It’s one of those deep, dark, mid-winter mornings and outside the damp London darkness has acquired a hushed and metaphysical feel.  Which may be why it is that I am leaning up against the radiator to keep warm, and dreaming of an alternative universe in which I am the Director of a major museum and putting on a blockbuster show on the subject of Light.

So ‘Light’ (as my daydream goes) will run from December to February every year (special rates for those with Seasonal Affective Disorder) and will tell the story, half a million years old, of how human beings have carved light out of the darkness and used it and played with it.

Artefacts on show will include –

Neolithic lamps, made from oil poured into oyster shells;  Roman glass;  beeswax candles;  medieval spectacles; magic lantern slides and shadow puppets;  Victorian gas lamps;  miners’ lamps;  moonlight and starlight;  a Turner painting that flaunts his beautiful effects with light; a portable sundial from the middle ages;  Bronze Age treasures gleaming in the darkness; bonfires, lightning flashes, shadows and shooting stars, the Northern Lights and the Burning Man.

There will be soft light; glittery light; light refracted through ice and shafting down from the heavens;  light practical and playful, serious and metaphysical; and – because what is light without darkness? – there will also be a section on Dark Matter, the great, dark, apparently empty spaces of the universe (at which point the show will become a Museum of Nothingness – now that’s going to be tricky to pull off).

And all adding up to a glorious, mid-winter, light-in-the-darkness moment.

Happy Xmas.  We are back in January with pieces on miniature worlds and our annual ‘looking into the tea leaves’ moment, when we predict the year to come for museums and look back to see how accurate our previous predictions have been.  Don’t miss it.

Museums And The Brave New World/Rachel Morris


It’s all a little like living in the 16th century when they discovered the Americas.

Little by little museums are colonising the virtual world.  Up until now most of the attention has been on how to reach it – ipads, iphones, Google Glass? – but now the attention is turning to ‘But what do we want to say when we get there? What stories do we want to tell in this Brave New World?’ – and that’s where it gets interesting. Because whereas in the old, analogue world of things and paper your word counts were limited by the size of the label, in the brave new digital world where space is infinite you can, in theory, tell as many stories as you want at whatever length you choose.

So just as I am thinking this, the Museum’s Researcher puts me on to ‘Serial’, the latest podcast from This American Life – and an internet sensation.  (And when I say ‘puts me on to’, I mean as in ‘What? You’ve really never heard of it?’)  Serial is old-fashioned storytelling in a personal style – a long, short story, divided into episodes, linear, compelling, infinitely listenable-to, and currently achieving more than 5 million downloads – which are startling visitor numbers.  It is also storytelling that works perfectly in the digital world.

And so – because the best way to think of the character of a museum is as a collection of short stories – I have been looking to see what short story writers can tell us about how to write a short story and how to compile a collection of them.  If we are setting off as storytellers into the infinite space of the virtual world we might as well learn from the best.

I have been looking at my favourite short-story writers – Borges, Angela Carter, D H Lawrence – (here fill in whomever you like best) – to discover how much carries across?  Quite a lot, I think.

  • Don’t use words to close a subject down (though that’s often how we’re taught to write a label); use them to prompt the listeners to carry on floating upwards on their imagination.  It’s the magic of short-story telling, that the best of them imply truths that feel bigger than their own short form, and make the edges of the story feel as if it’s expanding.  You can test the power of a story by how long it lingers in the mind.
  • Don’t assume that your audience is only interested in stories about people like them.  If that were true I would only read books about people like me (I don’t) and fantasy would have died at birth.
  • Start to think about how to orchestrate a collection of stories – whether at the scale of an app or of all the stories the museum is telling.  A collection needs its own moods and colours.  Weather, colour words, viewpoints – all these things create atmosphere and feelings. The analogy here is with weaving, where many different shades come together to create a single effect.
  • Ask yourself, Do we need to stick to the tradition of museums as third-person, impersonal tellers of truths?  It’s a way of doing things that grew up in the 18th and 19th centuries, but before that, when museums were Cabinets of Curiosities, it was the owner who took you around and who told you his, inevitably, personal stories.  The objective, third person voice made sense when space was limited to a graphic panel or a label, but now we’ve got room to expand why can’t we have many different voices telling many different truths?
  • In fact, come to think of it, why can’t we get professional short-story writers in, to tell our stories?  Not to make things up – thought that  might be quite interesting? – but to use their story-telling skills to make our museum stories interesting.

I’m just putting it out there, as the kids would say.

