Things and their Words

Museum of Marco Polo

Museums are thing-worlds – it’s what makes them so peculiar and compelling – but even thing-worlds need words sometimes.  And so, because words are what I love, I’m pursuing a slightly geeky obsession to understand how things and their words work together.  I don’t suppose this is the last time I’ll be posting on the subject.

So here are two very different ways in which things and their words work together, both of which I saw last week.

The first I almost missed as I was going through the National Portrait Gallery.  First I saw the poem, or the shape of it, printed on the wall, and then I saw the painting next to it, of a young man, skinny, poised and enigmatic, with a far-off gaze and the folds and shadows in his robes and turban of a beautiful, greeny-white. Truth be told, I would have rushed straight past this painting;  it was the surprise of seeing the poem next to it that made me stop and stare.  And although the painting enhanced the poem, the poem (which is by Ben Okri) also enhanced the painting, breathing life into it, puffing out its meaning, setting it free to float. The poem is called ‘Diallo’s Testament’.  ‘I am one,’ writes Ben Okri in Diallo’s voice, ‘on whom providence has worked its magic reversals.  Behind me are silent stories, like a storm . . . ‘  The poem meanwhile sits on the wall with the same chunky presence as an artefact.

Later I ask someone who works there what visitors do when they read this poem.  ‘Sometimes they cry,’  he says and I think, ‘Good, that’s what museums ought to do to people.’

The second example is quite different. This time I am sitting beside the Thames at Greenwich on a morming when the river is breezy, sunlit and empty.  I am talking to a museum storyteller called Richard Sylvester whose job it is to take a concept – say, Empire – and to weave a story on the spot and perform it to the audience, to be accurate and informative, entertaining and enlightening, to keep the audience’s attention whether they are two or seventy-two, to let them be part of the story-making and to send them away wanting to come back.

I ask him what made him become a storyteller and he tells me it began when he was beachcombing along the shores of the Thames. He was picking up 18th century clay pipes and noticing the initials SB on them, which turned out to stand for Sarah Bean, whose family ran a business making clay pipes from Crane Street which is just round the corner. And that, I think, is the heart of it – a thing, a place and out of the two a story, which is more often than not a fragment of bottom-up history – the history and memories of ordinary people, the kind of history that until recently was not even acknowledged as such.

It’s not easy being an oral storyteller.  It’s an art form (and it is an art form) whose status has been under threat ever since Caxton developed the printing press in the 15th century, whereupon  the printed word gained the upper hand – and has it still.  The written word has status because we believe it will last for ever. But the spoken word is different – it comes and goes and drifts like smoke, although it is remarkable how swiftly the right words can go straight to the listener’s heart.

The conversation loops around. We wonder if you tell stories better with an object in your hand – and maybe even better if the object is authentic? – and whether the listener also listens better when holding on to a thing?  And we wonder why it is that children always ask, ‘Is that a true story?’ even when quite plainly – to adult eyes – it isn’t and decide that the question must be a compliment to the storyteller’s skills.  (‘Wow, you mean a dragon took it –  I so want to believe that.’)

I ask him to give me a good example of when a thing and its words have worked beautifully together and he describes a time when he was commissioned to tell a story about Prince Frederick’s Royal Barge.  First he got the audience singing with him, ‘The river is deep, the river is wide, row your boat to the other side’ and then, because he wanted them to have the physical, visceral feeling of what it was to be a waterman (all of which he researched),  he described the water man sitting in his boat in the river, waiting for the tide to turn, and judging the moment of change from how the weed in the current stopped flowing in one direction, became still and then flowed in the other.

As he speaks I am standing beside the 18th century boatman, looking down into the clear, brown waters of the 18th century Thames, watching a thread of green waterweed, how it stretches itself in one direction, then pauses and stretches itself out in the other.  ‘Ah,’ I think, ‘it’s that detail that makes it work.  A nice bit of storytelling.’

