Starting on the 11th of September the British Museum will be hosting a series of public debates on the Museum’s future and purpose. They should make for interesting listening.  Marco Polo’s recent posting of a proposal for the Round Reading Room received a huge response – clearly many want to have their say.

Here Marco Polo offers some pointers for the debate.

Some museums are deeply affecting the moment you cross the threshold.  Museums as diverse as the Oxford University Museum, the Cinema Museum in Turin, and the Natural History Museum in Paris are all visually stunning and hit the spot.  I’ve revisited each of these museums numerous times to understand why this is the case. I’ve thought about this obsessively for years, and I’ve concluded that they work for two reasons.

Firstly, they are total works of art, in their own right – gesamtkunstwerks – where content, container and atmosphere all align.

Secondly, they all answer the subconscious question – Why am I here? Not just today, but what it means to be alive, to be human.

So the Cinema Museum in Turin is a palace of dreams that captures the marvel of images that move in light, as well as being Italian. And yet it is also a museum of the world’s cinema.  The Oxford University Museum melds natural history and architecture, and is both didactic – truth to materials is revealed, each column is another stone from the British Isles – but is also a celebration of nature in architecture, of bones and foliage.  (And when it’s bowled you over, you step through another small portal and enter the Pitt Rivers Museum – a ‘double whammy’).  In its opening space the Natural History Museum in Paris recreates what God saw on the seventh day when he rested.  It is archetypal – Noah’s Ark – but also a story of nature endangered by the tide of human intervention.

The point about these exemplar museums is that it is content and meaning that drives them, whereas in many museum developments in recent decades it has been architecture that dominates.  The result is spaces half empty rather than half full.

The British Museum’s Great Court (which envelopes the Round Reading Room) has a classic container/content challenge.  It isn’t enough for the architecture to be a stand-alone work of art.  The diamond grid of the Great Court roof is an elegant, high-tech solution but the space beneath is driven by catering, by corporate entertainment and by processing large numbers of culture-consuming tourists.  There is a distinct phenomenon in contemporary museums of container and content being out of balance, with too much architecture and not enough content.


Current view of the British Museum’s Great Court

Marco Polo has already suggested one content-based way of bringing life and meaning to the heart of the Museum in its suggested transformation of the Round Reading Room.  A similar approach could transform the Great Court.  It too could become a content-rich and deeply moving ‘Why am I here?’ space.  Look at the image at the top of this page, and see how this space could be transformed, when filled with statues, stelae, reliefs, totems – all the ways from around the world that human beings have worked with stone.  Imagine also how it relates to our proposed redisplay of the Round Reading Room – the Great Court being about Image and the Round Reading Room about Word, and both working together.

It is artefacts and stories that put meaning into a space but with the container/content relationship out of balance and the architecture dominating, the risk is that artefacts will begin to feel like clutter.  Yet in the 19th century our intervention would have been perfectly normal because the Great Court space would have been a content space.  Think of those magnificent images of the Great Exhibition in the Crystal Palace.  It was not just a great container but also held wonderful and stunning displays – theatre that transformed it. But then Paxton, remember, started out as a gardener at Chatsworth.

So what if the British Museum commissioned a new Masterplan that addresses the Great Court as a ‘Who am I?’ space?

All my experience planning museums tells me that there could be some surprises here – and the bonus would be that the Great Court and the Round Reading Room would celebrate ‘Who are we?’ for a fraction of the capital spend on buildings.  (And I don’t believe there is any problem making corporate hospitality work with artefacts.) That would put the British Museum up there with the Oxford University Museum and the Pitt Rivers – truly the World’s Museum.

By Stephen Greenberg

Strange Power of Imaginary Museums

Museum of Marco Polo

I am just back from Greenwich and the Steampunk exhibition at the Royal Observatory.  The exhibition is another in a long line of fictional takes on museums – the history of which goes back for hundreds of years – and, like all fictional museums, it casts a sideways but interesting light on the nature of ‘real’ museums.

