The great Library of Alexandria had a Museum.  The British Museum also once had a library, the circular Round Reading Room, which sits at the heart of the Museum and shares the same dimensions at the Pantheon.  When the British Library moved to Kings Cross ‘the life was sucked out of the Round Reading Room’, as one eminent museum director said.  The Museum’s Pantheon had been marooned.  The story goes that when Norman Foster was interviewed for the Great Court project he drew a heart in the circle of the Reading Room.  His roof is a great piece of engineering but the centre of the Museum has remained ‘a container with no content’.

So now the Museum of Marco Polo has re-imagined the Great Library at the heart of the museum – with the contention that museums are as much about ideas as they are about objects, and that the conveyors of ideas are codes –  in words and songs, and in markings such as cuneiforms and alphabets. No accident that ‘in the beginning was the word’.  The ability to codify is one of the characteristics of our species – to use words and symbols to think – to make libraries.

The BM contains the DNA codes of our thousands of ideas. It has the earliest tablets, from cuneiform onwards and including every form of carving, embossing, writing and printing, including seals, sticks, pens, brushes and print blocks, from analogue recording to the digital. It is our 21st technologies that allow us to bring to life the pantheon of ideas behind the stelae and illuminated manuscripts, and to remake this Library in ways that all visitors can interact with.

Imagine the Round Reading Room combining real artefacts with the ritual of the Apple Store, giving us the ability to pull every book off the shelf virtually;  with manuscripts that unroll and pages that turn; and around the upper level an LED frieze inserted into the book cases that decorates the room with sentences in every language.

BM plan 2

Thus the Round Reading Room, which was built to the dimensions of the Pantheon in Rome, becomes again the ‘Library of Libraries’.  It is the  Museum’s  Gallery of the Word and (when we lay it out flat) also a Mappa Mundi of human ideas, starting with cuneiform and ending with the iPad Mini.

And so the Museum gets a heart transplant.



I am on my way back to the office and taking a detour through the Petrie Museum when it dawns on me that the language of brown Victorian showcases – which used to feel so old-fashioned – is now beginning to have a drama and an allure all of its own.  In fact it is beginning to have what the kids would call retro-chic.

The thought occurs to me because the Petrie Museum, where I am standing, tells a double story.  It is about both the ancient Egyptians and the Victorian discovery of them.  The collection consists of mummy portraits with desolate dark eyes;  scraps of lustrous painted glass;  grave stones;  gold, garnet and carnelian beads;  kohl pots;  shabtis by the hundreds;  and much, much more – all of it encased in brown, wooden showcases and presided over by the ghost of Flinders Petrie.  Petrie was a big, bearded, Victorian archaeologist, both conscientious and imaginative  – who said that he would rather write about history as if its inhabitants were a living community rather than a historical abstraction.  Also haunting the museum are the ghosts of his Egyptian foremen, Hussein Osman, Muhammed abut Daud, and Ali Suefit, his favourite (of whom he said, ‘He is really more to me than any of my own race’.)

For various reasons the Museum missed out on the great rebuilding of the UK’s museums in the last two decades.

But now, I think, this may turn out to be an interesting advantage, because when you strip out the Victorian language of brown wooden showcases, replacing them with modern ones, you lose all the Victorian references and reduce the double story to a single one.  But if, on the other hand, you keep the showcases but add in film and light, adventures with torches, voices and projections, games with mobile phones and sleep overs – then you have kept the double meaning – and in fact expanded it.

All very obvious when you think about it but it hadn’t occurred to me before – and it suddenly casts a sideways light on a number of conversations into which we have lately been bumping – conversations about the need for museum design to become lighter and more flexible, less about fixed objects and more about theatre and performances;  and other conversations lamenting the possibility that museum design has become too formulaic and predictable.

From here my thoughts jump to Imaginary Worlds.  These are the worlds that writers create to support their stories.  Sometimes when the stories are particularly compelling the Imaginary Worlds float free of any one particular narrative and become – like Narnia or Early Earth – places of imagination about which the readers start to invent their own stories.  They acquire maps, histories, languages and timelines – in fact all the encyclopaedic qualities of museums.

It seems to me that many visitors think of museums as they think of Imaginary Worlds, places that stimulate their imagination and prompt them to daydream.

Museums are about both things and imagination.  For a generation we have been attending to the former – building showcases and conserving objects – but now perhaps we could give ourselves the luxury of attending to the latter, to theatre and imagination.

Photograph from


9th May 2014   What happens if you start to view a museum as an imagined world – not a reconstruction or an interpretation of the world we inhabit but an imagined world such as you explore in the novels of Tolkein or Terry Pratchett or the art of Paul Noble or the films of Guillermo del Toro?

I still sometimes worry about museums delivered to a formula – the formula of a predetermined assemblage laid out on a grid pattern of desk cases, upright cases, mannequins, dioramas and graphic panels.  I am far more interested in the museum that each visitor creates in their head as they visit the museum, and in the core of the museum visit, which is the experience of awe and wonder when you come into contact with something amazing, rich and beautiful – when the curator puts in the visitors’ hands a hand axe which is thousands of years old. That moment is something the visitor will never forget.

One of my favourite museums is the Deutsches Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven.  The amazing moment when you visit Bremerhaven is not the entrance to the museum where the visitor wanders through a group of mannequins representing emigrants about to embark on a passage to the United States, but a few minutes later when you board a representation of an ocean liner and look back from the quarterdeck to see the visitors following behind you and how they merge with the mannequins so that the visitors become mannequins and vice versa.  Your brain bounces back to that moment of moving amongst the unmoving forest of mannequins and somehow you’re connected to the six million people who over a period of 120 years emigrated from Bremerhaven.

