Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Has Museum Design become too predictable?

22nd May 2014

I am on my way back to the office and taking a detour through the Petrie Museum when it dawns on me that the language of brown Victorian showcases – which used to feel so old-fashioned – is now beginning to have a drama and an allure all of its own.  In fact it is beginning to have what the kids would call retro-chic.

The thought occurs to me because the Petrie Museum, where I am standing, tells a double story.  It is about both the ancient Egyptians and the Victorian discovery of them.  The collection consists of mummy portraits with desolate dark eyes;  scraps of lustrous painted glass;  grave stones;  gold, garnet and carnelian beads;  kohl pots;  shabtis by the hundreds;  and much, much more – all of it encased in brown, wooden showcases and presided over by the ghost of Flinders Petrie.  Petrie was a big, bearded, Victorian archaeologist, both conscientious and imaginative  – who said that he would rather write about history as if its inhabitants were a living community rather than a historical abstraction.  Also haunting the museum are the ghosts of his Egyptian foremen, Hussein Osman, Muhammed abut Daud, and Ali Suefit, his favourite (of whom he said, ‘He is really more to me than any of my own race’.)

For various reasons the Museum missed out on the great rebuilding of the UK’s museums in the last two decades.

But now, I think, this may turn out to be an interesting advantage, because when you strip out the Victorian language of brown wooden showcases, replacing them with modern ones, you lose all the Victorian references and reduce the double story to a single one.  But if, on the other hand, you keep the showcases but add in film and light, adventures with torches, voices and projections, games with mobile phones and sleep overs – then you have kept the double meaning – and in fact expanded it.

All very obvious when you think about it but it hadn’t occurred to me before – and it suddenly casts a sideways light on a number of conversations into which we have lately been bumping – conversations about the need for museum design to become lighter and more flexible, less about fixed objects and more about theatre and performances;  and other conversations lamenting the possibility that museum design has become too formulaic and predictable.

From here my thoughts jump to Imaginary Worlds.  These are the worlds that writers create to support their stories.  Sometimes when the stories are particularly compelling the Imaginary Worlds float free of any one particular narrative and become – like Narnia or Early Earth – places of imagination about which the readers start to invent their own stories.  They acquire maps, histories, languages and timelines – in fact all the encyclopaedic qualities of museums.

It seems to me that many visitors think of museums as they think of Imaginary Worlds, places that stimulate their imagination and prompt them to daydream.

Museums are about both things and imagination.  For a generation we have been attending to the former – building showcases and conserving objects – but now perhaps we could give ourselves the luxury of attending to the latter, to theatre and imagination.

Photograph from