So Steampunk (for those of you who have been living on Mars) is an anachronistic mash up of science fiction and 19th century history. Steampunk followers love clockwork airships, mechanical computers and other fantasy and what-if takes on the Industrial Revolution.  At the Royal Observatory they have taken over Flamsteed House, where the first Astronomer Royals lived, and threaded through it their own version of the Longitude Story (complete with airships and kiwi birds).

Steampunk is not to everyone’s taste.  I ask the Marco Polo illustrator – who has her own exuberant way of storytelling – what she thinks of Steampunk, and she tells me, ‘Naff’.  I on the other hand rather like it. it’s true that the design values can be tatty but you can’t fault it for sparkle and high-spiritedness, and anyway whether we like it or not I think it is here to stay.

Imaginary Museums have their own long, strange history, which goes back at least to the 17th century philosopher Thomas Browne, who imagined and described a museum called the Musaeum Clausum, that contained, amongst other things, a ‘large Ostrich’s Egg, whereon is neatly and full wrought the famous battle of Alcazar, in which three Kings lost their lives’ and ‘A Glass of Spirits made of Ethereal Salt, Hermetically sealed up, kept continuously in Quick Silver and so volatile a nature that it will scarecely endure the Light.’

Since then there has been the Museum of Jurassic Technology (displayed through a house – very beautiful), the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul (devised by a novelist and also displayed through a house), the Museum of Broken Relationships (which travels through Europe), the Museum of Drawers (an art installation by the artist Herbert Distel) – and many more.  So many in fact that I am thinking of starting the World Association of Imaginary Museums.  Obviously the Museum of Marco Polo takes a big interest in these developments.

Dozens of questions spring to mind.

Can a museum meaningfully be a book – like Thomas Browne’s?  Well, maybe.

What makes writers and artists love museums?  Interestingly, it is usually traditional museums – objects in showcases –  that stir their imaginations. Which makes me think that maybe they feel a contrast between the straightness of the showcase lines and the power of the objects inside them – and find it compelling?

And are fictional museums on the increase?  I would guess yes – because it’s all part of the melting of walls, the blurring of boundaries and the dismantling of categories that is happening in every direction – and which is probably the effect of the internet.

It’s a disconcerting thought that if you can thread fiction through the story of Longitude – as they have done at the Royal Observatory – you can certainly recreate entire museums in the parallel, virtual world and give them any story you want. The internet plays with eveyrthing it can lay its hands on.

And so it wouldn’t be surprising if museums, which are at heart boxes of categories, felt the effects of this melting and merging of boundaries.

But the interesting question is, ‘What can real museums learn from imaginary ones?’ and to this the upbeat answer should return, ‘Lots’ – firstly because they compel us to ask what we mean by a museum?  and secondly because all these imaginary museums are a sign of the imaginative power that museums exert over artists and writers – and so by extension over all of us.  (Even the Harry Potter experience at Watford borrows the language of museums – which I think we should take as a back-handed compliment.)

An imaginative take on museums doesn’t necessarily mean a fictional one. It’s more about letting artefacts and their stories stir our sensibilities so that we float away on our imaginations.

In a world that feels thin and lacking in content, museums are dense, rich boxes of meaning.

We should be so lucky.

Incidentally I am speaking at the Museums Association conference in Cardiff (Friday, October 10th) with Iain Watson, Director of Tyne and Weir Archives and Museums, and Martyn Evans, Principal of Trevalyan College.  Our combined talk is called ‘The Collection in the Cloud’ and our theme is ‘What is the Museum’s space?’  We are likely to touch upon such entrancing and mind-bending questions as ‘What is a Museum?’ ‘What kind of reality would a digital museum have?’ and ‘Is a digital museum any less real than a real one?’  We hope you will come.

Rachel Morris

Writing for the Web

Museum of Marco Polo

So here at the Museum of Marco Polo are the 10 things we’ve learnt about Writing for the Web.

