To the Cinema Museum in South London, me not knowing what to expect other than it’s threatened with closure.  And after many wrong turnings around Elephant and Castle I fall into a lost world – a world before 1980’s multiplexes and Hollywood blockbusters – a world of Art Deco Odeons and huge projectors and old-fashioned film stars singing soupily of ‘Pennies from Heaven’, a world beautifully documented by the Cinema Museum – but not for long since the museum itself is now threatened with closure.

All museums, even the mighty British Museum, go through the same life cycle. They begin as collections brought together by geeks and enthusiasts and it’s only later in their lifecycle (if at all) that they acquire fancy showcases and sophisticated graphics. But often it’s that early phase that has the most charm, as the Cinema Museum perfectly illustrates.  

So picture a sprawling collection laid out by type – all the huge old projectors together, all the film posters, all the teapots showing King Kong, and all the signs with their beautiful 1930’s lettering, saying ‘Circle This Way Please’.  And imagine the sounds of a tinkling piano that used to accompany the talkies, whilst a film buff shows you round and shares his stories with you.  All this inside a part of the old Lambeth Workhouse so around you are the high ceilings, the echoing corridors and the old brick-built walls.  It’s the workhouse to which little Charlie Chaplin was sent when his mother became destitute.

The best bit of the visit is the big hall upstairs where the reels go slowly round and round, old films play, someone dishes up cups of tea and slices of cake, and there are cinema tickets and ashtrays and popcorn machines and an usherette’s hat, and everything swims in a yellow light and a cinematic gloom, though outside it’s the middle of the day.

This is a ‘thing-world’ and as always there’s something magical about it.  ‘Thing-worlds’ take you back in time quicker than anything else that I know of, except maybe novels (another cheap and amazing art form) and films themselves. Because at the end of the visit we sit down to watch old shorts from back in the fifties, the best of which is a black and white film from 1952, called ‘London’s Last Tram’ and marking the last day of the old London trams.  Even then the Cockney world of ‘Mary Poppins’ was vanishing;  now it has gone utterly and completely.

And so also will this museum unless we fight to keep it.  The building it sits in, the old Lambeth Workhouse, is a valuable bit of real-estate in the middle of London.  No wonder its owners want it back.  Because this is another threat to museums, the way that the buildings they sit in keep increasing in value. Museums have always ended as well as started but right now it feels like there’s more of the first and less of the second.  In fact, it feels as if London is going through one of its periodic phases of tearing down the past and the Cinema Museum is collateral damage.

The recent report from the DCMS highlights the threats to the survival of Local Authority museums, but many small enthusiasts’ museums are also teetering on the brink.  When a small museum ends its collections are usually dumped, sold off or put into storage.  But that storage is sometimes an old garage with no environmental controls and where their significance is easily forgotten.

Human beings need ‘thing-worlds’ to take us back in time.  They are one of the things that make us human.

Sometimes it’s the small museums that have the biggest ideas, the best back stories  – and the biggest wonders.

I am standing in the offices of the Museum of Cambridge with the curator Charlotte Woodley, looking at a blue, eighteen-century watch ball that she’s just unwrapped from its tissue. There it sits in front of us, a glass bauble from about 1720, which once hung in a house in the local village of Gamlingay.  As it spun in the wind its bright reflections were designed to frighten off the witches;  its surfaces would grow cloudy if misfortune came close.  When I look at it I feel the usual museum-magic, that time-travel sensation that jumps you back three hundred years and returns you to the old world of the Fens, a pre-Enlightenment world of witches, ghosts and terrible floods.

This museum, which is dedicated to folklore and social history, is full of wonders.  It has a mandrake root – acquired from a potion seller in Littleport – which could give men extraordinary strength, and a cawl that belonged to a local storyteller called Jack Barrett.  A cawl is the membrane that occasionally wraps around a child’s head when he or she is born.  It was highly valued because it was believed to have the power to save you from drowning.  The museum also has a large part of the collection of the Folklore Society, amongst which is a corp chreadh, a celtic voodoo doll. First you stuck it with pins and then you put it into a river until the water washed it away – which was the fate that you were also wishing upon your enemy. Most of these wonders are in storage because the museum doesn’t have showcases of high enough quality in which to display them.

