product of its times with all the inherent biases and prejudices that this suggests.  (See, as you would expect, various discussions on where Dewey – or Dui, as he called himself – put women.)

But what I love about this kind of thinking is how rapidly it moves from an absurd pedantry to a beautiful metaphysics (which is something that museums do continually).  For, as lots of people have observed, all library cataloguing systems have to  –

‘ . . . be hospitable to all knowledge, including things that never were, such as phlogiston; things that never shall be, like utopias; and things that are impossible, like the square root of minus one.’

Which suddenly shifts the library from somewhere pedantic into somewhere fantastical.

The classificatory mind is eccentric, pedantic, occasionally beautifully metaphysical, and also sometimes startling and funny – see the famous quote from the novelist Borges in which he says that in ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’  it is said that –

‘Animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

There is no evidence that ‘The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge ever existed – and the more Borges buttresses his prose with footnotes that more likely it is that he made the whole thing up,

But the point is that as a concept it’s beautiful, isn’t it?  And perfectly captures the idea that all classificatory systems – and therefore all museums? – are hopelessly but (sometimes) poetically subjective.

The image is from the Museum National d’histoire Naturelle in Paris.

By Rachel Morris





More debate amongst the Museum of Marco Polo staff on the role of stories in museum-making;  and specifically, what happens when we try to take the over-arching narrative out of the museum.  So, two after-thoughts.

The first is that if we group objects together visitors automatically assume that they are connected and accordingly will invent a narrative that links them together.  It’s the same process that makes film a story-telling medium:  when a number of images unfold, one after another, the viewer assumes they are telling one story. This happens regardless of the musem-makers’ intentions.  Visitors, it seems, want a big story.

Secondly, there is a quote from ‘The Rehearsal’ by Jean Anouilh, the 20th century French dramatist, which goes as follows –

‘Life is very nice but it has no shape.  The purpose of art is to give it some.’   (Jean Anouilh)

I thought it said it all.


My Dinner with Alaric

Rachel Morris

11th August 2013:   I am whiling away a train journey (a very long train journey) wondering whom I would most like to have dinner with from history.  I consider Camille, the most charming of the French revolutionaries, but decide that I might not get a word in edgewise.  I think about Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but decide that they will be too busy throwing plates at each other to concentrate on the supper. I am tempted by Hector from the Iliad, but then I think that if Camille talks too much Hector might not talk at all. And so, after considering various options – I told you it was a long journey – and after consulting Google on my phone, I settle on Alaric, king of the Goths.  For various reasons.

Firstly, because the Goths were so interesting.  They were a barbarian tribe who first appeared in history in the late 4th century at the end of the Roman Empire.  They came from the mysterious land of Gothia which lay just beyond the borders of the Empire, and whose lands still run flat for hundreds of miles as far as the Russian steppes.  It was a place where Romans rarely went, except on marauding expeditions or as part of hostage deals.

The Romans feared and hated the Goths, believing that they were treacherous, that they were possessed by demons and that they spoke the language of animals.  And yet at the same time they couldn’t do without them (for the Goths were formidable fighters) and so the Goths were everywhere at the end of the Roman Empire, on both sides of the frontier, feasting with emperors, marrying princesses, fighting the Empire’s battles.

The Goths, for their part, envied the Romans their baths, their wine and their comforts, but otherwise preferred each other.  The love of the Goths for their brothers was legendary.  The barbarian kiss of comradeliness sealed a love that lasted til death.

And of all the Goths Alaric is the most interesting.  He was the son of a Gothic king and was born on an island in the Danube on the frontiers of the Empire.  The Romans took him hostage as a child and brought him up as part of the family of the Emperor Theodosius.  But then his people called him home – because they were being squeezed by invaders from the east – and voted him their king and begged him to help them.  And so Alaric took them west into Roman territory, the old people and the children in the swaying, creaking wagons, the Gothic warriors trudging along the roads beside them.  Alaric was demanding a kingdom for his people.  He was living proof that in the end blood calls to blood and you cannot trust a barbarian.

The Romans wouldn’t negotiate.  He tried to talk to the Emperor Honorius, son of the late Theodosius and so in effect Alaric’s brother, but Honorius had fled to Ravenna from where he first gave his word and then withdrew it.  And so at last with a kind of lordly reluctance Alaric sacked Rome and the western Empire never recovered.  Alaric died in southern Italy and his grieving men diverted the course of the Busento river, buried him in the stream bed along with his treasures, and then released the waters so that they flowed back over him.  His grave has never been found.

I decide that over dinner I will ask Alaric what it felt like to be brought up as a child hostage in the palace in Constantinople, what did he really think of the Romans, did he mean to bring the Empire down, did he know what was going to happen?

There is nothing (as far as I know) in any UK museum that connects us directly to Alaric, although if you go to the Musee de Cluny in Paris you will see there a crown that was once worn by the seventh-century kings of Toledo, who were descendants of the Spanish Goths and so distant cousins of Alaric.  It is a beautiful thing – like a cake ring, but made from beaten gold and with large, mauvish rubies hanging off it.

And if you go to the Museum of London you will see an Anglo-Saxon brooch that was found in the ruins of a Roman house in the City of London.  It was dropped there in about 450 AD when London was a ghost town;  presumably it was lost by a woman or a girl, clambering through the ruins. By this time it was forty years since Alaric had sacked Rome. Did her parents or her grandparents tell her about it?  And did she make the connection between the far-off ruins of Rome and the ruins of London in which she was now standing.

So who would you have dinner with from history?

