London is awash with candlelit museum tours and shows on Terror and Wonder (as sure a sign of autumn as christmas decorations in Selfridges).  And pretty much simultaneously Roger Luckhurst’s book on 19th century Egyptomania has fallen into my hands, from which I discover that films like ‘The Mummy’ are not only the products of 1990’s Hollywood but also heirs to a long Victorian and Edwardian obsession with Pharaohs and curses and the Return of the Dead.

So if at this moment you are picturing gas lamps and alleyways and full moons shining on three-masted sailing ships weighing anchor for the Colonies, and Victorian gentlemen in long, dark overcoats gathering in country houses to dabble in seances and spiritualism and the hunting of ghosts, then you are roughly in the right place.

But the story is more complicated and more interesting than this.  It seems that between the beginning and end of the 19th century we changed our view of Egypt from a place of sublimity to a place of curses.  Luckhurst also suggests that Victorian and Edwardian London was not an homogenous space but was riddled with pockets of odd exotic-ness.

And so around the British Museum, that monument to Enlightenment thinking, were small, private collections of Egyptian artefacts.  There was the Soane Museum that hosted soires by candlelight around Seti’s alabaster tomb.  There was the Royal College of Surgeons, which contained several mummies as well as many medical monstrosities.  There was the Wellcome Collection with its magical Egyptian papyri, and Lady Meux’s private collection of Egyptian antiquities (she had a cursed mummy), and John Lee’s collection in Hartwell House, and the Cuming collection in Southwark, and Frederick Horniman’s collection down near Crystal Palace, where as late as 1897 you could still watch a public mummy unwrapping.

All these collections had mummies in them.  Each felt like a throwback to the old Cabinets of Curiosities, those symbols of private wealth and power but also of magical thinking.

Nor was the British Museum a place of pure Enlightenment and nothing else.  Wallis Budge, the British Museum curator for Egyptology, a quarrelsome, difficult man, denied the wild rumours concerning mummy curses, but was himself a member of the Ghost Club, a late Victorian Club for researching spiritualism, attending seances and telling ghost stories. (The first rule of the Ghost Club was that you never talked about the Ghost Club.)  One of the Horniman curators was a self-proclaimed magician.

It seems that side by side with the coming of the British Museum and its Enlightenment attitudes there grew up a wistful, counter-Enlightenment that longed to retain wonder and weirdness and out of which there grew a maelstrom of myths and rumours that even the British Museum could not control.

So now I am standing in the British Museum, looking at the mummies (and studiously avoiding discovering which of them is said to be cursed – just in case – because I am thinking, ‘I have way too much work in the office to have time to get cursed right now’) whilst the following questions come into my mind –

Why do we believe that the meaning of an object is always the same as the intention of the person who first made it?  What about its long after-history that may have continued for thousands of years?  The ghostly stories that attach to Egyptian mummies tell us absolutely nothing about Pharaonic Egypt but do tell us oodles about 19th century London.  And why do we always make a cut across time and use objects to explain that moment?  Why don’t we go the other way, following the thread of the long, strange history of an object through time?

In all this, the fact that mummy curses have no scientific truth is neither here nor there;  time turns all things into posh history in the end, even mummy curses.

And here’s another question. There is something about the Victorian period that powerfully attracts writers and film-makers, each of whom adds a layer of myth-making to the period.  Having read Luckhurst’s book I am forever going to look at mummies through a cloud of Pharaonic Egypt blended with dark 19th century London. But why do we want to myth-make about the Victorians in particular?  And will we ever be able to write with mint-fresh truthfulness about a period so laden with urban myths and dreams?

Roger Luckhurst’s book is ‘The Mummy’s Curse:  the True History of a Dark Fantasy’.


I have just been to the British Library to see ‘Terror and Wonder: the Gothic Imagination’, which is full of old books, oil paintings of ruins and Hammer Horror films projected onto walls.  The curators have considered everything, from 18th century upper-class Gothic obsessions to the Whitby Goth Festival in 2014.

My favourite things are the titbits from London’s long-running Gothic obsession.  There is Horace Walpole’s flamboyant, mock-Gothic mansion, in which he ran tours so popular that he introduced a ticketing system.  There is the mysterious death of the young poet Thomas Chatterton who, not content with the Gothic obsession of his poetry, seems to have embraced Gothic entirely in his death by arsenic.