At Bremerhaven the display seems to be ideally tuned to the subject, and so the subject immerses the visitor.  In contrast some shiny metallic museums constructed from intersecting planes seem to have little resonance with either the landscape around them or the subject matter they contain. The best museums let us relate directly to their collections and stories, as at Bremerhaven, and challenge the separation of objects, ideas and visitors.

Working for many years in County Durham I was very aware that there were a very significant number of private collections of items of coal mining heritage.  Former miners had collected items from the pits as they closed and often stored them in the garage or the loft.  In many cases they had a desire to create a museum from these collections.  Clearly the museum ecology wouldn’t support a proliferation of coal mining museums in a small area but I am tempted to say that these are already museums just because the people who visit them, sit with them or look at them are already calling them museums.

Similarly children mimic the adult world and learn about it through replicating it.  In the North East there is a tradition of children creating ‘boody shops’.  A child lays out on the pavement pieces of broken china as if they were in a shop display and ‘sells’ objects to their friends.  We know that children enjoy creating their own museums in classrooms.  It is of little significance whether the objects they curate are of great social, artistic or scientific value. The meaning-making lies within the process.

Sometimes museums are created purely in the head.  In the Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk writes a moving love story that depicts in incredible detail life in Istanbul in the last quarter of the 20th century.  In the novel he describes the creation of a museum of objects that record this love affair.  Later the author creates a real museum with real objects that are similar to those that might have been created in the imagined museum. This museum is now open to the public.  Is this a museum or a piece of contemporary art through which one can walk?

Too often museums feel like they are constrained by the walls of the building and don’t open out on to the world.  When we developed the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle one of the features that we built in was a wall that opened out from our learning rooms into an outdoor wildlife garden with a pond. And currently we are developing a new plaza outside the Discovery Museum in Newcastle that will showcase a major exhibit but also provide some valuable outside space.  Prior to this there has been little outside space where people can congregate.  And so we have created what I call an ‘outside inside space’ – in an atrium around the steam powered vessel, ‘Turbinia’ where people can mill around and eat packed lunches.

Objects are central to museums.  Without objects they wouldn’t be museums! But the objects are not always items that are curatorially validated, defined as exemplars, made magic by the touch of the great or the good.  The Museum of Broken Relationships created the idea that it was really the story that lay at the heart of the museum.  Created from assemblages of objects that had meaning only to the people who donated them, the Museum of Broken Relationships has been defined as ‘an art concept’.  But is it also a museum for memories and emotions where the material momentoes of broken relationships can preserve some of their non-material heritage?

i believe that what is best about museums in their diversity.  Let’s hope that in fifty years time our grandchildren will acknowledge some of today’s museums as great museums.  And that we have helped museums evolve in new and different directions, challenging the nature of museum buildings, taking down the walls of the museum, and questioning the separation of objects, ideas and visitors.

Iain Watson is Director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and writes and lectures extensively on museums, learning and heritage.

The image on the front page is from Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.

9th May 2014    Am down at the Science Museum, sitting in the space called Antenna at the back of the museum, and idly watching the kids playing on the screens whilst pursuing the following train of thought.

I am remembering that way back when we first started there was a quirky idea going round our office that one day museums would start to resemble media companies – like newspapers or television stations – and think of themselves as  places that create content.

What’s interesting is that, as sometimes happens, our predictions have become ‘sort of true’ – only not quite in the way that we imagined them.

What we saw then is that museums sit upon an astonishing treasure store of content – artifacts yes, but each one of them surrounded by a halo of stories – of people, emotions, the journeys of objects, the history of museums, the history of the communities that built these museums and so on – and all captured in letters, diaries, photographs and memories.  The more our world feels corporate and two-dimensional the more all this content makes museums feel magical and entrancing.

But what we didn’t see back then is how much content outside museums would become user-generated and so would take on the qualities of the web – being provisional, noisy, changeable, shout-y, non-expert, often amateur, sometimes untrue, but also sometimes inspired and always hugely energetic.  And that these qualities would sit oddly next to museums which have always been about truth, permanence and expertise.  Because although some things have changed inside museums – there are more films for instance – it still feels the case that museums have stillness built deep into their DNA.  How often do you get the feeling in a museum that content is being continually changed and updated, and that there are lots of points of view?

So the interesting question is, how will these two utterly different ways of doing content sit side by side in the brave new world that’s coming?  Will museums start to feel strangely stiff and old-fashioned, or will their stillness feel like a blessing in an otherwise noisy world?

All of which I am thinking as I watch the kids in Antenna in the Science Museum because this is one of the few examples that I know of where a museum has tried to respond to the endlessly mobile and changeable web by creating a three-dimensional magazine that you can walk through, and where the content changes and aspires to be up to date?  There’s an exhibition – as nimble-footed as they can make it – and objects and screens with content and sofas for sociable fifteen year old’s to gather together.  Issues they cover include the Big Bang, Climate Change and Robots building flood defences.

It’s not easy being flexible within the museum template.  The hardware can afford to age a little but the content needs to be current and that means employing people and that in turn costs money.

I don’t know how the story of Museum Content is going to turn out, but I do think that whoever figures out the intersection between the stillness of museums and the noisy world outside is going to strike gold.  And meanwhile if I were running a museum I would be looking for graduates who have writing, digital and film-making skills.