But perhaps the biggest wonder in this museum – equal to all the voodoo dolls and mandrake roots – is Ms Enid Porter, the middle-aged woman in a headscarf, twinset and pearls who – between 1946 and 1978 – more than doubled the size of this museum, pretty well singlehandedly.  Every weekend she cycled out into the Fens, collecting things and stories.  She conserved the objects, gave lectures, laid out the displays, took the money and even cleaned the windows – all for far less salary than her predecessor, Reginald Lambeth.

It is easy to overlook a woman like Enid Porter because she looked so old-fashioned. But look at her publications list and you see something else – a workaholic, with a steely determination and an astonishing output. During the first half of the twentieth century an entire rural world was vanishing – in a prefiguring of the collapse of the industrial world that happened in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s no surprise that a class of people appeared who were obsessed with the need to remember these lost worlds – Enid Porter amongst them.

There are plenty of people – Charlotte Woodley is one – who are filled with admiration for the charismatic ghost of Enid Porter, and all that she achieved.

And now the museum is starting a project called ‘Tracing Traditions’, which will explore the local customs that were around in Enid’s time and show how they have persisted or mutated into contemporary traditions.  (First research suggests that localism is back and that old traditions are being re-remembered by the dozen.)

‘So,’ I ask, ‘it’s as if you are stepping in Enid Porter’s footsteps?’  ‘Exactly,’ says Charlotte.  ‘That’s an awfully big project,’ I observe.  ‘No bigger than Enid achieved,’ says Charlotte.

Enid Porter died in 1984 which is almost yesterday. And yet although she left  behind dozens of notebooks she wrote down almost nothing about what compelled her to save the past, and now  her motives are lost in obscurity. The museum sector doesn’t make much of its curators and their stories. In fact, there’s an interesting article, posted recently on the blog of the Museums and Galleries History Group, that suggests that we don’t make much of our museum histories, full stop. (Although the Museum of Cambridge is an honourable exception here, since they ran a great temporary exhibition on Enid Porter last year.)  Are there other Enid Porters out there?  Almost certainly yes.  And do we make enough of them, their lives, passions, obsessions and compulsion to remember?  Almost certainly not.

The image at the top of the page is locally-made glass, with a folk art feel, on display in the Museum. The image half way down the article is – of course – of Enid Porter, with thanks for its use to the Museum. Copyright is with the Cambridge News.

The Past is different here.  I am standing in the abandoned, cliff top village of Mealasta, on the far western edge of the island of Lewis in the Outer Hebrides. It’s a day to die for – a sunlit, blowy day, when the Atlantic looks like Homer’s wine-dark sea and there are more misty islands rising up out of the water than in the whole of the Odyssey.

Back home in London the Past resides in city streets and buildings – and also in museums.  But up here on this island you find it in cairns and bothies built as memorials, in graveyards dug into the soft sand that fringes the western edge of the island, in the Iron Age house in Bostadh and the Viking kiln at Bhaltos, in the houses round here whose roof timbers came from the wreck of the Ezra at the end of the 19th century, and in the endless, ruined villages, whose inhabitants were evicted during the Clearances and whose houses were left to rot until all that’s left of them are the gable ends with the ghost outlines of their fireplaces.

Mealasta could stand in for all the cleared villages of the Outer Hebrides.

Before the evictions the people lived by fishing and farming, by planting potatoes, oats and barley, and by salting meat and fish.  And although life was tough they were intensely attached to their land.

But then, at the beginning of the 19th century, Lord Seaforth and the other big landowners saw that there was more money to be made by turning the land over to sheep, and so they began to clear the land of people.  Mealasta was emptied out in 1838, and its inhabitants sent to other, already crowded and impoverished parts of the island. More than 700 people were crammed into four villages on the Bhaltos peninsula.  When the potato harvest failed and famine followed, the landowners opted for mass forced migrations. On May 15th, 1851, the Marrquis of Stafford sailed from Bernera Sound, the nearest deep water harbour, with 400 emigrants on board. The Mealasta families would have been amongst them. Only seven families went willingly.

We are standing by the old village graveyard. Back in the 1980’s you could still read the writing on the grave stones but now it’s been erased by wind and rain. Behind us some of the broken walls represent a pre-reformation nunnery.  Make your way down through the ruined village and you’ll find the Fishermen’s Grave – the grave of two brothers who were drowned at sea in the 19th century and whose bodies were washed up, one here and one at Bhaltos up the coast.  The brothers were buried together within a stone’s throw of a tiny cove, in a grave that is still picked out with round, white stones and with a small, white cross on top.  It is still tended to this day.

