Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Cosmonaut Dreams/Museum of Marco Polo

12th January 2016

How much time do you spend day dreaming in museums? (I mean when you are visiting them, not working in them.)  Day dreaming – that random, drifting thinking that is prompted by the object – probably takes up half my time as a museum visitor – and I can’t be the only one.  And yet how much scholarly research has gone into understanding museum day dreaming better?  Absolutely none at all as far as I know. (If you know of any, please send it in.)

So here is an example of museum day dreaming. I spent Christmas temporarily bowled over by a film, an exhibition and a book – and the themes they raised of Time and Memory.  When I unpick the magic that they wrought on my imagination this is what I come up with. The film was Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster, Interstellar, an epic account of space travel but at the heart of it was a small and painful human story of a father leaving a child behind to make a space journey.  The exhibition was Cosmonauts at the Science Museum, the true account of the Russian cosmonauts who flew back to earth in craft the shape and size (relatively speaking) of a walnut.  Themes of Time and Memory run through them both to entrancing effect. And then there is the book, called Home by Marilynne Robinson, a novel about a small American town, so on the face of it the exact opposite of the film and the exhibition – and yet it too was about memory, about waiting for a loved one to return and how hard it can be to feel at home in the world.  All three worked together to dizzying effect, though presumably no one planned it this way?

All of which does make me wonder whether we couldn’t blend museum interpretation with films and books more often?  Because after all none of us ever go to museums with a mind wiped free of all other experiences?

And if,  having seen the Cosmonauts, you are still interested in themes of Time and Memory (and who isn’t?) then go upstairs in the Science Museum, to the Clockmakers’ Gallery, and after that to the little room that tells the story of Ada Lovelace, the 18th century computer genius.  I liked the graphic panels in this exhibition.  One of them says that Ada  Lovelace ‘represents the collision of two very different worlds, the romanticism of the writer, the poet Lord Byron, and the rationalism of her mother Annabelle Milbanke.’  Rigour and romanticism? I like that.  Maybe that’s what makes a good museum?  And what else?  This is Ada, writing to her mother.  ‘Pray find out all you can for me about everything curious, mysterious, marvellous, electrical.’  Nice to know that the Museum of Marco Polo shares some tastes with Ada Lovelace. All kudos, as the kids would say, to Ada Lovelace.

Meanwhile I have been looking back on the 2015 articles here at the Museum of Marco Polo and am struck by the extent to which museum thinking lends itself to a riot of philosophical thought (modern, post-modern, meta), all of which the Museum of Marco Polo loves, and yet maybe it’s also true that museums are also about things – solid, three-dimensional things, things made, things crafted, things fashioned, and that sometimes we should just think of them like that?  Which is what Maurice Davies was pleading for in his November article on this website.  Mmmm.  It is definitely worth thinking about.

And we also note that although the Museum of Marco Polo has been speaking up against museum cuts in 2015 you can never do too much speaking up on that subject. We’ll be doing more of this in 2016.

PS What else do I do when visiting museums apart from daydreaming?  Talk to my friends, of course.  Museums are social places, stages on which to act out our lives.

Cosmonauts is at the Science Museum until March 2016.