  • Keep it clear and strong.  Long, convoluted sentences die on the screen.  The paper page with its clear, strong lines, was uniquely devised to help you concentrate – as was the world in which it flourished.  (And note that that sentence is quite long enough already.) The fluid, changeable web is utterly different. When the digital page itself is being deconstructed and the brain is following links in all directions, you have to compensate by writing with a clear, strong clarity.
  • That said, you can afford to be a little bit fancy. Sometimes the web can feel unforgivingly workmanlike. A few verbal cartwheels are always nice.  The reader likes to know you’ve taken the trouble.
  • Remember shape matters.  As the bottom of the digital page melts away it’s easy to let your articles trail away as well.  But the brain retains an idea when it’s formed into a shape.  You wouldn’t tell a joke without a punchline.  Articles are like jokes;  they need an ending.
  • And beginnings matter too.  The old journalistic maxim is still a good one.  Put the whole story upfront in the first paragraph – and then embellish it.  You don’t know if the reader will get past that first paragraph.
  • Make it personal.  The web is a very human world, full of voices and opinions.  Maybe it’s because it’s still a foreign land for us and we like a human guide to take us through it but always put yourself into your pieces.
  • Keep it honest.  For some reason insincerity leaps out at you from the digital page. If you don’t mean it, don’t say it.
  • But – you are allowed to be provisional.  The web is playful, changeable, provisional and provocative, so you are allowed to state one thing one week and then publicly go back and think again.  In fact you are positively encouraged to. The paper page is complete.  The digital page is a work in progress.
  • The web is a visual medium.  Words and images have to work together.  Your articles need images. (And yes, we break this rule ourselves every day of the week, this article being no exception.  We’re working on it.)
  • Be generous with your time and ideas.  The web is premised on the magical notion that if you scatter your ideas they will come back to reward you in ways you cannot imagine. So far our experience suggests this is true.  We’ll let you know.
  • Enjoy yourself.  In the brutal medium of the web your boredom will be evident. Back to point 7 above.  The web is a playful medium.  Have fun.

(And lists aren’t bad as well – although the web has overdone them.)

And if you want to write for the Museum of Marco Polo send us in your ideas.  We will look at everything.  Article lengths – about 800 words. Articles to

On The Mighty Dead

Rachel Morris

True confessions:  I was once a teenage geek with a passion for ancient Greece.  Where this obsession came from I don’t know, but I do remember – in the remote Essex village where we lived – picking my way through the poems of Homer, charmed by the smooth, flowing script and the radiant phrases:  the rosy-fingered dawn and the wine-dark sea.

In time I grew up and, bemused by my own geekiness, decided it was all deeply uncool and turned my attention somewhere else.  But now along comes ‘The Mighty Dead’, Adam Nicolson’s love song to Homer, to remind me all over again of my teenage geekiness and my love affair with the mighty dead.

This is a beautiful book that will take you on a unexpected journey if you let it.

Nicolson believes that buried in the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ are traces of past eras that are laid down like archaeological layers.  Bit by bit he unpicks these layers and takes you further and further back in time.

So first we go to Venice and the Biblioteca Marciana where, in 1788, a beautiful  manuscript was rediscovered – 654 goatskin vellum pages on which is written the earliest complete version of the ‘Iliad’ to come down to us.  It was compiled by a scribe in 10th century Constantinople and came west in the 15th century, just ahead of the fall of that city.

And from Venice we go to the deserts of Egypt where, in 1888, Flinders Petrie found the tomb of a young woman who had died sometime in the second century AD and who was laid out in her tomb with her head on a pillow made from papyrus.  On this papyrus was written the Gathering of the Ships (aka Book 2 of the ‘Iliad’).

And from here we go back to Alexandria in the third century BC when the scholar-editors of that city took the great shoals of shimmering, shifting, unstable, different Homers (because every Greek city had a different version of the poems), and cut and shaped them.  (With many indignant messages in the margins, noting Homer’s inconsistencies.)

And from here we go back again to the island of Chios – parched, rocky and brilliant in its simplicity – where legend persistently claims that Homer was born in the 8th century BC, and to where perhaps the alphabet first came from the Near East.  This was the script in which the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ were first written down and is the same script in which I read them thousands of years later in the Essex village.

After that the story spirals back once more, from the written to the spoken Homer, to the world before 1200 BC, to the time of the bronze-age heroes, who in the poems carry daggers very like the ones they found in Mycenae, helmets made from boar tusks and shields as tall as towers.

