Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

On Lost Museums / Marco Polo’s Daughter

23rd September 2012

It may be because so many museums are currently under threat that I am finding stories of lost and vanished museums so compelling.  There are of course far more lost and vanished museums than we could ever name or count, and each of them has a pathos – because museums are not meant to crumble away and die;  as storehouses of our memories they are meant to last for ever.

But they don’t.  At the turn of the 19th century William Bullock ran a spectacular and very popular museum of Egyptian antiquities in Piccadilly.  The museum vanished more than 150 years ago although its star turn – a stuffed tiger wrestling with a python – still exists, in a small town museum in Pennine Lancashire.  (I saw it there the other day.)  And the Hapsburg Emperor, Rudolph II had a Cabinet of Curiosities that was so spectacular it was the talk of Europe.  Amongst all the usuals it contained a living lion and a troupe of alchemists busy turning lead into gold.  But then the Saxons invaded and the first thing they did was to destroy the museum.  Fifty years later bits and pieces from it were still turning up in the junk shops of Prague.

So history is full of lost museums, but my favourite lost museums – the ones I wish I’d seen – were two:  one created in 17th century Rome by the Jesuit scholar Athanasius Kircher and the other by a certain Alejandro Favian in the town of Puebla in New Mexico.  Their story is told by Paula Findlen in her book on Athanasius Kircher and goes as follows.  Kircher was a polymath, obsessed by his desire to understand magnets, comets, volcanoes, plague, the physics of sound, hieroglyphs, pyramids, romantic love – pretty much anything and everything. He had a talent for friendship – thought of it like a magnetic current connecting us around the world – and was not only endlessly curious but also intrepid. He once had himself lowered into an erupting volcano in order to see what was going on. His museum was in the heart of Rome; it was filled with machines that seemed magical – clocks, magnets, telescopes, automata – and was the talk of Europe.

Favian was a young Mexican priest living in Puebla in the New World.  He had got hold of one of Kircher’s books and was so filled with admiration for it that he adopted Kircher as his intellectual father and decided to make a copy of Kircher’s museum in the New World.  We have the letters with which he bombarded Kircher, describing his ‘new museum of magnificent architecture and genius that I have built in a most appropriate and delightful location, in imitation of your Reverence.’  The museum had everything else but what it lacked was Kircher’s machines, and now Favian was asking for a singing mechanical rooster and a telescope, just as Kircher had.  The New World, he said, was not sufficiently peopled with artisans who knew how to make such ‘artificial things’.  In return Favian sent Kircher the best treasures of the Americas – money, chocolate and Aztec feathers.  He even took a picture of Kircher from one of Kircher’s books and commissioned a local artist to recreate it in the Aztec manner – with feathers and gold – and then sent it by ship to Rome ‘in eternal memory of our friendship, as the greatest and most expensive thing I can send you from these kingdoms.’

But what he really wanted – even more than a singing rooster – was to be someone of importance, and I suppose it is because I was once a precocious child stranded on a council estate in a remote corner of Essex that I can sympathise with Favian’s yearnings to find his way to the far-off heart of the intellectual world.  Favian wanted to become bishop of Michoacan but it is unlikely that he managed it – another friend of Kircher’s said of Favian, both cryptically and snobbishly, ‘This is the barbarous genius of the Americas’.

Favian and Kircher’s museums have long since vanished, and I find it hard to imagine what Favian’s must have looked like, although along with the magical machinery and other paraphernalia of the Old World it probably also contained fragments of the lost world of the Aztecs.

So now we live in another time when museums are under pressure and some of them likely to vanish.  What contemporary museums would I miss if life as we know it now ended and we all went back to living on small holdings with a cow and some chickens at best?  Well, in this case what I would miss (along with coffee, novels and music) would be my favourite museums, the ones that feel to me most like works of art – which for my money (though you may rate different ones?) are the Cinema Museum in Turin and the Plaintin-Moretus Museum in Antwerp.  By Rachel Morris