Museums and the Boxes under the Bed
Where do you keep your past? Where do any of us keep our pasts?
Mine live in boxes under the bed, hippies, poets and missionaries on one side, immigrants on the other – their lives captured in photographs, letters, bookmarks, rosaries, teacups and knitting needles, embroidered handkerchiefs, 1930’s cigarette holders, and all the rest.
When I open up the boxes I see men and women I do not know sitting around a supper table. A child long since grown up and dead. A pretty young woman in a cloche hat pulled low across her eyes. A letter from a ship going to the far side of the world. A man dressed in a 1930’s suit – baggy and stylish – a brimmed hat and a cigarette to his lips. Letters between lovers. Newspaper cuttings of a scandal. The deeds to a burial plot. A heady mix of love and death. No wonder I don’t look there very often. Sometimes I shut my eyes and picture all the boxes quarrelling together.
Sift through these boxes and you understand how a museum begins, because all museums, even the great ones like the British Museum, were once boxes under the bed. (In the case of the British Museum, it was Hans Sloane’s wooden boxes with which he transported his specimens from the New World.) It’s just that not all boxes turn into museums.
And you also understand how rapidly objects lose their stories. Some photographs I recognise – a child in an Edwardian dress, her curly hair in ribbons – ‘Ah,’ I think, ‘I know who she is’ – because her tragedy still reverberates through the family. But other faces I do not know. i don’t know why that postcard has survived (who went there?) or who wore that scarf that has clearly been cut up from an evening gown – was this when the hard times came? None of this is deep history, and yet already it is sliding away into oblivion. It is still controversial to say that museums are as much about stories as they are about things. But the truth is that an object and its story are like two sides of a coin. When the story dies, most objects – unless they are visually stunning – turn back into bric a brac and dust.
In the Neolithic period whole communities were buried together in long barrows, raised up against the horizon. In Roman times you would have lived with the death masks of your ancestors. Remembering is what we do. It makes us human.
I am not sure where we all now keep our pasts. And I am curious to know where the poor kept theirs in the 19th century – those who lived before photography or who couldn’t afford to have their photographs taken. Maybe they had boxes in which to carry the things that held their memories? And almost certainly they remembered in words, spoken and re-spoken, probably by the women – because families are oral cultures and in oral cultures it is traditionally women who do the remembering. They remember through recipes, gossip and stories. They sew their memories or knit them, or plant them in the garden and on the allotment. They keep baby clothes or save up for a gravestone, the latter like the pages of a book, ready for the story.
There are no recipes passed down through my family, but there are stories by the dozen, all of them in boxes under the bed.