Usually I go to a local museum to try understand the places that I’m visiting – and that makes sense down south where the Past is more containable.  But up here the Past is everywhere and if you want to understand the Outer Hebrides then Mealasta, or any of the other cleared villages, is the place to start.

(With thanks to Joni Buchanan who took me there.)

What museums do with stuff is strangely artificial.  We are given or buy a thing. We fill in paperwork, make an entry on a database and – usually – stick it in a store. Its natural life as an object which interacted with people – the reason for it being interesting in the first place – often ends at that point.  Sometimes we even restore it to an earlier date, erasing much of that life.

If collections are what make museums different, what exactly are we doing with them here?  Are we killing them as surely as tossing them in a skip, or generously granting them a twilight existence in a  box, or a glass case at best?

I am guessing that the first answer would be that we are saving these things – for ourselves, for the future, to remember, to try to understand the past.  So it’s better that they don’t disappear into that skip, but is there another way of thinking about what museums, and therefore curators, should do with all this stuff?

The reason that museums exist and have collections at their core is because they are the tangible things which have survived or can be gathered and shared. In the earliest museums, usually the ‘treasure houses’ of private individuals, the objects were intended to be seen through the prism of the collector, or through the commissioner of their creation.

As collections came to be seen as ways of understanding and ordering the world around them, the role of the maker also became important.  Particularly in ‘high art’, this new emphasis on the artist gave further validation to the owner of the objects.  The maker/patron/owner approach to objects will be familiar to anyone who has visited a National Trust property.  Municipal museums placed less emphasis on personal ownership, though authorship and condition lent status to a town or a city.

Condition was always a preoccupation, whether it was attaching a Renaissance arm to a Roman statue, or replacing the missing wooden slices in a Tunbridge ware box.  Furniture was repaired and dolls given new frocks.  The museum seemed to be trying to replicate the object at its birth, rather than giving any idea of the life it had lived since then.  Interestingly, in the antiques trade, ‘patina’ is often valued for conveying age and therefore the prized authenticity.

Both maker and condition became more difficult to sustain with the rise of mass manufacture. Authorship had to be sought in manufacturers and designers, such as a Singer sewing machine or a Clarice Cliff plate. But condition was usually only restored if the object had a high financial or cultural value, such as a steam train or a classic car. The steam train is a good example of the original condition paradox, with often a majority of new parts to reach the desired ‘original’ working state.

The entry of the new discipline of social history into museums in the 1960’s saw an improvement. Many museums now collected across a wider social spectrum, with a new emphasis on the material culture of ‘ordinary people’, then on specific cultural groups, such as black or women’s history.

Most significant was what Cathy Ross has described as the move from ‘product to process’, the shift in focus from what museums collect to how they collect it. This ranged from simply writing all the information a donor could remember on an entry form, to targeted collecting and oral history projects.  The emphasis was now on engaging people in the story telling, not just handing over the stuff.

So how can we ensure that museums share the life of an object, rather than just its birth? Again, museums are surely about people, but told through this tangible material that remains.  The stories of all the people who interacted with an object can only be understood through representing the object at all stages of its life.

Process – how museums collect, record, share and contextualise – is the practical basis of this, but museums also need to consider the fullness of an object’s life.  The story of many costumes in museum collections, for instance, does not end with their private ownership, but goes on to theatrical or school use.  And that steam train had new lives of rusting in a shed, being restored by volunteers and running on a heritage line, all equally important parts of its story.

So how do we ensure that objects don’t die when they enter the museum?  Many do have  a new life, handled by visitors, travelling to exhibitions or provoking memories, and that needs to be recorded and shared. But others sit on a shelf being saved.  Maybe many of those shouldn’t be in a museum at all.  Perhaps the objects would have a healthier life with a local society, a school or family ownership. The museum can record these ‘associated collections’, advise on their care and call them in for sharing;  but the curator becomes an enabler rather than a hoarder, and the museum a catalyst more than a storage facility.

The image is from the Cast Courts at the V&A, another way of letting stuff live. Caroline Ellis was director of the Tunbridge Wells Museum and has a special interest in how we live with stuff.