In the end museums are likely to become broadcasters – ie, places that broadcast stories and set them floating on the infinite web.  Storytelling is going to become more important than ever.

And whilst we are on this subject, I saw two more ways of storytelling at the weekend – in the physical world, not the virtual world, but beautiful nonetheless. They both came from the Musee de la Chasse in Paris.  The first abandoned graphic panels and told the story of each room in fragments (both words and things) spread through the drawers of a wooden cabinet.  You open up the drawers to find each fragment and fit the story together. The second replaces a label with a hand-drawn animation.  Charm doesn’t begin to describe it.





Making A Drama Out Of It

Imogen Greenberg

Imagining the past is something close to our hearts here at the Museum of Marco Polo, which is why we are interested in the trend that’s working its way into museums, towards ‘living history’.  Performance and theatre are just some of the ways in which museums are trying to do this.

I have always thought, since I was a small child dragged unwillingly around museums, that a museum should be more than the sum of its parts.  A single object meant nothing to me, even when explained laboriously by my patient mother.  As a child I wanted something more, something exciting, a complete story to swallow me up.  In some ways, I think I was more demanding of my museums as a child.

This, it seems, is why the National Maritime Museum has announced a collaboration with Punchdrunk Entertainment.  Sarah Lockwood, head of interpretation and learning at the NMM, tells me they want to create a unique and emotional experience.  She fizzes with enthusiasm for the project, saying that she wants it to guide the way for the Museum’s future.  I admire her ambition hugely, and the light touch of imagination she is pulling into the  Museum.

I ask her why they’ve gone for kids, and she says that there’s a certain age group, between around six and twelve, where they have lost the fear and shyness of joining in, but are still willing to believe.

‘Against Captain’s Orders’, a performance aimed at this age group, will be in a special exhibition space, a blank canvas in which stage sets and stories can be created – what they’re calling an ‘on your feet, atmospheric and immersive’ experience.  It is inspired by the collection but doesn’t involve any objects, nor any of the museum’s permanent galleries.  So really, it’s largely performance and not much museum.  But it is fictional living history, trying to bring alive a story with some tissue of truth behind it.

I ask Sarah what museums can learn from performance and she talks about storytelling, contextualising and bringing objects to life, and says that children learn better with an interactive learning experience.  But I wonder if the same isn’t also true for adults?  That the capacity to suspend disbelief may never go away, particularly when something seems so convincing within its own world.  Novels, theatre, films, storytelling of any kind can all suspend disbelief for all age groups!  So why can’t a museum?

As Sarah and I ponder this question, Historic Royal Palaces come up.  We discuss the Enchanted Palace exhibition which in 2010 divided audiences so heavily, that a proportion of them simply asked for their money back.  Sarah admired it, and thought it was extremely brave.  One room in particular stayed with me personally:  Queen Victoria’s bedroom, a pile of mattrasses as in The Princess and the Pea, and an enormously tall chair, like a lifeguard’s watchtower, because every aspect of the young princess’s life was scrutinised.  It was a still, dimly-lit room, filled with the echo of ghostly whispers, and the floor littered with toys and books. It touched me as an adult but perhaps it was the small, lonely child that sang out to me?

So do adults suspend their disbelief and become children again?

This brings me nicely to the Dennis Severs House which in many ways is more of a stage set than a museum but is still to date the only truly completely immersive historical experience that works for adults.  Its atmosphere, smell, colours, sensations and details are extraordinary – and suggest that every aspect has to be totally convincing, with no moments of self-reflection or recognition. This is why David Milne, its director, enforces silence.

But the other really interesting thing about Dennis Severs is that many of the objects are either present day or not from the right period.  Sarah and I discuss fiction through the Longitude Punk’d exhibition (the Maritime’s current exhibition) which explores fictional machines for solving Longitude).  I suggest that museums are seen as places of authority, and so performance, fiction and imagination sometimes get sidelined.  She agrees but says that there’s a different between being a place of authority and being authoritative, and that performance is a way of presenting history that can be questioned. In fact she thinks that Punk’d worked because at the time ideas to solve Longitude were so whacky.

I suppose children are much easier to engage as well as much more willing to question, but the truth is that much as I have grown up, I want that feeling again – the feeling I get at the Dennis Severs house, of being picked up and swallowed by another place. Surely that’s history and museums too?

Sarah Lockwood is Head of Learning and Interpretation at the National Maritime Museum.

‘Against Captain’s Orders’ will open at the National Maritime Museum in January 2015.

To find opening hours for the Dennis Severs Christmas Installation, head to