Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

How To Make A Museum of Stories

27th December 2015

Have you ever wondered what kind of museum you would make if you found a few million pounds down the back of the sofa?

It’s a sign of the strange times we live in that even as existing museums are under threat there are still people coming to us (in our daytime role as museum-makers), wanting to make a new museum.  Sometimes they are poets or artists, people with an obsession or a collection, people with a vision and a need to remember.  And sometimes they are Local Authorities, wondering if they can pull in new visitors into their towns by starting a new museum.  Every town wants visitors who’ll spend money, and – who knew? – it turns out that museums are one of the things that get us all out of bed in the morning.

Truth be told, there’s no question we like better than how to make a museum. But the fact is, it’s not easy.

Museums have to have enough poetry to capture the imagination, to pull in the visitors and persuade them to come back – but also enough income streams to give them financial stability.

They need time to bed down, to work out who they are, to find a voice and to figure out how to weave the necessary magic.  (Because a museum without magic will never survive.)  They need to become a place that feels like home, a place to which you can entrust your past and where you go to hear stories that you know already – ‘Ah, that’s my story,’ you think – but also stories about which you know nothing – ‘Really?’ you think, ‘I never knew that.  That’s amazing.’

Somewhere low-ish on the list is the need for a new building.  New buildings are expensive but if it’s any comfort, having a fancy new building does not make a museum more likely to survive.  In fact, probably quite the reverse – because after the first flood of visitors you have an expensive building to maintain.  And anyway, a museum is not a building. It is far, far more – but also far less – than this.  It is things and dreams and they can live in many places, from an old shed to a travelling trailer to someone else’s historic buildings.  (Think of all those historic houses across the UK, each with its beautiful sequence of rooms just waiting to be filled.)  Or maybe it stays still but is distributed in small pieces across a number of homes?  Or maybe it lives outside in the landscape – in gardens, along paths and on hillsides?

So the museum I have always wanted to make is a Museum of Stories,

not children’s stories – there are a few of those around and they’re just fine – but a Museum of grown-up stories – dark, gothic, romantic, frightening, moving and thoughtful – stories that have changed the world and have prompted love, death, wars and revolutions.

Imagine it as a house with many rooms – a room for love and romance, a room for gothic horror, a room for historical fiction, a room for travel, a room for war and restlessness and also for home and peace – in fact, a house quite small on the outside but inside as big as the world.

On most days the curator is to be found sitting in one corner, telling stories. There are words everywhere – words written in light and with ink and on stone, and stories projected everywhere, on walls and ceilings and windows and floors. Outside the visitors gather in groups, ferociously defending the rights of their favourite authors to be included.  Inside the air is filled with the whisper of stories and visitors are stretched out on sofas, nearly asleep as they listen.  ‘Ah,’ they say, ‘I haven’t heard that one in years.’

And the closest example from real life?  Maybe the Cinema Museum in Turin, one of the world’s great museums, and where the designer, a Swiss called Francois Confino, knew that the best human creations are nine tenths dreams and only one tenth physical – an observation that is true of all museums but especially true of the Cinema story.  And so he puts the handsome, chunky 19th century cameras around the edges and lets the delicate, luminous images take centre stage.

So all I need is a few million pounds.  What museum would you make if you found a spare, few million pounds down the back of the sofa?

(The image is a magic lantern slide, from the Cinema Museum, Turin.)