27th October 2013:  For as long as I can remember the arguments have raged between the Pure Museum-ists (objects and nothing else) and the Modern Museum-ists (objects enhanced by film, audio, graphics, art installations and so on).  The Modern Museum-ists accuse the Pure Museum-ists of being old-fashioned and not caring about the visitors; the Pure Museum-ists accuse the Modern Museum-ists of being – well, barbarians and not caring about the objects.

It’s a very moral debate – ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ are scattered in every direction. But I suspect it’s all beside the point as other huge changes sweep down on museums anyway.

And one of these huge changes is that museums will become content creators.

Over the last 15 years the music and publishing industries have been turned upside down as words, sounds and pictures have proved all too easy to digitalise.  It is tempting to assume that museums are different, that because objects exist first and foremost in the  ‘real’ world, from whence they derive most of their power and their meaning, that the digital revolution will somehow be less revolutionary when it finally hits them.

This seems unlikely.

For the fact is that though objects may exist first and foremost in the real world, the digital channels and destinations that spread our understanding of them (websites, podcasts, Twitter, Instagram etc.) are all proliferating, connecting and merging together.  They are taking the content in which museums are so rich and multiplying it many times over as they spread it round the world.

The digital world is even yielding revenue (the more so because it has such huge audiences). Museums that have their wits about them like the V&A are making money from the copyright on their content. And although most of this is the simple release of digital images, museums are starting to add to and embellish their digital content and to tell stories about it, to become in short real content creators.

Now I know this seems unlikely when you look at the dreariness of some museum websites.  (Which dreariness comes partly from a lack of clarity about  what exactly a museum website is for, other than to tell us about opening hours.)  And I know that even to talk about content creation implies an old-fashioned sense of authorship which is at odds with the way that content is borrowed, distorted, merged, mashed up, bounced about and generally played around with across the web, which means – amongst other things – that one organisation can be spread across many different digital homes, Facebook, Youtube, their own website.

But even so, the minute a new medium is invented the human brain gets busy, seeing what it can do.  One day museum websites will have their own purpose, and be exceptional, creative and inventive in their own right (especially when they are allowed to breath a little).

And even now they are changing museums.  They are starting to bring in new skills – editing, journalism, film making.  And inevitably all this will change the balance of power inside museums.

And visitors are changing too.  It is not that they think less of the real objects; on the contrary the authenticity of an object gives it a huge rarity, an enticing strangeness in an otherwise digital world where everything else is endlessly duplicated.  But the more visitors play around with the content the more they feel they own it so that when they come into museums they will see the objects differently. The world, once changed, never reverts back to its previous state.

And none of this is necessarily bad – although even to say this is to use the old language of morality. Which is really not the point.

(Why the museum world phrases so much of its discussions in terms of shoulds and shouldn’ts is an interesting question.  Sometimes I think we could learn from book publishing where all kinds of genres are celebrated and the only stipulation is that they should be as good as they can of their kind.  Looked at like this it would feel okay to have all kinds of museums – Pure and Modern included – so long as they were done as well as possible.)

The image at the top of the page is from a William Morris textile, ‘Brer Rabbit’, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.



Museum Daydreaming

Rachel Morris

16th October 2013:  You know what the web is like – a vast, meandering conversation, often incoherent but sometimes spot-on. Nothing is final, everything provisional and open to be retracted and re-edited, and yet every step in this meandering and provisional conversation is captured for posterity. So I have just come across one such conversation – from 2010 (what was I doing in 2010?) – on the website Museum2.0 – on the subject of ‘third-thing-ness’ in museums (www.museumtwo.blogspot.com).

So (with apologies to those of you who knew this all along because you were keeping up with the web) this is the concept that we use objects in museums as third-things, the things we gaze upon together – admire, discuss, dispute – as a way of confirming friendships. In this way objects are social things because they mediate between us and help us connect.

It’s a lovely idea – I wish I’d thought of it myself – and no sooner had I thought, ‘That’s lovely,’ than I thought of the parallel phenomenon, the museum as the place for the solitary daydreamer, where we use museum objects as the beginning of a day dream.

