Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

A Brief History Of Fictional Museums

26th September 2016

So here’s another reason why museums should exist – because they enable novelists and artists (and maybe all of us?) to play imaginative games with ideas around Time and Memory and Remembering and Forgetting and Story.

Museums are a gift for novelists.  It’s as if Museum is a language that novelists like to speak.

So here is a brief history of fictional museums, compiled in the Marco Polo office – and note how neatly these fictional museums follow society’s changing attitudes towards the Past.

We begin our list in the Victorian and Edwardian periods when writers like E. Nesbit and H.G.Wells could use fictional museums to explore the period’s mania for magic, seances, occult, mediums, theosophy, reincarnation and all the rest. Try E. Nesbit’s children’s book, ‘The Story of the Amulet’ in which a Babylonian queen travels forward in time to the year 1905 and invades the British Museum to recover her stolen artefacts. When the curators throw her out she works a bit of magic and the artefacts come floating after her – ‘great slabs of carved stone, bricks, helmets, tools, weapons, fetters, wine-jars, bowls, bottles, vases, jugs, saucers, seals, the round long things, something like rolling pins with marks on them like the print of little bird-feet, necklaces, collars, rings, armlets, earrings – heaps and heaps of things, far more than anyone had time to count.’

We then fast-forward to the 1970’s and to Penelope Fitzgerald’s book, ‘The Golden Child,’ which was published in 1977.  It features a thinly disguised version of the British Museum and is as sharp as crystal and suffused with all the mockery you would expect from a decade when we still loved the future and felt the past to be tired and dusty.

And then we come to the eighties at which point fictional museums start to become stranger, wilder and more serious, as you can see in Angela Carter’s book ‘Nights at the Circus’ in which her heroine Fevvers has to escape from Madame Shreck’s Freak Show.  This is a museum that categorises, confines and controls us – but then this is a book about the desire to be free.

So then fast forward once again, up until the early 2,000’s when the Past no longer confines us but consoles us, a neat example of which is Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’, a novel in which a museum is created by the main character as a way of consoling himself for the unattainable-ness of love and the passing of time.  Or – another example – try Peter Carey’s ‘The Chemistry of Tears’, a novel about a curator and the things of the past and their power to console us.

But my current favourite fictional museum is none of these.  It is – and here I should thank Rosa Campbell who put me on to this – the Museum of Civilisation in ‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel (published a couple of years ago).  It’s an apocalyptic, end-of-the-world novel, saturated with a piercing, elegiac wistfulness, a love letter to a  world (ie. our world) that has vanished in a cataclysm.  The world that has replaced it is small and cramped and local and dangerous – and it is into this small world that there bursts the legendary, the mythical Museum of Civilisation, a museum created after the end of the world to carry the bitter-sweet memories of a world that is gone.

But look beneath the surface and you’ll see that the book is also about the terrible-ness of being old enough that, although you know you have to look forwards, you can still remember backwards – an ambivalent acknowledgement that maybe forgetting might sometimes be better than remembering.

Embedded in the concept of a museum are all the big themes in life – Time, Memory, Thinking, Remembering and Forgetting, Endings and Apocalypses.  And what could be better than that?

These are our favourite fictional museums.  What are yours?

The image at the top of the page is called Adventurous Vixen and is of Monterey, Ca by Micadew on Flickr