Four events took place in ‘real’ time during this year’s Holocaust Memorial day.  The competition entries for the now hapless David Cameron’s Holocaust Memorial in Victoria Tower Gardens were unveiled.  Simultaneously Jews were (deliberately it seems) left off the White House statements, and this on the anniversary of the St Louis when just before WW2 1000 Jews were barred from entry to the USA and sent back to Germany.  Now Muslims from seven Islamic countries were being similarly excluded.  And at the same time the victims of the St Louis were being remembered throughout the day on Twitter, in a stunning feed where family holiday snaps often of middle-class, assimilated German Jews were streamed – in a beautiful, moving and intimate memorial.

And intimacy is what differentiates the Holocaust from mass killing by carpet or firebombing. Like stalking or rape it relied on a thousand intimacies being violated by related or progressive attacks on the person:  yellow star, cramped in a boxcar, undressing, shaving, tattooing, experimenting, starving, forced voyeurism of the humiliations of loved ones, selection – the list goes on.  Which brings us to the utterly misplaced and misconceived Holocaust Memorial competition.

Firstly let me state that I have some heft to comment on this.

Twenty years ago I won the international competition to design the Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum, incidentally beating three of the competitors involved in the current competition.  I declined to join any team this time.  I cannot see how you can handle such a subject twice, studying that intimate material so intensely for another four years.  (And here more ironies abound.  The exhibition at the IWM is highly acclaimed.  Rowan Moore, writing in the Observer just this week, described it as ‘sober, substantial and powerful’ and questioned why we need a ‘world class learning centre’ attached to the monument when there is this one a mile down the road.  My exhibition broke new ground in museum-making – PhD’s have been written around it – but here is yet another irony:  the IWM is replacing it with a new exhibition costing £16m.)

The ten competition entries for the Holocaust Memorial can be viewed online and we the public are invited to have our say.  Each is accompanied by a two-minute video pitch.  Since we rarely get to sit on the other side of the table as architects ‘pitch’ for a job, this is a unique and revealing moment.  Moore nails it: ‘architects trying to combine their usual sales pitch techniques with a sensitive catch in their voices’.

These should be preserved in a time capsule at the British Architecture Library.  They reveal much about what makes architects tick but more pointedly, the limits of architecture to memorialise.

The problem is bad metaphors:  from prayer shawls to meteors suspended over our heads to pink and yellow triangles in a glazed grid shell roof to the brick-walled entry to the K1 and K2 crematoria and six million pebbles that visitors can take away to reveal eventually the heart of the monument.  Every one of them is arch.

Let’s analyse a few.  I have stood for some time at the steps to K1 and tried to imagine how those victims would have felt in early 1943 if they had been told that five years later there would be a safe place for Jews called Israel – unimaginable and a disturbingly redemptive thought.  The brickwork is crude, made from seconds poorly laid by slaves. Now imagine Foster’s office writing the specifications for that brickwork – it’s a trope that simply doesn’t travel, and anyway the artwork by his collaborator Michal Rovner doesn’t need the Foster space to work.

The meteor by Anish Kapoor is a stunning piece of sculpture but let’s leave it at that – he will recycle it somewhere else.

Then there is Heneghan Peng with the most elegant and taut architectural solution.  it is simple;  it responds sensitively to the site, the park and Westminster Tower;  the triangles work because they stay within the canons of geometry and architecture; there is no taste slippage – but ultimately it lacks specificity of place and subject.  It could be a war or peace memorial anywhere.

Then we come to Danial Libeskind who grew up in post-war Lodz and whose mother, a survivor, always carries something to eat in her handbag. As one would expect his narrative is spot on, but it can’t help rehashing Libeskind. he has said all there is to say about this in the Berlin Jewish Museum, which took a decade of his life.  He cannot better it and shouldn’t; no one can.

Which brings us to the design by Caruso St John and Rachel Whiteread.  She has form in this area with her remarkable monument in Vienna, the cast of a Library.  Their scheme sites the project in the Park where there are already three memorials:  the gothic revival memorial to the abolition of slavery, Rodin’s Burghers of Calais, and a memorial to Emmeline and Christabel Pankhurst.  Whiteread makes a glass cast of the gothic revival memorial, providing light to a space below that has audio testimony to the survivors emanating from apertures in the walls.  These are lined in what is almost posh sheet piling.  And that’s it.

