Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Family Archives and Fictional Museums

23rd March 2020

So here I am, so hungry for fresh air that I am outside in the garden, wrapped up in my winter coat under our leafless tree and reading about fictional museums (since the real ones are out of bounds).  I have done a fair amount of research on this subject (also known as reading lots of novels) and my conclusions are that fictional museums – trust me while I explain this – are a whole lot more interesting that you might think.

I am dividing fictional museums into two camps. There are some that are thinly disguised versions of real ones. I am thinking here of Penelope Fitzgerald’s ‘The Golden Child’ – which is a great novel about what is very obviously the British Museum.

But there are also some where the main protagonists are driven by extreme events to create their own museums.  I am thinking here of ‘The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum’ and ‘The Museum of Innocence’ and ‘Station Eleven’.  These are sad and beautiful books, though in the case of ‘Station Eleven’ the plot is so brutally topical (a mass epidemic since you ask) that I think we should skip over it.  ‘The Museum of Innocence’ is less upsetting.  It is set in Istanbul and tells the story of Kemal and his botched love affair with Fusun, and how after he loses her he obsessively collects the things that he associates with this love affair until he has built a museum to his lost girlfriend.  All three novels are elegiac and nostalgic;  in each of them museum-making is a process of comfort and consolation.

So are these fictional museums just fancy metaphors dreamt up by novelists as vehicles for their ideas?

Up until recently I would have said yes, but then I came across an interesting article by Anna Woodham and four of her colleagues (called ‘We are what we keep:  The Family Archive’ in the journal, ‘Heritage and Society, 2017) in which they argue that many families have a family archive, or museum, of photos, documents, recipes and heirlooms, and that these ‘museums’ are the personal, unofficial, but much valued counterparts to ‘real’ museums.  In other words, that we are all museum-makers in the way that we hold on to the things that carry our memories, and try to keep the things and their stories together.  Making museums is what all humans do. It is also what each of the protagonists do in the novels above.

So my question (to which I don’t yet know the answer) is – how does this thinking relate to the ‘official’ histories of museums (itself currently much under debate)?  Or, to put it another way, what is the relationship between our own personal museums, the ones that we make out of our memories, and ‘real, official’ museums, the ones that we visit?

All examples of fictional museums in novels gratefully received.

And meanwhile, on the pandemic front, it’s getting dark and cold out here, although the sky is very bright behind the tree, and I have a cup of tea and a half a bar of Galaxy so really things could be worse.

‘Station Eleven’ is by Emily St John Mandel.  ‘The Glace Bay Miners’ Museum’ is by Sheldon Currie. ‘The Museum of Innocence’ is by Orhan Pamuk.  And the article ‘We are what we keep’ is by Anna Woodham and her colleagues Laura King, Liz Gloyn, Vicky Crewe and Fiona Blair, and is in the journal,  ‘Heritage and Society’ Vol 10, 2017.

And if you’re interested in fictional museums try the related posts below –