How to Time Travel

Rachel Morris

We are at Sutton Hoo, the Museum’s Researcher and me, on a day to die for – a white sun, a pearl-grey sky as huge as the ocean, the wind in the fir trees, the sound of a tractor, and a jumpy radiance in the empty air over the heathlands. We are only an hour out of London, near the estuary of the River Deben, but for sheer emptiness it could be the north of Scotland.

I am here out of curiosity.  There’s been so much recent talk about Identity (Who are you?  Do you feel English?) that I am suddenly curious to see this burial mound to a long-lost warrior king who was buried here with his treasure in about AD 620.  He’s often described as an English king who lived at that time when the English state was being established, but in practice I feel no identification at all with him.  How could I?  He died at the very end of the Age of Warriors, a time that is hugely remote, and had far more in common with Homer than he does with me.

But what I do feel is a fleeting, funny time-travel moment, one of those vivid, startling moments when time seems to crease and the lost past to grow very near, until for a moment it is standing bang in front of you.

The feeling of time travel – that vivid sense of the past – is an interesting subject.  There is plenty of evidence, both anecdotal and from research, to suggest that it is one of the things that visitors to museums and historic houses love the most, though they don’t always get it.  Or not in the way that they think they will.

And my time-travel moment is a case in point, because it’s not, as you might think, back to the Anglo-Saxon period but to 1939 – Sutton Hoo being a double story and unfolding both in AD 620 when the king was buried, and to the time he was discovered in the summer of 1939 as war was breathing down our necks.

This is the cast of characters whose story it is –

Mrs Edith Pretty, the land owner in whose garden the tomb mounds stood.  She was recently widowed and lonely, and was said to hold seances in Sutton Hoo House when she talked to her dead husband.

The Friend, who one night saw an Anglo-Saxon warrior on horseback out beside the tombs and planted in Edith Pretty’s mind the idea that she should excavate them.  And the old Gardener who swore blind to Edith that there was treasure underneath them.

There was also Basil Brown who dug the mounds at Edith Pretty’s invitation, in his flat cap and shirt sleeves and with his heavy Suffolk accent.  He was a former tenant farmer but also a gifted, self-taught archaeologist.  He kept a diary.

And there was also the bumptious Charles Philips, a scholar from Cambridge, and the men from Ipswich Museum, all nearing retirement, and the young, fancy archaeologists up from the British Museum in London, who were determined to wrest control of the dig away from the locals. The squabbling between them all was bitter, driven by age and class, and perhaps also induced by the presence of treasure (in a Treasure of the Sierra Madre kind of way).

And overarching all of them was the Anglo-Saxon king, rising up from the dead on his horseback.

But the vivid feeling of pastness comes to me in Edith Pretty’s house, which overlooks the tomb mounds.  Sutton Hoo is a National Trust property, and like all the Trust properties is trying out its hand at some three-dimensional storytelling, in this case using music from the 1930’s, facsimile letters and diaries, smells, a table set for tea, and all the rest. If you have an historic house you are already half way towards an imaginary world. All you need are those extra touches that heighten the story.

The Museum’s Researcher sits down at the children’s table to try out the activities – her knees are up around her ears because she’s way too big for this – whilst I stand and watch how the bleak, white sea light comes bouncing in through the tall Edwardian windows. And there I have it, a vivid, fleeting sense of Edith Pretty and how lonely it must have been here in the 1930’s, living through the East Anglian winters, with only a dead, Anglo-Saxon king for company.

So what does create a sense of Time Travel?  Here are my suggestions.  Start with the Story to draw your visitors in.  Give them the things that act as witnesses and that can stitch the connection closer.  And then let the visitors stand on the spot where it happened, so that they can feel the past through the soles of their feet and can touch it with their fingers.  Add in atmospheric lighting, the sounds of the past, and not too many people to distract you, and there you have it – six steps to Time Travel.

The nearest station to Sutton Hoo is Woodbridge in Suffolk.  Sutton Hoo is where you’ll find the tomb mounds, the house and the landscape.  The treasure is in the British Museum.

Museums and the Sea of Stories

Museum of Marco Polo

So now for some fortune-telling.

My copy of Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ sits snugly in my hands, but the words inside it have made a long, long journey to reach me.  Some time in 1298 in a gaol in Genoa, Marco Polo spoke these words to a storyteller called Rustichello who wrote them down – probably embellishing them as he did so.  This was about 175 years before the invention of the printing press.  It was a time when most literature survived by being spoken, Europe being largely an oral culture, although a small amount was written down in manuscripts.  Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ were a hit.  Rustichello’s manuscript was copied and these copies then copied and recopied. The spoken versions added to the flood. By the time the printing press arrived Marco Polo’s ‘Travels’ had spread like a overflowing river into a thousand tributaries.  Some of these tributaries were chosen to be printed and thus immortalised.

I have been reading John Foley’s book on ‘The Oral Tradition and the Internet’ where he argues that, with the coming of the Internet, we are returning to something similar to the old, oral culture.  This will have odd and far reaching effects on institutions like museums.

