30th March 2014: Have you ever wondered what kind of museum you would create if you had (quite a few) million pounds in your pocket?

It's a sign of the strange times we live in that even as many existing museums are under threat there are still obsessives, visionaries and businessmen trying to build new ones.

It’s not easy creating a new museum.  It has to have enough poetry to capture imaginations, but also enough revenue to make it financially stable. Making museums is expensive and running them even more so, although it all becomes more affordable if you are prepared to forego the fancy new building and to create a museum that has no home, that travels and that squats in other people’s buildings.

Or maybe it stays still but is distributed in small pieces across a number of homes? Or maybe it lives outside in a landscape – in gardens or streets?

If it’s any comfort, having a fancy new building does not make you any more likely to survive. In fact, probably quite the reverse – because after the first flood of visitors you have an expensive building to run.      A new building can have a peculiarly destabilising effect on an organisation.  It can also make you look middle-aged – because only the middle-aged can afford new build.  If you want to align yourself with the young and hip you are better off doing what they do and occupying found space.

And anyway, a museum is not a building.  It is far, far more – and also far less – than this. It is about things and dreams, and they can live anywhere.  Even the mighty British Museum was once a collection of things in boxes, owned by the charming and convivial Dr. Sloane.

So these are some of the museums I would like to make –

A Museum of Dreams and Delusions (bring your own).  A Museum of Imaginary Worlds (with plenty of science fiction).  A Museum of the Rose (because sometimes small things are windows onto huge stories).  And – a particular favourite of mine – a Museum of the Barbarians, which would tell the story of all those cultures that lived around the edges of the Roman Empire. It would be spread across the countries on the Empire’s fringes, and – and this is mostly why I want to make it – would put those cultures centre stage, in the middle of each space, and consign the Romans to a troublesome fringe around the gallery’s edges. I like the idea of reversing expectations.  So, if you are picturing this in your mind’s eye, imagine the Goths in the middle of the gallery, with their huge wagons and their songs and their poetry and their forests and their passionate belief in their god, whilst around the walls you can catch glimpses of far-off colonnades and distant Roman cities.

(There has always been a code in museum-making that puts the most important subjects centre stage, on the ground floor.  Hence in Victorian museums the Ancient Greeks always greeted you when you came in through the front door whilst obscure Far Eastern cultures were consigned to somewhere upstairs at the back.)

There is no museum that I know of which is dedicated only to the Barbarians.  The Romans themselves never made one, although they did have their victory parades in which the defeated marched, and they also built Trajan’s column as a way of celebrating their genocide of the Dacians.  (There’s a copy of the column in the V&A.  The Romans are shown charging down the slope of the column, the Dacians struggling upwards from below.  You can tell the barbarians by their trousers.)

This museum of the barbarians would travel, turning up in towns in the way that the barbarians used to do and making use of old buildings which are waiting planning appeals to be turned into something else.

So what museum would you make if you found a spare few million pounds down the back of the sofa?  By Rachel Morris.

(The columns in the image are from Apamea in Syria.)

16th March 2014: Somewhere near the beginning of the museum-making process there always comes the question, ‘How are we going to lay out our story?’ It’s probably the question that prompts more arguments than any other. So here are 7 ways we’ve laid out museums. Tell us how else you’ve seen it done and which ways you think work best?

1. Chronologically.  This is the traditional way that museums have always done it, by date order, from the oldest to the newest.  It’s an approach that’s been around a long time, and its problems are obvious – not least that it pushes us towards linear layouts and they don’t work well in museums. But lately chronology has been falling out of fashion and so, on the principle of speaking up for the underdog, I would say that not every chronological layout is dreary. I don’t mean calendar dates – which are certainly dull – but what lies behind them, which is Time.  Time is always interesting.  Time gives you cause and effect – this happened and it led to that – and on a personal level it saturates the story with pathos and regret. Many of the greatest novels get their poignancy from the sense of passing time – ‘Great Expectations’ and ‘War and Peace’, for instance.  I am only putting it out there, as the kids would say.

2.  Thematically.  This is the usual alternative to chronology and is generally assumed to be as interesting as chronology is dull.  In fact it is only as interesting as the themes that you choose. Choose dull, overly abstract themes and you will have a dull museum. We once pitched for a museum in Eastern Europe and proposed laying it out by the themes of ‘Heaven’ (for their art, religion and culture) and ‘Earth’ (for their everyday world – largely agricultural).  We lost the job.  Too poetic, said the Client.  Maybe he was right?

3.  Like Sheherazade.  This is the approach that says, ‘Look, a museum is not a novel and never could be. But it could be a collection of short stories.’ And it’s true that there is a very natural, easy affinity between museums and short stories.  In which case I would speak up for the frame narrative – the narrative through which you step in order to reach the short stories.  Hence the reference to Sheherazade, whose story frames the ‘Arabian Nights’, and is probably the most beautiful frame narrative ever invented.

4.  Geographically.  I have only seen this done a couple of times but on each occasion it was lovely.  The first time was in a British Library exhibition on the Silk Road (2004) where they laid out the story, city by city, as if you, the visitor, were making the journey along with Marco Polo.  The second example comes from the Archaeology Museum in Istanbul where they have laid out the Byzantine finds, street by street, to imply the old Byzantium city.  The effect is lovely – it gives you an eerie sense of past and present collapsing together.

5.  Subjectively.  This approach says, ‘Let’s forget the big story and concentrate instead on personal stories, on what it felt like to be alive then.’  The upside is that it gives you a powerful and emotional take on the past.  The downside is that you will always feel like a local museum because you have no bigger narrative.

6.  As journalists do it.  This is the kind of storytelling that begins as newspaper articles do, by laying out the entire story in the first paragraph and then drawing you further in to explore the details.  And a lovely example of it comes from the Oxford University Museum – built in the 1860’s, but despite its age still looking like no other museum that I know of.  Step inside and you feel you’re in a cross between a Victorian railway station and a cathedral of vegetation.  The wrought-iron pillars that define its many naves are festooned with iron flowers.  Where the pillars divide and spring outwards to support the huge glass roof, they turn into long meadow grass and woodland fronds.  Even the gothic door through which you enter is lined with stone vegetation.  From all this the story is clear as daylight, that the museum is about the earth, its formation, the development of the natural world and how we’ve learnt to understand it.  First you read the big story in the architecture, and then you step closer to explore its details in the showcases.  Simple – and perfect.

7.  As you, the Visitor, want to shape it. I have left til last the joker in the pack, because all the examples so far have been in the analogue world but now we have the digital as well – and in this parallel world we can shuffle stories and reconfigure them like a kaleidoscope, in any way we want.  In the analogue world the museum lays out the story.   In the digital world the visitor can shape it and reshape it and play it back again. We’ve hardly touched on what this can do for visitors.

There are of course a multitude of possible blends and hybrids and combinations of the above. But whichever way you choose one thing is certain. If you don’t begin by asking the question, ‘What is the story?’ and if instead you say, ‘What is all this talk about story?  My job is to put objects in showcases,’ then you have virtually guaranteed yourself a stiff and ponderous exhibition. It’s the nearest thing you’ll get to a law of the universe.

So how else have you seen it done and which ones have worked for you?

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