Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Avoiding the Formulaic Museum

9th May 2014

9th May 2014   What happens if you start to view a museum as an imagined world – not a reconstruction or an interpretation of the world we inhabit but an imagined world such as you explore in the novels of Tolkein or Terry Pratchett or the art of Paul Noble or the films of Guillermo del Toro?

I still sometimes worry about museums delivered to a formula – the formula of a predetermined assemblage laid out on a grid pattern of desk cases, upright cases, mannequins, dioramas and graphic panels.  I am far more interested in the museum that each visitor creates in their head as they visit the museum, and in the core of the museum visit, which is the experience of awe and wonder when you come into contact with something amazing, rich and beautiful – when the curator puts in the visitors’ hands a hand axe which is thousands of years old. That moment is something the visitor will never forget.

One of my favourite museums is the Deutsches Auswandererhaus in Bremerhaven.  The amazing moment when you visit Bremerhaven is not the entrance to the museum where the visitor wanders through a group of mannequins representing emigrants about to embark on a passage to the United States, but a few minutes later when you board a representation of an ocean liner and look back from the quarterdeck to see the visitors following behind you and how they merge with the mannequins so that the visitors become mannequins and vice versa.  Your brain bounces back to that moment of moving amongst the unmoving forest of mannequins and somehow you’re connected to the six million people who over a period of 120 years emigrated from Bremerhaven.

At Bremerhaven the display seems to be ideally tuned to the subject, and so the subject immerses the visitor.  In contrast some shiny metallic museums constructed from intersecting planes seem to have little resonance with either the landscape around them or the subject matter they contain. The best museums let us relate directly to their collections and stories, as at Bremerhaven, and challenge the separation of objects, ideas and visitors.

Working for many years in County Durham I was very aware that there were a very significant number of private collections of items of coal mining heritage.  Former miners had collected items from the pits as they closed and often stored them in the garage or the loft.  In many cases they had a desire to create a museum from these collections.  Clearly the museum ecology wouldn’t support a proliferation of coal mining museums in a small area but I am tempted to say that these are already museums just because the people who visit them, sit with them or look at them are already calling them museums.

Similarly children mimic the adult world and learn about it through replicating it.  In the North East there is a tradition of children creating ‘boody shops’.  A child lays out on the pavement pieces of broken china as if they were in a shop display and ‘sells’ objects to their friends.  We know that children enjoy creating their own museums in classrooms.  It is of little significance whether the objects they curate are of great social, artistic or scientific value. The meaning-making lies within the process.

Sometimes museums are created purely in the head.  In the Museum of Innocence Orhan Pamuk writes a moving love story that depicts in incredible detail life in Istanbul in the last quarter of the 20th century.  In the novel he describes the creation of a museum of objects that record this love affair.  Later the author creates a real museum with real objects that are similar to those that might have been created in the imagined museum. This museum is now open to the public.  Is this a museum or a piece of contemporary art through which one can walk?

Too often museums feel like they are constrained by the walls of the building and don’t open out on to the world.  When we developed the Great North Museum: Hancock in Newcastle one of the features that we built in was a wall that opened out from our learning rooms into an outdoor wildlife garden with a pond. And currently we are developing a new plaza outside the Discovery Museum in Newcastle that will showcase a major exhibit but also provide some valuable outside space.  Prior to this there has been little outside space where people can congregate.  And so we have created what I call an ‘outside inside space’ – in an atrium around the steam powered vessel, ‘Turbinia’ where people can mill around and eat packed lunches.

Objects are central to museums.  Without objects they wouldn’t be museums! But the objects are not always items that are curatorially validated, defined as exemplars, made magic by the touch of the great or the good.  The Museum of Broken Relationships created the idea that it was really the story that lay at the heart of the museum.  Created from assemblages of objects that had meaning only to the people who donated them, the Museum of Broken Relationships has been defined as ‘an art concept’.  But is it also a museum for memories and emotions where the material momentoes of broken relationships can preserve some of their non-material heritage?

i believe that what is best about museums in their diversity.  Let’s hope that in fifty years time our grandchildren will acknowledge some of today’s museums as great museums.  And that we have helped museums evolve in new and different directions, challenging the nature of museum buildings, taking down the walls of the museum, and questioning the separation of objects, ideas and visitors.

Iain Watson is Director of Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and writes and lectures extensively on museums, learning and heritage.

The image on the front page is from Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence in Istanbul.