By Rachel Morris






In Venice there is nothing as disconcerting as gazing down a quiet street which is suddenly dwarfed by the surreal appearance of a giant cruise liner blotting out the sky.  To ban or not to ban these floating apartment blocks has recently become a hot topic but maybe the Venetians only have themselves to blame – they virtually invented the all-inclusive tourist cruise back in the fifteenth century.

Sometime around 1420 the city’s merchants spotted that carrying pilgrims to the Holy Land could be lucrative. They refitted a couple of merchant galleys – essentially clumsy sailing ships with oars – and started to attract custom.  Each spring pilgrims from across Europe descended on the city;  touts along the waterfront by St Mark’s would set up their stalls, competing to talk up the safety and speed of their vessels, the honesty of their captains and the quality of their food.  They provided an all-in deal:  cabin space, all meals on board and secure conveyance from the port of Jaffa to Jerusalem and back to the ship.  There were written guarantees:  clauses included provision for your belongings if you died and protection from the crew – who were largely recruited from the city’s desperate and criminal classes.

The Jerusalem Journey was not just a pious duty for the Christian soul.  It was also an adventure and it invented a new genre of travel writing.  One of my personal travel heroes is a German monk called Felix Fabri:  extraordinarily cheerful and boundlessly curious about the world, he sailed to Jerusalem in the 1480’s and left vivid accounts.

Whatever the touts might have promised, the voyage – five to six weeks each way if you were lucky – was at least a form of purgatory, and frequently complete hell.  The best advice on setting out was to make a will, take a spare shirt plus a wallet stuffed with money and patience.  At night the passengers were packed into one foetid, dark hold, with eighteen inches sleeping space allotted to each man:  ‘right evil and smouldering hot and stinking’ one English pilgrim described it.  Fleas, quarrels and fights, the smell of vomit and urine were features of the claustrophobic dormitory.  Storms were terrifying:  chests, people, possessions and spilled chamber pots would be hurled about in the dark.  Water crashing over the deck seeped into the hold, wetting everything;  people listened to the ominous creaking of timbers and prayed that the ship would not break up.

Almost worse were the flat calms when the vessel could sit motionless on the sea for days. Maggots crawled out of the meat;  wine and water fouled;  rats scurried;  the heat was intolerable.  ‘I have seen few men die on board ship during a storm,’ said Fabri, ‘but many I have seen sicken and die during these calms.’  Those who died near land might be buried ashore.  Out at sea a body would be consigned to the depths.  The frequent port calls were a welcome relief and Fabri relished them – exploring the landscape, climbing hills to get a good view and more than once missing the trumpet call summoning the pilgrims for departure.  He was keen to experience everything the voyage could hold.  He preferred to be up on deck at night, observing the moods of the sea – the violent waves battering the hull as well as times of exhilaration and beauty when the ship moved softly over the moonlit water and all was still, save the helmsman singing a quiet song.

Once the ship reached Jaffa, the pilgrims would be taken under armed Muslim guard to Jerusalem, where for a week or so they could walk in the footsteps of Christ, attend church services and buy holy souvenirs.

Fabri was deeply pious, but also seized by a desire to experience everything the world could show, and he made this journey twice.  The second time he travelled with companions across the Sinai desert.  He was struck with wonder and delight at the ‘immensity of the desert, its barrenness and its terror’.  Travelling to Cairo he sailed up the fertile Nile ‘as if we sailed through paradise’ although at night he could not sleep for the crocodiles bumping against the small boat.  From Alexandria he returned with the Venetian spice fleet – a slow, difficult voyage that reached Venice just after Christmas.  They arrived at dawn with the gold roof of the campanile of St Mark’s glittering in the rising sun and the cold so great that the oarsmen had to break the ice.

For Fabri these were the experiences of a lifetime and they stayed with him until the day he died.  On his death bed he asked to be dressed in his old pilgrim habit to remember his great adventures:  ‘I reckon,’ he said, ‘I have seen the world in a twofold mirror.’

