2014 was a terrible year for refugees.  People across the world are being displaced in unprecedented numbers.  At a lesser level it was another dire year for Greece too:  its economy in freefall and all those with the education or the means departing to seek lives elsewhere.  It’s always been like this – ‘diaspora’ is a Greek word – but I’m reminded that 2015 is roughly the centenary of one of the most momentous emigrations in Greek history.

Around 800 BC Greeks entered the Black Sea.  They came first to trade and then settled in colonies around the sea’s rim, ‘like frogs around a pond’ in the words of Socrates.  For nearly 3000 years they maintained a flexible presence here as merchants, sailors, farmers, middlemen, craftsmen, manufacturers and bankers.  In what are now Georgia, Bulgaria, Rumania, the Ukraine, Russia and Turkey they served the Byzantime emperors, Ottoman sultans and Russian czars.  Most numerous were the Pontian Greeks, the inhabitants of the mountains and Black Sea coast of Turkey.

All this unravelled in the early decades of the twentieth century with the growth of nationalism, the First World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.  Muslims and Christians eyed each other with increasing suspicion;  the bonds that had bound neighbours of different faiths together for centuries were being picked apart.  Between 1915 and 1923 the world of the Pontian Greeks collapsed.  They were forcibly expelled from their homeland – the start of a process of ethnic cleansing and death marches.  The order was given: ‘take only what you can carry’.  It ended in 1923 with a massive population exchange, a sorting out of peoples based on religion.  Nearly two million people, 1.3 Greek Christians from the Black Sea and the Mediterranean coasts, and some 400,000 Turkish Muslims from mainland Greece and Crete, were compulsorily deracinated and returned to a national home.  Both sides have left classic oral accounts of departure and loss similar to all that’s happening now;  the last look back, the last turn in the road, the suffering and death in flight, the ache for a vanished place.

In the mountain villages of the Black Sea coast, the Pontian Greeks buried the icons, manuscripts and the valuables that they could not carry and pocketed their door keys.  ‘The Black Day arrived,’ remembered Miltiades Tsalouchidis who left his village as a six year old.  ‘It was winter.  Snow.  And with the women and children we set out on the road towards our uprooting.  We left our assets . . .  thinking that we might return some day . . . our children were dying in our arms . . . my heart fills with tears.’  In Northern Greece a similar expulsion of Muslims was underway.  The stories on both sides are of hardship, robber and murder as they left, interspersed with regretful reminiscences from many who watched them go.  ‘I remember the day they went away,’ recorded a Greek woman of her Muslim neighbours.  ‘Some kissed the earth, some took bowls of soil with them. They were decent types; their menfolk used to attend our funerals, and we would exchange presents of food on each other’s feast day.  They cried as they left us.’

Arrival was often nearly as bitter as departure.  Turkish speaking Greeks and Greek speaking Turks were strangers in their new homelands;  their customs, their religious practices, their dances and the dialect of their mother tongue were alien to the local people.  ‘In Trebizond we lived like kings,’ remembered one woman.  ‘Here in Greece?  They treated us like Turks, Muslims.’

Nostalgia and pain are intermixed in their accounts. ‘Through every trial,’ one man recalled, ‘I have been sustained by the memory of the place where I grew up; its trees, its solid stone houses and its perfumed air.’  Across the world, the Pontians keep their culture alive and their grief.  They mark 19 May as a Pontian Greek genocide memorial day.  And there are Greek families who still remember their Turkish, old Turkish women who welcome the chance to speak the Cretan dialect.

Recently small individual bridges are being built to a shared past.  Kokkos Nikolaidis promised his mother, before she died, that he would go back to Turkey and find their house, which had been vividly described to him.  When he arrived, he saw nothing had changed.  He still had a door key that would fit the lock. The present owners were suspicious, but when he spoke Turkish the atmosphere thawed.  ‘They’re like us!’ said the lady of the house in surprise.  ‘We stayed four hours. It was extremely intense,’ recalled Nicolaidis. As he was leaving his host suddenly rushed outside.  ‘She cut a small flower and said, “Give this to your mother when you get home.”  I told her that my mother died four years ago. And then she said, “Put it on her grave for me.”‘

Roger Crowley’s new book, ‘Conquerors:  How Portugal seized the Indian Ocean and forged the first Global Empire,’ is published by Faber and Faber on 17 September 2015. You can buy it here.