But my favourite story by far is the ghost of Cock Lane, whose mystery engulfed London, and sent upper-class ladies running to the streets of Smithfield, to hear the tap tap tapping of the ghost.  The drama gripped London until a stiff upperlip commission, including the supremely unimaginative Samuel Johnson, declared it a fraud.

Every class of London embraced Gothic – whether it was the novel or the Penny Dreadful, or characters from Varney the Vampire to Dracula, and from Spring-heeled Jack to Dorian Grey.

So, in honour of its obsession with everything dark, mysterious and hair-raising, I’ve collected some of London’s Gothic wonder nuggets.

The Hunterian Museum

New displays may give it a gloss but they can’t disguise the Gothic undertones.  John and William Hunter were brothers, pursuing the marvels of medicine.  John is considered the founder of ‘Scientific surgery’;  hence the collection has found its way into the Royal College of Surgeons. But it’s all rather unnervingly Frankenstein.  The pursuit of the advancement of science is laid out before you, creepily bottled in jars.  The displays are not for the faint- hearted, and if you’re squeamish you might want to give it a miss.Hunterian 1 copy

My chosen object (although it upsets me) is ‘The Irish Giant’, Charles O’Brien. At 7’7″ he spent his life as a novelty, part of freak shows and performances, and drank himself to death aged just 22.  John Hunter, ruthless collector that he was, bought his body for £130 from treacherous fishermen who were meant to be burying him at sea. And so he sits in the museum forever.   It is all inconsolably sad.  If you’re interested, Hilary Mantel has written a wonderful novel about him, called ‘The Giant O’Brien’.

The Old Operating Theatre

If the Hunterian is the collection, then the Old Operating Theatre is the location, the real deal. It was part of the old St Thomas’ Hospital, and is now a museum in the roof of a church, accessible only by an extremely narrow wooden spiral staircase.

The garret is a beamed attic, full of herbs, specimens, poison and pills.  A lot can be touched, smelt and handled.  Underlying it all is a slight queasiness.  The childbirth case is so full of sinister, twisted instruments that I find myself moving away.

The Operating Room itself circles down to the central table, where patients went under the knife;  from above students, academics, the incurably curious sat and watched. It was a teaching room and there is a quote from one such student – that there was ‘a continual calling of “Heads, heads” to those around the table whose heads interfered with the sightseers’ – that makes it all feel exceptionally ghoulish.

My chosen object, although it is not here, is a surgeon’s used frock coat. i am told that they were ‘stiff and stinking with pus and blood’.

The place is redolent of surgeons and body snatchers, although much of this in in the imagination, a testament to its atmosphere.  It was actually a charitable institution, offering operations to the poor from reputable doctors, a sort of pre-cursor to the NHS.  Still, I think to myself, I wouldn’t fancy my chances on that table . . .

They hold talks here some evenings.  The next one, on the 13th November, is called ‘Things for the Surgeon – the Body Snatchers of Georgian London’.

The Enlightenment Gallery, the British Museum

The British Museum might not seen an obvious Gothic setting.  The Great Court is flooded with light, a vast, open, modern space, and the antithesis of Victorian Gothic. But find your way to the Enlightenment Gallery, and it is a different story.  It is laid out as the museum might once have been, when it had only just transitioned form Sloane’s Cabinet of Curiosities.  The walls are lined with books, the cabinets filled with wonders divided thematically:  ‘trade and discovery’, ‘natural history’.

The Museum may be an Enlightenment institution but some objects have roots into deeper pasts.  My chosen object is from the ‘religion and ritual’ case.  Amongst charms and talismans, trappings of mystical rites long forgotten, are Dr Dee’s magical possessions.  His mirror is made from obsidian, deep black and alluringly smooth, and once used in seances to communicate with the dead.

Church of St Dunstan-in-the-East

There has been a church here since the Romans. Destroyed once in the Great Fire of London, it was finally ruined in the Blitz, consumed once more by fire, and so became a public garden.St Dunstan 1 cropped copy

The entrance is striking – a crumbling edifice for any Gothic novel, overgrown with plants and mosses.  Spooky, ghostly facades, once complete, now empty and lost, surround the gardens.  Though neat and kempt, there is a wildness and a silence that descends.  My chosen object is a window that hangs glassless.  i am disconcerted to find, as I look through it, that the modern City exists beyond this still place.  Be sure to go at dusk for maximum effect, and to avoid the strange juxtaposition of suits in their lunch-time breaks.

