Have I said before how much I like the history of museums? I used to think it was the early stories that I liked so much – stories of saints, scoundrels and pretty much everything in between – but these days I think it is the 20th century story of museum-making that’s so interesting.
So here’s a story, one of thousands, about exactly that. The Museum is Verulamium in St Albans and the story that of Tessa Wheeler, archaeologist and wife to Mortimer Wheeler, the most famous archaeologist of his day – and possibly the least faithful.
The Wheelers excavated Verulamium in the 1930’s. It was a Roman town that was turning up spectacular finds. Tessa was a careful archaeologist – good on detail – and mostly she ran the site whilst her flamboyant husband travelled. There’s something obsessive about archaeology. If I were Tessa Wheeler I too would have become obsessed with resurrecting this lost world. The museum began onsite and was filled as the work went on. Both Wheelers worked hard to make it permanent, attending endless meetings and writing endless letters, but it is clear that the driving force was always Tessa’s. And so – when she died suddenly of a botched minor operation whilst her husband was travelling abroad with another woman – the museum became a memorial to Tessa. It is full of the Roman mosaics that she was so adept at lifting and preserving, and of wall paintings in rich, deep reds.
It is hard to say that any one person made a museum – they are usually the result of many minds – but if anyone made Verulamium Museum you could say that it was Tessa.
It was a time when women were moving into museums. Society assumed that it was a woman’s role to conserve, protect and teach history – and so museums were felt to be a natural place for them. Women archaeologists were also moving into museums because it was so hard to find a foothold in the macho world of archaeology.
Tessa was much liked and mourned and perhaps because of this Verulamium Museum feels so full of a startled acknowledgement of her ghost.
But even so, most museums make very little of their own histories, even though there are dozens of stories as moving, interesting and revealing as that of Tessa Wheeler.
So why, I wonder, is that?
One reason, I think, is this. In recent years every other discipline has become self-referential and full of self-doubt but museums still have directness and simplicity built deep into their DNA, and so they like to go straight to the deep past, missing out the moment of discovery as if it wasn’t relevant. There are still some museums – white-painted walls, minimal labelling – that feel as if the objects had dropped out of the sky with no help from anyone. But the truth is that the place of discovery changes what we discover – and the stories of the discoverers change how we see their discoveries.
To make your own history a part of the story, to draw back the curtains and reveal how the museum was made – as opposed to implying that it has been there forever – all this feels post-modern and therefore suspect.
But I like a bit of post-modernism and sometimes dismantling the story (like turning verbal somersaults when you write) is revealing. And Verulamium Museum? It’s atmospheric and full of ghosts – not only of Tessa Wheeler but also of the inhabitants of this Roman town, who thought that this place was theirs, not ours.
The story of Tessa Wheeler is told in Charlotte Higgins, ‘Under Another Sky’, and also in Lydia Carr’s book, ‘Tessa Verney Wheeler: Women and Archaeology before World War 2.’