Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Museums, Things and Fairy Tales

28th October 2016

Through my letter box there comes by serendipity a review copy of Stephanie Victoire’s fairy tales for grown ups, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’.  And though I didn’t know I asked for it I am very pleased to get it, because there’s a definite affinity between museums and fairy tales that makes me a big fan of them both.

What they share in common is a willingness to invest the world of things with a kind of magic.  When it comes to fairy tales think of the little red dancing shoes or Aladdin’s lamp or the tinderbox – all things that have a magical power.  And when it comes to museums, think how visitors are charmed by the magical power of objects, because of the illusion they give us of time travel, of going back in time.  It’s true that museums usually see themselves as dealing in everything that’s plain and practical.  But museum visitors are another matter. For many of them museums are about awe and beauty, the magic of time travel, those transcendental moments when you think, ‘Ah, this was made by someone who lived and died hundreds of years ago.’

Museums and fairy tales both deal in the magic of Thing Worlds.

But it is not easy to write a good fairy tale.  You have to be able to breathe a kind of numinous significance into a place or a thing or a moment in time, to invest them with some kind of indefinable meaning that you feel like a breath on the back of your neck.  And Stephanie Victoire is very good at this.  She’s an economical writer, building up her effects quickly and with conviction.  She knows how to get the reader to swallow a huge fiction by getting it over in the first paragraph, how to cast a spell over the reader by summoning up an atmosphere that feels strange and off-kilter, and how to tuck a lifetime of stories into the structure of one short story. I loved ‘The Earth-Bound Express’, for its cool, compelling imagining of the voyage of the souls, after death, between lives.  And I loved ‘The Cemetery Pilgrimage’, whose protagonist is stealing genius from dead bodies in the cemetery of Pere Lachaise.  The numinous objects in her stories are snowflakes, axes, the statue of a lover, an animal mask – all bathed in an unearthly light.

But what about museums? How do they invest their artefacts with a larger than life meaning?  Well, sometimes the artefacts, having huge personalities, do the work themselves.  The Chinese Terracotta Warriors, displayed for the First Emperor exhibition at the British Museum, were like this.  However you laid them out their off-beat personalities shone out.

But other times it’s the skill of the museum designer that invests an object with a powerful meaning, by the way that he or she places it, or bathes it in light, or the colours it is set against.

And if there is one museum that achieves this oddball, fairytale strangeness from beginning to end it is the Musee de la Chasse in Paris (which we reviewed here two years ago). It tells the story of the medieval forest, a lost and mysterious world both savage and beautiful, that was inhabited by Virgins and haunted by wolves and unicorns.  As with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire’s for instance) it has its own distinctive atmosphere, and as with any good fairy tale (Stephanie Victoire again) I can’t quite pin down how it works, just that it does.

Stephanie Victoire, ‘The Other World, It Whispers’, published by Salt. On 15th November 2016

La Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature, 62 Rue des Archives, 75003 Paris, France