It was one of the lucky consequences of being brought up on a council estate in the back end of beyond that I spent my childhood reading my way through the contents of the local library. (This escape route worked then; it wouldn’t now.) And it was there that I met one of my first museums, ‘The Palace of Green Porcelain’ in H.G.Wells’ ‘The Time Machine’ – a gothic, decaying, creepy place, ‘like the ruins of some latter-day South Kensington’ – abandoned in the distant future with a ‘few, shrivelled and blackened vestiges of what had once been stuffed animals, dessicated mummies . . . a brown dust of departed plants, and that was all.’
And there were other gothic museums also on the library shelves. There were museums in the novels of Rider Haggard, which were wild adventure stories (has anyone else ever read Rider Haggard?), ridiculous to the modern mind and saturated with the attitudes of the British Empire – but I was only ten and I had nothing else to do and anyway I loved them. Museums appeared in them as well.
And there were also museums in E.Nesbit’s children’s books, such as ‘The Story of the Amulet’ in which a Babylonian queen who has time-travelled to London goes to the British Museum to claim back her Babylonian artefacts. When they throw her out she works a bit of magic, and all the artefacts float out after her – ‘great slabs of carved stone, bricks, helmets, tools, weapons, fetters, wine-jars, bowls, bottles, vases, jugs, saucers, seals and the round long things, something like rolling pins with marks on them like the print of a little bird-feet, necklaces, collars, rings, armlets, earrings – heaps and heaps of things, far more than anyone had time to count.’
All these books came from late Victorian times when writers were mixing up museums in the swirling Victorian obsessions with Time Travel, Seances, Magic, Foreign-ness, Travellers’ Stories, Utopias, Spiritualism, and all the rest.
‘The Time Machine’ is a great piece of storytelling with all the touches of a Victorian thriller – the fire in the hearth, the candlelight, the darkness outside, the breath of wind, the lamp flame that jumps.
These days museums don’t often turn up in novels, and certainly not in this cloud of Gothic madness. (Indiana Jones was a creation of the ’80’s and was retro even then.)
But then modern museums are also not particularly gothic. A generation of museums has been re-done in the modernist style, cool, pared-down and very classical. (The best of them – although not all of them – are triumphs.) In fact the only major museum I can think of that hasn’t gone down this route is the Pitt Rivers in Oxford, which still retains its dark wooden cases and copper-plate labels, and still hands out torches to its visitors so that they can negotiate the darkness.
The classical style has a transparent simplicity – a lot of glass, not too many objects, not much colour – and has become so ubiquitous that it’s easy to think that it’s god-given and etermal.
But nothing stays the same for ever and lately a couple of our museum clients have been wondering out loud whether it might be possible to re-do their museum stores in ways that are more theatrical, more atmospheric, more light and dark – so maybe (and this is my word, not theirs) more gothic?
And I understand where they are coming from. In the new world order where funding is tight and visitor numbers are everything, there is no point at all in looking like everyone else. If the museum-world has a fault it is that we tend to do what everyone else is doing. But somehow we have to differentiate ourselves.
At which point I remember the fictional museums of my childhood in Saffron Walden Library – mad, gothic, improbable – and although no museum director is going to fill his or her museums with cobwebs and madness, I can see that things might get a little less restrained and classical. In which case, in true, H.G.Wells’ style, ‘The Palace of Green Porcelain’ in ‘The Time Machine’ – with its celebration of a museum at the end of the world – might turn out to be prophetic?
PS The image at the top of the page is from La Musee de la Chasse in Paris, which is neither Victorian nor classical but something entirely different. We’ve written about it before. It’s poetic, surreal, indirect, like a piece of magical realism – and our current favourite museum.