The Drowned Lovers

Rachel Morris

You know those moments when everything that has been entrancing you one minute before – in my case, time, story, memory, things – suddenly seem flat and tedious? Well, at just such a moment on a Thursday afternoon I hear from upstairs such a beautifully miserable song that I call up the stairs, ‘What are we listening to?’ and back comes the answer, ‘”Clyde Waters”‘ by Anais Mitchell.’  So now I stop to listen and within about two minutes I am thinking enviously to myself, ‘Wow, I wish I’d written those words’ – because the lyrics are beautiful, although also breathtakingly harsh.  (The story tells of a mother’s jealous love so unforgiving that she curses and kills her own son.)

It is clearly a very old song and it has the same peculiar beauty as a fairy story, the same solidity that fairy tales have, as if they were a thing carved out of wood, the same trick of splashing the story with specks of colour (‘the coal-black steed’), the same sudden lurches into physicality (‘Let me in,’ says the near-drowned lover, ‘My boots are full of Clyde Waters and I am shivering to my skin’).  There is also the same dream-like quality of danger ascribed to water, as well as dreams that spookily foretell the lover’s ending – the drowned lover dreams of how it all turned out.

So now I am intrigued enough to want to know more. I google ‘Clyde Waters’ (also known as ‘The Drowned Lovers’) and I discover that it was collected by a late Victorian scholar called Francis James Child, that it is in fact number 216 in a collection of ballads he put together, all of which were characterised by themes of enchantment, jealousy, treachery, cruelty, murder and forbidden love – stories so dark that these days we wouldn’t even try to put them into a literary novel – because we can’t make head or tail of them.  (‘But maybe we’re a wimpy lot?’ I think to myself.)

Like all the old ballads, ‘Clyde Waters’ is saturated in memory, many memories – but of what exactly we no longer know.

I also discover that Francis Child was a Professor of English, that he was attracted to the beauty of the language of these ballads, that he thought they were an important part of early English literature, along with Geoffrey Chaucer. And I also discover that the story overlaps here with the story of 19th century museums, that in each case the collections came about because the Victorian collectors believed that they had to save the things from a world that was vanishing.  (So in this way sadness is deep in the DNA of all the old museums.) Like the ‘Iliad’ and the ‘Odyssey’ the song is the product of an oral culture and prompts the same feeling of disbelief.  How could generations of anonymous singers hold on to the beauty of the language and not lose nor spoil it?  And yet somehow they did.

By virtue of their shared qualities and the fact that one person brought them together, the Child Ballads are in effect a mini-museum – if that is, we define a museum as that moment when we draw a line and say, ‘Everything on this side of the line makes sense of the universe, but everything on the far side is still chaos.’  It’s amazing how wide-ranging and flexible, and yet also how physical and particular is the concept of a museum.

And now, of course, I have forgotten the tedium of a Thursday afternooon and am entranced all over again by time, story, memory and things.

For ‘Clyde Waters’ by Anais Mitchell, go to –



More Stories Please

Stephen Greenberg

It’s amazing what you can do with a story.

The purpose of museums is to house objects that stand at the meeting-point of many meanings.  They can tell astonishing stories – about who we are and where we come from, the barely five thousand years during which we went from a lithic culture to landing a probe on a comet. Our stories are everything.

My Damascene story moment – when I realised what you could do with content and story – came when I entered the competition for the Holocaust Exhibtion at the Imperial War Museum.  The revelation was that I could design with words and sounds, artefacts, typography, graphics, film, AV, installations and photography, as well as working with curators, artists and makers, writers, archivists, film-makers, historians and survivors – and all their stories.  I never cease to be amazed at what you can do with content and story.

Let me take you on my travels through museum-land, and the joys of designing with content and story. Let’s start with a single object and then imagine a pull-shot as the camera pulls back.  My first example is the Holburne Museum in Bath, the collection of one obsessive man who as a young boy was present at the Battle of Trafalgar – one of the boys in ‘Master and Commander’.  After the war he returned to Bath, became a collector and never really left again.  We created a dense, complex, exploded verson of his study, the study where he spent most of his life, poring over his beloved collections.  Our display makes physical the innermost workings of his mind – because sometimes that’s what museums are – the collector’s mind made manifest.

And there is another example of this kind of designing – this time from the redisplay of the Cast Courts at the V&A, a project that’s now partially completed. The objects in the Cast Courts are fakes. The distemper on the walls – which we chose – is a close match to the original, but chosen because of the way that it vibrates with the patina of 100-year-old casts.  Before WWII the laylight overhead was of cast glass, so that looking up would have been like swimming and seeing the meniscus from down below. The patina and the distemper create a powerful atmosphere.