At the Museum of Marco Polo, our storytellers (there are two of them – one older and one younger) will tell you that museums are places that tell stories in three dimensions and that you can always tell a museum that does it well because artefacts, stories and spaces dovetail sweetly together in ways that are utterly satisfying.

And they will also tell you – so long as you are not looking too bored – that how intuitively the story unfolds through the spaces is partly a physical matter (the shape of your spaces, ways in and ways out, the routes through) and partly a story-ish issue (how are you shaping your story? where are its peaks, its troughs and its turning points?).

And it’s exactly at the point when you start to decide these things – so quite early on in the museum-making process – that passions begin to run high. Because although all this may sound geeky the fact is that those who shape the story determine what’s important about it, and what’s remembered and forgotten. As always, the storyteller is god. No wonder passions run high.

So how then should we shape our story? For a long time there was no debate around this point. Chronology ruled – the principle of ‘and then and then and then’ – and had done since at least the 19th century. But by the beginning of the 20th century chronology had become caught up in the big, colonial story, the grand narrative of Britain as a major power. It ceased to be about neutral Time and became about progress – more specifically, our, the West’s progress. By the middle of the 20th century it had become so laden with dubious values that it became discredited. At more or less the same time post-modernism came along and under its pressure the big narratives began to splinter anyway and to fall into different viewpoints.

Thus revealing the questions that underlie all these discussion. Is there a story bigger than the individual objects? What is it? Who chooses it? And how do we express it?

In our experience when we sit in a meeting and ask, ‘So how are we laying out this story?’ back will come a dozen answers. This is how the conversation tends to go.

Person A will say, ‘Surely we are not doing this chronologically?’
‘So how else?’ asks Person B.
‘Thematically,’ says Person A, ‘Definitely thematically.’
‘Themes are harder,’ says Person C. ‘You have to work harder to explain them and to draw the visitor across to them. At least with chronology everyone gets it.’
‘Actually they don’t,’ says Person A. ‘Most people don’t know any dates at all.’
‘But chronology isn’t about dates’ says Person C, ‘Chronology is just the idea that one thing happens after another.’
‘But how,’ asks Person D, ‘are you going to lay out a story chronologically when you don’t know which way people will go through an exhibition? You can’t make them follow only one route. An exhibition isn’t a book.’
‘No,’ says Person C, ‘but you can use objects to tempt them in one direction or another.’
‘Can’t we just be old-fashioned here and let the objects lead?’ asks Person E plaintively.
‘Difficult,’ says Person A, ‘These are little scraps of pottery. They don’t say much to most visitors. We are not talking about exquisite porcelain.’
‘Maybe it’s neither themes nor chronology,’ says Person F suddenly. ‘Maybe it’s like a collection of short stories and you can sample as many as you want in any order that you want.’
‘I like that,’ says Person D, ‘I think it works better for museums.’
‘Have you read that novel by Perec called ‘Life: A User’s Manual?’ asks Person G. ‘It’s all about the inhabitants of a black of flats in Paris. Every room and every person in it has a story, but you can read them in any order that you want.’
‘That sounds perfect,’ says Person D, ‘just the kind of story-telling that works in museums.’
‘So do you mean?’ asks Person C, ‘that you have all these short stories but you don’t have a big, over-arching narrative that holds them together? You just wonder around and discover them.’
‘Exactly,’ says Person A. ‘That’s how Perec’s book works. And I think it’s right for museums too. I mean, which one of us believes in those big narratives that museums used to tell?’
‘But unless you have a big story visitors get lost because the big story guides them. And anyway I thought you said that a museum isn’t a book,’ says Person C more plaintively than ever.

And it’s at this point that the Museum’s storytellers want to leap to their feet – and sometimes do – to say, ‘But hang on a second, are you sure you have understood what Perec’s doing here, because that’s not how I understand it.’

Perec’s book is a strange and wonderful novel about the inhabitants of a block of flats in Paris. The book is a vast hymn to people and their infinite numbers of things as well as stories. It bursts with lists and has the same manic quality that many museums have, the feeling that everything that has ever been made in the world could be here, in this verbal junkyard. Though written pre-computers, reading it is weirdly like following a Google search, with one thread leading on to the next and no one moment seeming to have any more significance than any other. The stories at the level of the people are wonderful but the book appears to avoid a bigger story. If you are wondering how to lay out an exhibition and puzzling over the relationship between the over-arching narrative and the smaller ones, then Perec – you might think – has given you an answer.

But then look again and you may see something different. Because at the heart of the book are two characters, Bartlebooth and the painter Valene, each of whom – in his way – is in search of the bigger story. Bartlebooth has made it his life’s work to paint landscapes, unpick them into jigsaw pieces, and then reassemble the jigsaws. Valene also wants to create a big story, in his case, a painting of the entire block of flats and everyone inside it, including himself (a classic case of the storyteller wanting to be inside the story as well as outside it). Bartlebooth is also a collector of maps – another example of the big picture; and although it is true that he tries to destroy his reconstituted landscapes it is also true that there is always another character that tries to stop him. In fact I think the entire book is about precisely this – what is the shape or the pattern that lies behind the surface clutter of life? – and who is the person that creates that shape? And it is not at all clear that Perec comes down on the no-big-story side. The book doesn’t feel like a random collection of short stories; on the contrary, it feels strongly framed, by the outer walls of the apartment block, by the covers of the book and by the author’s intentions.

All of which is by way of saying that if you are looking for a way to take the god-like storyteller out of a museum, then Perec’s not your man.

By Rachel Morris