It is the only entry that passes the Seamus Heaney test – can it transcend the canon of architecture into the canon of poetry?  It works because the designers get that the Holocaust is like the dark web, we know it’s there but for the most part we just glimpse it. We could have been bystanders on the westbound platform at Westminster station and seen a Jewish family wearing yellow stars, carrying suitcases with their names painted on them, waiting for an eastbound train to Liverpool Street from where they would have been deported to Felixstowe and on to Silesia leaving the absence that Libeskind captures in Berlin.  The cast of the monument is ambiguous.  We are not sure it is a monument.  It challenges the banal (in Hannah Arendt’s sense) acceptance of a 19th century park, lurking beneath which is the absence.

Sometimes metaphors don’t work. They are too contrived, whilst abstraction is an evasion. What works is something that interacts with the visitor physical, emotionally and viscerally, that in turn makes them feel victim, perpetrator and bystanders.  Libeskind does that in Berlin.  Caruso and Whiteread do that here.

 

It’s midwinter and London is deep in darkness and freezing fog.  The streets are muffled up with silence, there’s frost on the pavements til eleven every morning, and the sun, when it does come out, looks like a silver penny in the mist.  These are the best days of Christmas and I am somewhere between the Christmas tree and the sofa, deep in Roger Luckhurst’s book, ‘The Mummy’s Curse’.  The book tells a different history to the usual one about the British Museum – so not the Enlightenment story of museums as places of knowledge, learning and overall goodness, but an account of the Gothic myth-making and fantasy that used to hang around the Egyptian galleries at the British Museum, during the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

It’s a peculiar story, a tangled web of beliefs and a cast of characters that includes: the Curse of Tutankhamun plus an earlier version of it that was attached to a mummy in the Egyptian galleries; a posse of swashbuckling Fleet Street journalists;  a British Museum curator called Wallis Budge, who was quarrelsome, opinionated and never quite denied the rumours of the Mummy’s Curse;  the Victorian novelist Rider Haggard who attended spirit circles, believed fervently in reincarnation and was a friend of Wallis Budge;  and the occult-loving Arthur Conan Doyle, a member of the Ghost Club, who also believed in the power of the Curse.  And they are just the main characters;  there were plenty  more as well.

Needless to say, all this tells us nothing about Ancient Egypt (they didn’t even have the concept of a curse) but rather a lot about late Victorian London, which was awash with beliefs in seances, spiritualism and ghosts.  All of which neatly reminds us that although we may intend a museum to tell one story the visitors may ensure that it tells something else.

When I finish the book I close it with a snap and getting off the sofa I head off down to the British Museum in the blue London twilight to see the cursed mummy for myself.  There she stands in Gallery 62 – acquisition number 22542 since you ask – hands folded neatly in front of her, looking over my shoulder into the middle distance with an air of innocence personified. The label, I notice, is studiously neutral.

So now it is the end of 2016, a post-truth year if ever there was one, and I find that I am finishing the year slightly less sympathetic to myth-making than when I began it.  Myths are everywhere these days but facts are scarcer.  On the other hand if museums don’t tell us these kinds of stories then we will understand a little less, not only about Edwardian London but also about the powers that we ascribe to objects.

And besides it is a motto of the Museum of Marco Polo that Everything is Interesting, and so I find myself wondering:  were there other Egyptian galleries across the UK that became similarly weighed down by myths and legends?  Are there other museums out there that are said to be haunted?  What other objects are there to which we ascribe malign powers?  And have there been other cultures around which we have been similarly prone to making myths?

In short, does anyone out there know the alternative history of museums?

Roger Luckhurst’s book, ‘The Mummy’s Curse’, is upbeat, thoughtful and written with panache.  It deserves a place on your shelves.  It was published by Oxford University Press in 2014.

Wonderlab, the new interactive gallery designed by muf at the Science Museum in South Kensington, is a triumph – with a distinctive aesthetic of wooden trestles, easels and artists’ donkeys.  It is also an idea whose time has come – though it has taken a very long time, building firstly on Launchpad, the Museum’s interactive gallery, but also on a gradual institutional change over a much longer time span;  and building also, I suspect, on the quiet impact that the reconstructed James Watt workshop has had on the Museum, the ultimate man-shed space that reminds one that invention doesn’t require interior design.