I think that these two examples represent the difference between theatre and design, or between atmosphere and photo-image, or between feeling and form-making.  Design more and more focuses on showcases;  theatre focuses on atmosphere, emotion and story.

Lately I have been thinking about cave paintings. Caves, I think, were the first museums, the first galleries, the first temples, the first comics, maybe all these things – we will never know.  But we can be sure that the images would have looked like a zoetrope as they flickered in the light of a flaming torch.

Which brings me to my second point, that it is amazing what you can do with a shed, a cave or some other simple structure. There are two great shed experiences in the history of museum-making.  The first is Joseph Paxton’s Crystal Palace – the display of a gardener, as it happens – and the other is Sir John Soane’s Museum, in this case the back of the museum which is essentially a top-lit structure, so a very beautiful shed but a shed nonetheless. Look at images of the Soane Museum and you’ll see that the mass displays, the places where he simulated the Mediterranean light through yellow glass on yellow walls, the places where he played with darkness and shadows – all these were intentional.

And here’s my third point, that it’s amazing what you can do with some darkness, as John Soane’s showed us – a statement which, in itself, runs counter to the modernist worship of light as moral transparency and white as goodness. When we design we always look for the chance to work in the shadows, with darkness as well as light, because that’s theatre.

My feeling is that content is the only way to convey meaning, and that in our work we find a myriad of media that compensate for the limitations of buildings to express meaning in our epoch.

So this is my final contention, that the things, the story, the shed, the colours and the darkness as well as the light, that all these connect. Because all these are what you need to make a museum.

Stephen Greenberg is co-director of Metaphor. Find out more about the Holburne Museum, V & A Cast Courts (pictured) and other projects here

Have you noticed that there has been a mini return to fashion of the Cabinets of Curiosities, those old collections of bizarre and wondrous objects that preceded museums as we know them, such as 2-headed mermaids, gryphons, unicorn horns and the skeletons of giants?

During the last few years Cabinets of Curiosities have been turning up everywhere.  Google them and you will find displays and exhibitions billed as ‘Cabinets’ in Milton Keynes, Warrington, Nottingham, Margate, Hackney and at the Garden Museum in Lambeth where they have recently won a Lottery grant to recreate the Ark of the Tradescants.

And since I really like the history of museums (and think that museums should make more of their own histories) I am delighted but also intrigued to understand the appeal of these magical but apparently long-dead confections, whose last real heyday was somewhere prior to the 18th century?

The Cabinets reflected a way of seeing the world that was once commonplace. To us they appear random but in fact they were highly systematic, being magical microcosms of the universe, and based upon the belief that all creation could be divided up between man-made and god-made curiosities (chronology didn’t come into it).  Whether the current recreations of the Cabinets really capture this old way of seeing the world I don’t know, but the desire to bring them back is interesting in itself.

Because during the Enlightenment museums changed – they became posh, rational and very sober – and the Cabinets went underground and re-emerged as peepshows and circus acts and all the paraphernalia of the working-class, 19th century seaside holiday.  When the English seaside died in the 1970’s, they came back again, this time as the subject of artist’s installations.

So why, after several centuries, have we become so interested again in the Cabinets of Curiosities?

I think there are three answers –

1.  The Rise of the Artist in Museums.  2014 was the year that the artist’s installations came of age. Given the huge popularities of the Poppies, every museum wants an installation now – and artists love the Cabinets.  They love them for their drama, their atmosphere, their strangeness and their visual spectacle.

2.  The Rise of the Web. Like the Cabinets of Curiosities, the web is a vast celebration of strangeness and irrationality.  It is also a medium that loves peculiar and striking images.  In fact if you shut your eyes and squint a little, you can imagine the Web as one vast Cabinet of Curiosities curated by us all.  The Web has softened us up for a return of the Cabinets.

But maybe more important than either of these factors is a shift in the zeitgeist towards a taste for the Baroque.

3. I think there are two ways of seeing the Past – the Past as knowable and the Past as fundamentally strange.  For several decades now our taste has been for clean, clear, pragmatic museum displays, which breathe the assumption that the Past is familiar, if only we work hard enough to understand it.  Now, though (and maybe this is because we no longer live in such confident times?)  I think the tastes of the Zeitgeist – and hence our audiences? – are slipping the other way, towards the Past as atmospheric, a little Gothic, full of shadows and never completely knowable.  And with this will come a taste for less pragmatic and more Baroque ways of laying out museums.  Hence the Return of the Cabinets.

What do you think?