Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Why Some Museums have Charm

17th July 2019

So here’s a thought.  In all the years that we have been making museums no one has ever asked us to make a museum with charm.  Spectacle and drama, yes. Family-friendly and child-focused, definitely. Therapeutic even,  But charm?  The concept has never arisen.

And so I was interested to find myself in the Museum of Greek Archaeology in Reading University, which is very definitely a museum with charm.  It was founded in 1922, the creation of a husband and wife team, Percy and Annie Ure, and it is largely untouched by contemporary museology – such as expensive showcases and a zeitgest-y minimalism.  Instead it has been allowed to build up layers of history – like archaeological strata – until it has become a museum both of ancient Greek archaeology and also of 20th century excavating and museum-making in the universities.

Straight in front of you as you step in is a showcase with a pair of Percy’s brown spectacles and a yellow-covered box for cigarettes (‘Gold Flake’ it says on the front) and an old-fashioned camera in a leather case for recording finds, and a letter (‘Dear Mrs Ure’) and  an old copy of the Journal of Hellenic Studies – all evoking a way of academic life from between the wars that is nearly as lost in time as Ancient Greece itself.  It is the museum-equivalent of novels like  Olivia Manning’s ‘The Balkan Trilogy’.  Added to all this is the world of archaeological digs and with it the notebooks and diaries and sketches and drawings.

And the charm?  Well that comes from two things. Firstly this is a small museum containing small, domestic artefacts, and miniature-ness seems to be intrinsically connected to charm.  Secondly this is a museum that’s interested in its own story, which gives it – to my mind – a nicely ‘meta’ feel – it’s like introducing the storyteller into the story – and also a very personal feel, and ‘human-ness’ is often (although not always) charming.

It’s easy to think that anything old is always charming – but that’s not true.  I could name a few – though not many, I grant you – contemporary museums that have a massive charm.  (I am thinking of the Cinema Museum in Turin, where the exhibition-design was done by the French designer Confini, and also of the Musee de la Chasse in Paris.)  And it’s also easy to think that child-like is always charming – but again, that’s not always true.

Charm is not a very museum-y concept – it feels too frivolous for their historic intentions, which are to educate the world.  And charm of course is not a feature of our edgy, anxious times.

But though I wouldn’t want every museum to be charming – that would be boring –  I still think that museums can be many things – sad, thoughtful, playful, revolutionary? – and charming could be one of these.  In fact I am looking forward to Charm being named as one of the requirements in those tender documents that keep floating through my inbox.

And on the topics of Small Museums and Museum History you might also enjoy the following related posts.