Let’s go fast backwards in the Museum to the beginning of the millennium to the completion of the Wellcome Wing development.  When it opened Deyan Sudjic praised the Making of the Modern World Gallery to the rafters for its design, but detailed audience evaluation produced at the time revealed that visitors need more explaining, more way finding,  more context to make connections, in short what we now call interpretive design. Meanwhile the Wellcome Wing itself was – and still is – bathed in a James Turrell inspired, blue shift, Doppler gloom – a bad architectural metaphor by the architect, the late Sir Richard McCormac (thus achieving what Rowan Moore, in describing Norman Foster, calls ‘the look of innovation without the pain of actually changing anything’).

Now fast forward several directors and 18 years later and the Science Museum Group has built a brilliant team of science interpreters in both London and Manchester who had developed a new generation of interactives.  They have recognised that designing an interactive exhibit is way harder than designing a building – you have to think about outcomes, understanding rather than just looking, the process and its robustness.  More than that, Wonderlab is and example of Less Design.  Less Design is the hardest style to achieve, unless it has the naturalness of Watt’s workshop, whilst Over Design is the default of most designers – confusing means with ends, fetishising the smoothly hewn, dimpled, laser-cut, perforated, coveted and polished.

Now the reason I am interested in, and so admiring of, muf’s Wonderlab design is that it had a precursor.  Way back in 1998 Bob Baxer and I were shortlisted for the Wellcome Galleries and we proposed a space where science could be ‘explored’.  Remember that no one back then talked about the San Francisco Exploratorium, let alone their ‘cookbook’, and it certainly wasn’t in the Museum’s briefing documents. But we ran with the idea and showed displays that were based on easels, trestles, and artists’ donkeys. We were proposing the artist’s studio as a place of exploration, a site for doing and researching.  We were positing that hi-tech is only a look, that with Wonder should come Doubt, and that our aesthetic would be a counterpoint to the faux hi-tech of the Wellcome Wing. We also had a series of spaces modelled directly on 18th century anatomy theatres, for demonstration and discussion, with grid-like structures, coloured liquids and artefacts on open display.

Now muf never saw our drawings of course.  The connection between their design and ours is simply that museological ideas evolve and there comes a time when their time has come.  Journeymen like Bob and I moved from museum to museum, project to project, subject to subject, and conversation to conversation, and although we inspired, the truth is that for an idea to work it has to be owned and developed by the museum’s community.

I’m excited that muf has shown that all the fancy pimpled metal and brackets with circular holes is an unnecessary distraction, excited that by following Less Design they have created a world that visitors can connect with, that curators can change and where improvisation is possible.  Design should be provisional;  the problem with the hi-tech modernist aesthetic is that it offers the illusion of flexibility whilst being most inflexible.

In Wonderlab the museum makers are also opening up to the possibilities of co-creation.  It provides a language that is easy, a place and space that can be shared, with or without any prior knowledge.  In science, as in co-creation, none of us knows everything, and everything is provisional just like Watt’s workshop.

Image at top of page:  the new Wonderlab at the Science Museum, by muf

Hand-drawn images:  by Stephen Greenberg, back in 1999

If ever there was a topical subject for our times it is the idea of Home (or the lack of it).  And now that local museums, which are the embodiment of Place and Home, are under threat from lack of funding, I have come to talk to Gillian Tindall, who is a historian of Place and Home.

I want to see if she can cast a sideways light on the questions, Why is it that human beings become so attached to a particular street, or house, or landscape?  What happens if you take it away from them?  And whether knowing the history of a place strengthens our attachment to it?

So Gillian Tindall, in case you haven’t come across her books, was part of that lucky section of society that had just enough money to buy an old house in London after WW2, when nobody really valued them and so they were going, relatively-speaking (and it was only ever relative), for a song. I would say that the concept of Place interests her but that wold be to hugely understate it.  Place for her is everything. Wherever she’s lived she has made herself at home by researching the past of everything nearby or under her feet.  She tries to understand one small patch of earth as a way of understanding all of it.  She writes passionately about the rights of everyone to hold on to their part of the earth, and not to have their landscape turned upside down.

Her books are vividly written, astringent, myth-debunking books – but the ones I know best are the ones about London and especially north London and Kentish Town – Kentish Town being her home, but also once my home and the place where I still feel that I belong. She has that double vision that historians have, seeing the past and present simultaneously. She knows the local dynasties, men and women who came to Kentish Town to work on the railways or in the piano factories in the 19th century and whose descendants have been here ever since. Where other people see simply roads and traffic she sees the original country paths and the fields beneath.  She bought a house – an old workers’ cottage – in Kentish Town and for fifty years she’s been raising ghosts by unearthing the lives of the previous inhabitants.

