Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Museum of Marco Polo makes a Museum of the Barbarians

30th March 2014

30th March 2014: Have you ever wondered what kind of museum you would create if you had (quite a few) million pounds in your pocket?

It's a sign of the strange times we live in that even as many existing museums are under threat there are still obsessives, visionaries and businessmen trying to build new ones.

It’s not easy creating a new museum.  It has to have enough poetry to capture imaginations, but also enough revenue to make it financially stable. Making museums is expensive and running them even more so, although it all becomes more affordable if you are prepared to forego the fancy new building and to create a museum that has no home, that travels and that squats in other people’s buildings.

Or maybe it stays still but is distributed in small pieces across a number of homes? Or maybe it lives outside in a landscape – in gardens or streets?

If it’s any comfort, having a fancy new building does not make you any more likely to survive. In fact, probably quite the reverse – because after the first flood of visitors you have an expensive building to run.      A new building can have a peculiarly destabilising effect on an organisation.  It can also make you look middle-aged – because only the middle-aged can afford new build.  If you want to align yourself with the young and hip you are better off doing what they do and occupying found space.

And anyway, a museum is not a building.  It is far, far more – and also far less – than this. It is about things and dreams, and they can live anywhere.  Even the mighty British Museum was once a collection of things in boxes, owned by the charming and convivial Dr. Sloane.

So these are some of the museums I would like to make –

A Museum of Dreams and Delusions (bring your own).  A Museum of Imaginary Worlds (with plenty of science fiction).  A Museum of the Rose (because sometimes small things are windows onto huge stories).  And – a particular favourite of mine – a Museum of the Barbarians, which would tell the story of all those cultures that lived around the edges of the Roman Empire. It would be spread across the countries on the Empire’s fringes, and – and this is mostly why I want to make it – would put those cultures centre stage, in the middle of each space, and consign the Romans to a troublesome fringe around the gallery’s edges. I like the idea of reversing expectations.  So, if you are picturing this in your mind’s eye, imagine the Goths in the middle of the gallery, with their huge wagons and their songs and their poetry and their forests and their passionate belief in their god, whilst around the walls you can catch glimpses of far-off colonnades and distant Roman cities.

(There has always been a code in museum-making that puts the most important subjects centre stage, on the ground floor.  Hence in Victorian museums the Ancient Greeks always greeted you when you came in through the front door whilst obscure Far Eastern cultures were consigned to somewhere upstairs at the back.)

There is no museum that I know of which is dedicated only to the Barbarians.  The Romans themselves never made one, although they did have their victory parades in which the defeated marched, and they also built Trajan’s column as a way of celebrating their genocide of the Dacians.  (There’s a copy of the column in the V&A.  The Romans are shown charging down the slope of the column, the Dacians struggling upwards from below.  You can tell the barbarians by their trousers.)

This museum of the barbarians would travel, turning up in towns in the way that the barbarians used to do and making use of old buildings which are waiting planning appeals to be turned into something else.

So what museum would you make if you found a spare few million pounds down the back of the sofa?  By Rachel Morris.

(The columns in the image are from Apamea in Syria.)