Every fortune teller gets it wrong.  But this is what Foley predicted in 2012 – and already it feels true –

that there are many things in common between the old, pre-book, oral culture world which we left behind in the 15th century, and the Internet world into which we are going.  Both are about pathways – not a single, linear narrative that you follow through a book but a web of pathways.  Like internet-surfers the oral singer sings a path through many possibilities – he sings his journey into existence.  Today he sings one song, tomorrow he’ll sing another version, and the third day he’ll sing a different one again.  Both the singer and the surfer create pathways through an infinite universe – whether that be the universe of the Internet or the universe of song.  The story, which is fixed in the book world, is much harder to fix and control on the Internet, and because of this in both worlds (the oral world and the Internet) the named author, the single, copyrighted creator/owner of the words, must die as well – because without a fixed text there is nothing he can put his name to.

You can argue with the detail and the emphasis of Foley’s book (I did, a lot – and don’t get me going on the way the book is structured) but the broad gist of it feels right.

But why does any of this matter for museums?  For the following reasons –

Museums were born into the same 18th century, Enlightenment world that gave birth to publishing houses.  Both of them celebrated fixed, solid, unchanging things – books and artefacts.  As the Internet dissolves the solidity of books (rumour has it that they will soon be streamed across the web, as Spottify streams music) how can museums possibly remain untouched?

If Foley is right, then the museum artefact itself, that solid, 3-dimensional thing, will indeed be fine (so long as we can afford to keep it safe).  It’s what we say about it – its meaning, image and stories – that will be swept up into the restless, shifting, virtual world – where it will all be dissolved and disputed, until there is not one authorised interpretation of the object, but thousands.  (Picture the objects standing like lighthouses on rocks whilst all around them swirl a restless, shifting, rising sea of stories.)

In fact I suspect that some museums will be relieved if the entire, messy business of interpretation would decamp into the virtual.  Few things cause as much trouble in museum-making as the content.  Interpretation is always messy, often controversial – and there’s just so much of it.  So if you see the digital world as a shadow-land, not as real and therefore not as important as the thing-world over which museums preside, well, really, what does it matter if interpretation goes that way?

But the digital world is not separate and disconnected from the ‘real’ world.  In fact it weaves its way back through the ‘real’ world in a thousand seamless and startling ways.  Nor is it trivial or irrelevant if the meaning of an object changes in the virtual world where so many people now reside. When the meaning of an object changes so does the way we see it.

If Foley is right interpretation will slide away from the control of any one group anyway. But that doesn’t mean that museums should not figure out what relationship they aspire to, philosophically, with the digital world.

The image is by Isabel Greenberg and shows Marco Polo, founder of the Museum of Marco Polo (believe it or not as you wish) telling stories in bed to his wife Donata (and no doubt telling her, believe them or not as you wish).

John Foley’s book is called ‘The Oral Tradition and the Internet’.  University of Illinois Press, 2012


Where do you keep your past?  Where do any of us keep our pasts?

Mine live in boxes under the bed, hippies, poets and missionaries on one side, immigrants on the other – their lives captured in photographs, letters, bookmarks, rosaries, teacups and knitting needles, embroidered handkerchiefs, 1930’s cigarette holders, and all the rest.

When I open up the boxes I see men and women I do not know sitting around a supper table.  A child long since grown up and dead.  A pretty young woman in a cloche hat pulled low across her eyes.  A letter from a ship going to the far side of the world.  A man dressed in a 1930’s suit – baggy and stylish – a brimmed hat and a cigarette to his lips.  Letters between lovers.  Newspaper cuttings of a scandal.  The deeds to a burial plot.  A heady mix of love and death.  No wonder I don’t look there very often. Sometimes I shut my eyes and picture all the boxes quarrelling together.

Sift through these boxes and you understand how a museum begins, because all museums, even the great ones like the British Museum, were once boxes under the bed.  (In the case of the British Museum, it was Hans Sloane’s wooden boxes with which he transported his specimens from the New World.)  It’s just that not all boxes turn into museums.

And you also understand how rapidly objects lose their stories.  Some photographs I recognise – a child in an Edwardian dress, her curly hair in ribbons – ‘Ah,’ I think, ‘I know who she is’ – because her tragedy still reverberates through the family.  But other faces I do not know.  i don’t know why that postcard has survived (who went there?) or who wore that scarf that has clearly been cut up from an evening gown – was this when the hard times came?  None of this is deep history, and yet already it is sliding away into oblivion.  It is still controversial to say that museums are as much about stories as they are about things.  But the truth is that an object and its story are like two sides of a coin.  When the story dies, most objects – unless they are visually stunning – turn back into bric a brac and dust.

In the Neolithic period whole communities were buried together in long barrows, raised up against the horizon. In Roman times you would have lived with the death masks of your ancestors.  Remembering is what we do. It makes us human.

I am not sure where we all now keep our pasts.  And I am curious to know where the poor kept theirs in the 19th century – those who lived before photography or who couldn’t afford to have their photographs taken. Maybe they had boxes in which to carry the things that held their memories?  And almost certainly they remembered in words, spoken and re-spoken, probably by the women – because families are oral cultures and in oral cultures it is traditionally women who do the remembering.  They remember through recipes, gossip and stories.  They sew their memories or knit them, or plant them in the garden and on the allotment.  They keep baby clothes or save up for a gravestone, the latter like the pages of a book, ready for the story.

There are no recipes passed down through my family, but there are stories by the dozen, all of them in boxes under the bed.

Rachel Morris