When she first came here there was a different kind of housing crisis.  The post-war planners were intending to knock down most of west Kentish Town and replace it with high-rise flats.  That would have dealt with some slums, it is true, but would also have knocked down endless Victorian houses where old ladies let out rooms at prices that students and twenty-somethings could afford.  These plans were partially resisted through a series of painful local battles and finally finished off by the unanticipated rise in house prices which began in the 1960’s.  (Yes, there was a time – astonishing to believe – when house prices stayed still, or even drifted downwards.)

‘Again and again,’ she says, ‘I found exemplified the importance people attach to their roots and to their physical habitat, actual or remembered – an aspect of the human psyche which has been treated with the most cavalier disregard . . . ‘

If there were a Museum of Kentish Town – which there isn’t – and if it were a museum that told its story through many voices, then hers would be one of those voices, telling that key part of the story, the story of the housing stock, the bricks and mortar and how people made their homes from it.

And that I think is one small pity, that there is no local museum in Kentish Town (there are in fact very few local museums anywhere in London), because a local museum can be (should be?) a place where people can visit their lost and beloved pasts and therefore feel at home in our big cities where it is getting harder and harder to make a home of one’s own.

Gillian Tindall’s latest book is ‘A Tunnel Through Time’, published by Chatto and Windus, and exploring what Crossrail uncovers as it tunnels through the layers of London’s history.

Through my letter box there comes by serendipity a review copy of Stephanie Victoire’s fairy tales for grown ups, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’.  And though I didn’t know I asked for it I am very pleased to get it, because there’s a definite affinity between museums and fairy tales that makes me a big fan of them both.

What they share in common is a willingness to invest the world of things with a kind of magic.  When it comes to fairy tales think of the little red dancing shoes or Aladdin’s lamp or the tinderbox – all things that have a magical power.  And when it comes to museums, think how visitors are charmed by the magical power of objects, because of the illusion they give us of time travel, of going back in time.  It’s true that museums usually see themselves as dealing in everything that’s plain and practical.  But museum visitors are another matter. For many of them museums are about awe and beauty, the magic of time travel, those transcendental moments when you think, ‘Ah, this was made by someone who lived and died hundreds of years ago.’

Museums and fairy tales both deal in the magic of Thing Worlds.

But it is not easy to write a good fairy tale.  You have to be able to breathe a kind of numinous significance into a place or a thing or a moment in time, to invest them with some kind of indefinable meaning that you feel like a breath on the back of your neck.  And Stephanie Victoire is very good at this.  She’s an economical writer, building up her effects quickly and with conviction.  She knows how to get the reader to swallow a huge fiction by getting it over in the first paragraph, how to cast a spell over the reader by summoning up an atmosphere that feels strange and off-kilter, and how to tuck a lifetime of stories into the structure of one short story. I loved ‘The Earth-Bound Express’, for its cool, compelling imagining of the voyage of the souls, after death, between lives.  And I loved ‘The Cemetery Pilgrimage’, whose protagonist is stealing genius from dead bodies in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.  The numinous objects in her stories are snowflakes, axes, the statue of a lover, an animal mask – all bathed in an unearthly light.

But what about museums? How do they invest their artefacts with a larger than life meaning?  Well, sometimes the artefacts, having huge personalities, do the work themselves.  The Chinese Terracotta Warriors, displayed for the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum, were like this.  However you laid them out their off-beat personalities shone out.

But other times it’s the skill of the museum designer that invests an object with a powerful meaning, by the way that he or she places it, or bathes it in light, or the colours it is set against.

And if there is one museum that achieves this oddball, fairytale strangeness from beginning to end it is the Musee de la Chasse in Paris (which we reviewed here two years ago). It tells the story of the medieval forest, a lost and mysterious world both savage and beautiful, that was inhabited by Virgins and haunted by wolves and unicorns.  As with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire’s for instance) it has its own distinctive atmosphere, and as with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire again) I can’t quite pin down how it works, just that it does.

Stephanie Victoire, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’, published by Salt. On 15th November 2016

La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris, France

Love In The Museum

Rosa Campbell

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships (MOBR) when everything was boiling.  The Zagreb summer, the fights we were having, a rolling, endless boil between us.  I went to the Museum to be immersed in other people’s difficulties in love;  for comfort and solidarity and I found this, but I also found insights into the meaning of time and of objects in love too.