But even this is not the end of the layers, because Nicolson believes that the story goes still further back, and that you can see traces in the ‘Iliad’ of the history of the very first Greeks, who were people from the northern steppes – mobile, nomadic warriors with nothing but the weapons, the gold and the pride that they stood up in – who came south to the Mediterranean in about 2,000 BC.  In the ‘Iliad’ the Greeks who camped outside the walls of Troy are a memory of those first nomads, just as the Trojans are a memory of the palatial civilisations of the Mediterranean, with their palaces, their baths and woven textiles. (And it is true that the Trojans are so appealingly domestic in the ‘Iliad’, whilst the Greeks are glamorous thugs.)

So in this reading the ‘Iliad’ is not so much a clash between east and west, as between north and south – ‘what happens to the northern adventurers in a southern world.’

Nicolson’s story peters out somewhere in the northern steppes, in horizons so distant that our imagination stops imagining.  It’s a beautifully written book and though it seems hard to believe that the memory of more than a thousand years could be traced through two spoken poems, Nicolson puts up a good argument.

So now I think that my early, over-sophisticated, twenty-something self was wrong and that my teenage, geeky self was right.  Homer really is amazing.

Adam Nicolson,  ‘The Mighty Dead’, published by William Collins in 2014

The Return of the Scroll

Museum of Marco Polo

You remember the town criers in Rome and the scrolls that they read from?

I am playing around on the iPad and wondering if we are seeing the return of the ancient scroll?

The scroll preceded the book and for a thousand years or so was the only way to get your story written down.  You wrote in the shape of pages but then stuck these pages together and unrolled them sideways so that one page followed on from the next.

But then the codex was invented – an early form of the book – and it trounced the scroll for sheer practicality (easier to carry, easier to store, easier to read and to remember your place) and so consigned the scroll to history.  Until, that is, the coming of smart phones and tablets, with their lovely, horizontal, swiping movement, all of which may be encouraging the return of the ancient scroll?

But coming back with a difference.  Because paper scrolls are relatively clunky – hence the codex trounced them – whereas the digital swipe is smooth to the point of inevitability.  Stories told on tablets have an obvious affordance for going downwards or sideways – how could they resist it? – affordance being (with apologies to you who’ve known this for ever) the latent but intrinsic possibilities in a technology.

So what does this mean?  Well maybe that pages will be consigned to history.

Pages are interesting.  Pages give you borders and edges.  They also give you measurement. (‘How much shall I write?’ you ask.  ‘Just one side of A4,’ they answer.) And so you write, in paragraphs and chapters, but always mindful of the edges of the paper that are invisibly structuring your story.  Likewise when you read, your brain slows to the turning of the paper pages and compels you to take the story in in page-sized chunks.

But now perhaps the notional edges of the electronic page will start to melt away, unable to keep up with the smooth, swiping, finger gestures – as well as that ability to pinch the glass to shrink the image or spread the fingers to grow it. Already the bottom of the page has become a meaningless concept. And now, with so much horizontal fluidity,  I think the reader will be less inclined to go all the way to the bottom of the screen before starting again at the top and instead will let their eyes leap forward to take in entire landscapes.  Meanwhile the image on the screen will seem so beautiful, so luminous and so like a stained-glass window that the old novel-form (all words, no pictures) may die out, to be overtaken by stories told in words and pictures, even for grown-ups; stories that don’t unfold in a column of thought but spread sideways like a map.

So could you tell a story, or unfold an idea, by depicting it like a landscape, not one thing after another but everything at once? I don’t know but you could try.  The Chinese developed a way of telling a story across a landscape, by unfolding the scroll sideways and letting you, the reader, mentally travel across that landscape – so creating a story that is less like blocks of words and more like an illustrated map.

It’s too soon to know of course if any of this will happen – digital books are still being presented to us in the form of pages – but that’s only because of the timelag between an invention and its consequences – because the technology has not yet had a chance to impose its shape on the story.

And can I prove any of this?  That ancient Greek storytelling was different because they had the scroll and not the book, and that our storytelling will change as we move from the book to the tablet and the sideways swipe?  Of course I can’t, but I can say that it feels likely.

By Rachel Morris