Roger Crowley is the author of ‘Constantinople:  the Last Great Siege’, on the fall of Constantinople in 1453.

Two books by the historian HFM Prescott (from 1947 and 1954 respectively) are the best introductions in English to Felix Fabri.

The image is of a pilgrims’ galley at Rhodes on the voyage to Jaffa

The Museum as a Journey

Rachel Morris

All museums are about journeys.  Like Death, that other omni-present quality, the theme of Journeys is everywhere in museums, although you wouldn’t always know it.

The first museum I ever went into (and one of the most journey-ish) was our local museum in Saffron Walden, Essex.  In the local village where we lived there was absolutely nothing to do (and I mean nothing – no laptops, no internet, no television, very few books, not even a car) and so I spent a lot of time mooching around Saffron Walden, waiting to grow up.

I went back the museum recently and discovered that, despite having been spruced up, it is still essentially what it always was, a hymn to the beauty of lists – not any old list but a glorious list, a list that you can chant out loud and whose sounds you can fall in love with, a list that has been raised up to heights of dreamy power and poetry.

I saw flint knives; the tooth of a woolly mammoth; stone axes; an iron-age dagger; a Roman dinner service made from Samian ware; a Roman enamelled brooch; a blue-glass urn; a Roman child’s lead coffin;  a piece of a flayed Viking’s skin (or so they say), preserved under the handle of the church door in the nearby village of Hadstock; an Egyptian mummy; a part of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; an Egyptian statue of a man and a wife sitting side by side and with their legs drawn up to their noses so that they look as square as a brick; a fireplace with carved stone bees and cropping horses; earthenware tiles showing eighteenth-century women walking amongst classical ruins; and upstairs, Zulu beadwork love letters; a quiver of arrows from the Gambia; brass scales for weighing gold dust; a sword with a leather scabbard; painted gourds; moccasins from the Iroquois; a toy sledge as long as your finger; a funeral costume decorated with sticks of mother-of-pearl that click together as you walk; a spoon made from rhinoceros horn; snow shoes like tennis rackets; and so on and so forth – raising the interesting question of how and why did a small country town museum like Saffron Walden’s accumulate such a wide-ranging collection.

The answer i discovered (from Claire Loughney’s article – you’ll find it on the web)  lies in the energy and curiosity of a group of local businessmen in the 1830’s who began the Saffron Walden Natural History Society.  Its founder members included Jabez Gibson, a local Quaker banker, maltster and amateur taxidermist, and Hannibal Dunn, an upholsterer and cabinetmaker.  They met for dinner on winter evenings and soon formed a plan to approach eminent academics, scientists, colonial administrators, bishops, navy physicians and members of the East India Company to ask for specimens, as well as local people who had relatives who lived and worked abroad across the Empire.

Soon the specimens came pouring in.  Hannibal Dunn’s brother Robert was living in Algoa Bay in South Africa and after hunting expeditions into the interior sent back to Saffron Walden, the preserved bodies of an elephant, a rhinoceros, a giraffe and a hippopotamus.  Another donator was George Wombwell, founder of Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, who was born and brought up near Saffron Walden and who donated, amongst other animals, a stuffed lion.

On the day that I went back to Saffron Walden the narrow, seventeenth-century streets around the museum were nearly empty.  As the darkness settled in I began to see why Jabez Gibson and Hannibal Dunn might have formed the ambition to reach out and connect this town to the world. Saffron Walden doesn’t lie on a main road to anywhere.  It has always had an isolated feeling.  Creating a museum there in the 1830’s  would have been like standing on a lonely seashore, devising ways of sending messages in bottles to other worlds.  This Museum is what resulted when the messages came back.

Museums, I decided, don’t make enough of the journeys that made them.

For details of Jabez Gibson and Hannibal Dunn, see Claire Loughney’s study, ‘Collecting the Colonies:  Victorian  Museums and the Re-creation of other landscapes.

The image is of a Victorian lion tamer – Geoge Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie would have looked like this.