The MOBR is a museum of objects, each representing a romantic relationship that has ended. There are objects you might expect;  wedding dresses hang sadly, a Valentine’s day bear holding a red ‘I love you’ heart is accompanied by the note ‘LIES DAMN LIES! This is just what you think when you’re young and naive!’ There are some more unexpected objects too; a garden gnome with a bashed-in face and a large, blue sharply bladed axe, which the broken-hearted used ‘every day’ to

‘axe one piece of her furniture.  Two weeks after she left she came back for the furniture.  It was neatly arranged into small heaps and fragments of wood.  She took that trash and left my apartment for good.’

The objects at the museum are all contemporary, due to the collection being made up of recent donations but we have known for a long time that objects are important in the romantic relationship.

Artist Leanne Shapton in her fictitious auction catalogue tells the story of Hal and Lenore’s relationship through objects.  Shapton and the Museum of Broken Relationships expose the particular way objects are fetishised in love, where to fetishise means to give the object symbolic value which transcends its ‘real’ attributes (as Marx knew).  To be clear: these objects are already loaded with meaning, already fetishised as commodities.  The porcelain dog set already represents a class of people who have knowingly ironic vintage home ware in their Brooklyn lofts.  But Shapton loads them with something specific to the romance between Hal and Lenore and it’s up to us, as readers, to decipher the way the dogs have been specifically fetishised between them and given a place in the story of their romance, reaching far beyond their painted-on smiles and shiny glazed tails.

We can relate to Shapton’s book and the MOBR precisely because when in love we fetishise the objects related to our lover to the extent that the objects stand in for the one that we love.

Sometimes these objects are banal, or rubbishy or a bit disgusting, like the pair of pants in the MOBR or a brush clotted with hair in Daniel Clowes’ graphic novel ‘Patience’.  The protagonist will settle for sticking his nose in the hairbrush of his beloved, in place of her.  In love, other objects, unattached to the love relation, usually weighty with symbolic value, hardly matter.  In my case I like art and books, and I fetishise these too, usually.  Except when I’m in love and alone;  then only the things of my beloved – a cinema ticket stub left by my bed,, an old woolen navy jumper – have any significance.  I’m bored of Miro, tired of the new Granta magazine, which lies unloved beside me. This is what Barthes means when he says ‘I am dead to all sensuality except that of the charming body’ and what Sinead O’Connor means when she says ‘I can eat my dinner in a fancy restaurant, but nothing compares to you.’

And speaking of being alone, time too is different in love.  Usually when I visit a museum – especially the big hitters like the British Museum or the Imperial War Museum, time is presented as linear, progressive and regular.  These institutions tell us that we can learn from the past and try to caution us against repeating historical mistakes. But as the Museum of Broken Relationships shows, time in love is not linear.  The objects here represent a series of messy endings and circles, of people ‘seeing all the consequences looming and doing something anyway.’  (Chris Kraus).

Neither does time march regularly in love and this is reflected in the collection of love letters sent during war time, held by the Imperial War Museum.  Many of these moving and intimate letters speak of the soldier’s hell of waiting for post from lovers, the joyful speed at which letters are read and digested and so the way this joy is then quickly replaced again by waiting. There is nothing even and uniform about time in love.  As the letters show, anxious waiting slows time down, whilst time spent in passionate intimacy with another makes time fly.

I went to the Museum of Broken Relationships that summer in Zagreb, to get some perspective beyond us.  And I got it, in the form of a difficult question:  if time is not linear, progressive or regular in love, is it ever?  What do you think?

Books I had in mind and referenced when writing this piece were –

‘Important Artefacts and Personal Property from the Collection of Lenore Doolan and Harold Morris, Including Books, Street Fashion and Jewelry,’ by Leanne Shapton

‘A Lovers Discourse,’ by Roland Barthes

‘I love dick,’ by Chris Kraus

‘Granta Magazine, 96,’ ‘Loved Ones’

‘Hot Milk,’ by Deborah Levy

‘Ugly Feelings,’ by Sian Ngai

‘Monkey Grip,’ by Helen Garner

‘Marx on the Commodity:  https://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1867-c1/commodity.htm (taken from Capital, Vol 1)