Parkland Walk, South

Parkland Walk is a streak of green through North London that should be a peaceful walk, shaded from the traffic.

Yet, at the Highgate end, are two abandoned railway tunnels.  For me, abandoned tube stations and tunnels are the height of urban Gothic.  The tunnels now house a bat colony, which somehow only makes them more perfect for a murder.  But my chosen object is at the other end of the walk.  Near Crouch Hill station is a series of brick archways, covered in graffiti.  Emerging from one, crouched and ready to pounce, is a small statue of a spriggan, overgrown with ivy trails and inspired by local stories of sprites who haunted this place. Stephen King came here and was moved to write a short story on the subject.  I can understand where he’s coming from;  the place feels haunted.

I discovered in my hunt that my favourite place have an immersive quality that wraps you up and encloses you. Your imagination deepens the darkness and your fear does the rest of the work.

The list is not exhaustive.  Apologies if your favourite Gothic corner of London has been left off.  Tweet your favourite Gothic places in London @MoMarcoPolo  #gothiclondon

To the Museums Association Conference at Cardiff where I am talking with Iain Watson of Tyne and Wear Museums and Professor Martyn Evans of Durham University on ‘What is a Museum?’

Who would have thought it could all be so interesting?

It’s all part of my current obsession to turn this website into a virtual museum that feels as rich and complex and story-ish as a real museum – a website that has, in short, discovered the secrets of ‘museum-ness’.  With this ambition in mind I am shamelessly soliciting ideas around the conference.

So this is how my argument unfolds –

Let’s look first, I say, at the long history of imaginary museums – which is to say, museums created by artists, writers and film-makers, such as the Museum of Jurassic Technology and the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul (you’ll know them from this website).  These semi-fictional museums cast a sideways but interesting light on real museums.  They prompt us to ask, ‘Well then, if this is a museum, what does that say for our definition of museums?  And if they’re not, well why not?’

So we each have our own definitions of ‘museum-ness’.  These are mine –

  • An immersive world that is saturated with a feeling of time-travel
  • A startling physicality, the feeling of astonishment that these objects have journeyed through time and have lasted longer than I ever will
  • A strong sense of story and memory, because a museum is more than a collection of things, it is also a web of meaning and story.  Or, to put it another way, it is both a list and a story.

So much for ‘museum-ness’.  But behind all these qualities lies one that holds them all together, and that is Imagination – the combined imagination of the curators, the museum-makers and the visitors – all brought to bear on the museum experience.

Imagination gives a lift to an experience.  It gives wings to our ideas.  It makes the experience feel light and floaty.  When (in my day job) we devise real museums we find that they work best when they are more than the sum of their parts, when they rise above being only a list of artifacts. That extra element – that more-than-the-sum-of-their-parts-ness – is, I think, Imagination.

So it is no accident, I say to the audience, that the Museum of Marco Polo has a back story – a history, a location, a building we can imagine.  We have given it a history not only because it adds a whimsical charm to the site (although I would fight to the death for the right of museums to have charm) but also because it is a way of giving the Museum of Marco Polo as much reality as we can muster by giving the visitors permission to imagine it.

‘Real museums really exist,’ you will say – to which I would answer that the Museum of Innocence in Istanbul really exists but at the same time is entirely fictional.  ‘And real museums are full of real objects’ – but can’t good film make objects feel real?  ‘And real museums tell the truth’ – except, of course, not always.

But – and this is my main point – what is true of imaginary museums – the playfulness, the lightness, the sense of airy imagination – is also true, or could be, of real museums.

So I want to thank (as they say in Oscar speeches) –

  • The person who asked if a museum can be a museum if it doesn’t know it is a museum?
  • The person who asked if the curator’s intentions can ever feed through into the final creation, or are they always fated to get lost?
  • And the person who asked if a museum can be a museum if it only has one object in it?  (By democratic vote the answer was yes, although the reverse, we decided, wasn’t true;  a museum must be at least one short of all the objects in the universe because a museum can’t be a museum without selection.)

All this thinking because we wondered what makes a museum and whether we can count an imaginary museum as a real one?  Who would have thought it could all be so interesting?

(The image is by Isabel Greenberg and shows the Museum of Marco Polo as the waters rise around it.)