Which I mention because I do a lot of daydreaming in museums and can particularly recommend the V&A in London as a great daydreaming space. The reason for its daydreaming potential? I think because the museum is fundamentally about journeys – the unlikely and extraordinary journeys of people and objects, journeys in time and journeys in space. (I know the museum pitches itself as a museum of design but I never see it like that. Which is also interesting – and maybe an example of the illusion of ‘intentionalism’, the fact that an organisation intends us to see it as one thing, whilst we stubbornly read it as another.)

And so you can stand by the Welcome desk in this museum of journeys and think, ‘Where shall I go today? Shall I go to Egypt, to India, or to China?’ And then let all those artefacts take you on a journey to somewhere else. Sometimes going to the V&A is like going on holiday without ever leaving South Kensington. And what could be nicer than that?

4th October 2013:  It’s peculiar the loyalties that form across the centuries. By far the most poignant story about children that I’ve come across, after ten years of working in museums, is the story of the Merle brothers in the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell in London.  And though they have been dead for nearly 500 years I still find them haunting my thoughts.

We came across their story when we were redisplaying the museum, which tells the story of the crusader Hospitaller Knights of St John who fought in the long struggle between Islam and Christianity that ranged for centuries across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem in the east to Spain in the west. The museum has a handful of letters written by the Merles, a Crusader family from the south of France, who sent their son Rostand to fight against the Muslims at the Siege of Rhodes.  Rostand was only 16 when he left, and was almost certainly a younger son;  no family would have risked their older sons in war.

One of the first letters is written by Rostand on the 7th August 1511 to his brother Francois.  Rostand is in d’Aigues Mortes (‘Plague-Death’),  a French port on the southern coast where he is waiting for a boat to Rhodes.  ‘Monsieur Monpere,’ he writes (‘Mr My Father’) in his beautiful, medieval French, and sends his respects to ‘Madame Mamere’ (‘Mrs My Mother’), telling them that a friend of the family has just given him figs and oranges for the journey.

Six months later comes another letter.  Rostand is in Rhodes now and is begging his family not to send out his little brother Claude, who is only 12.  Rhodes, says Rostand with real fear in his voice, is a bloodbath in which he’s never been hungrier nor his life in more danger. But his family don’t listen because next comes a letter from Claude in which he proudly describes to his mother what he is taking to Rhodes – boots and a robe of fine black cloth; a coat of mail armour;  material for shirts and a doublet and hose;  black ribbons;  and fine lace from Hainault.  Close your eyes and you can see the two of them, with their black jackets and their white shirts with lace trims, and the scarlet blood of which there was plenty.

Then comes another letter, this time dated 1518.  It is from Rostand again and in it he tells them that Claude is dead. He died in the fighting. What happened to Rostand we do not know.

The Merle family kept those letters for hundreds of years until they found their way into the museum.  If you want to know the dream that they were fighting for, take a look at the 17th century models (also in the museum) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Each one is made from wood and old mother and pearl, and represents a dream and an illusion.

The lives of children are threaded through the history of museums.  And that’s not surprising.  We shower the people we love with everything we value most, and after they die we cherish what they once owned.  Museums are full of the things that children once possessed and that parents could not let go of – dolls, clothes, toys, miniature armour, baby shoes, dolls houses, diaries – the list goes on and on, adding an extra layer of poignancy to the already considerable poignancy of museums.

Museums are conventionally about thinking, not feeling.  But we couldn’t avoid the emotions in which these letters are saturated.  We laid out them as simply as we could and supported them with illustrations taken from the book that William Caoursin wrote about the Siege of Rhodes, and which he published in 1482.  (The Museum has an astonishing collection of old maps, paintings and books, including a pilgrim’s manual, describing the journey to Jerusalem with illustrations of the animals that you will meet along the way.   They promise you giraffes, hippopotamuses, even a unicorn.)

The  Museums’ Conference, in Liverpool next month, takes the emotional museum as one of its themes.  Museums have changed.  It will be interesting to hear what they say.

Image:  by William Caoursin

The Museums Conference: 11th to 12th November, 2013.  In Liverpool.