Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

On Thing Magic in Museums

23rd September 2012

Have been reading Marina Warner’s book on the history of the Arabian Nights – and so have become briefly possessed by the concept of  ‘thing-worlds’ and what they mean for museums.

The phrase ‘thing-worlds’ is Marina Warner’s, and captures that distinctive quality of the Arabian Nights, in which things – carpets, rings, lamps, flasks, weapons – are given a life of their own and the magic powers to entrance, trick and seduce their owners.  Life and vitality rush through all these objects.  They speak, they obey or disobey, they yearn to stay alive, make extravagant promises and rail against their always-looming fate, that they will lose their vitality and turn back into lumps of wood or stone.  The yearnings of the thing-world run like threads through the Arabian Nights, and are a large part of what makes the stories both sad and glorious.

So ‘thing-magic’ is particularly prevalent in the Arabian Nights, but the truth is that you find it everywhere.  The Harry Potter stories are full of it – the Sorting Hat, the Philosopher’s Stone, the Goblet of Fire – and in fact it is probably a universal feature of childhood, as you can see from the story of the Bronte children – Charlotte, Emily, Anne and Branwell – who used to play with a box of wooden soldiers that their father brought home from Leeds and weave around them a complex story about a country called Angria.  (‘Mine was the prettiest of the whole, and the tallest and the most perfect in every part,’ wrote Charlotte, who clearly ran to competitiveness.) The children wrote stories, poems, articles and the history of Angria, but it was the wooden soldiers that began it all.

‘Thing-magic’ is that conviction that there is life in inanimate objects. But if ‘thing-magic’ is so prevalent in the way that we all think, then surely we should see it in the way that visitors respond to museums, those temples to the glories and dramas of things?  And probably we would if we ever asked them.  But we don’t.  Because although museums use audience evaluation to test how visitors respond to interpretation they rarely ask visitors about the wayward, random and spontaneous daydreaming that visitors go in for when they wander through museums.  (Although the director of a London museum once told me that one of the objects in her Egyptian collection had attracted the attention of a group called ‘The Isis Worshippers of Bloomsbury’ who had written to her asking if they could worship it – so a classic example of ‘thing-magic’ at work – to which she apparently said, ‘Well yes, but you can’t dress up to do it because I won’t have long white robes in my galleries.’)

So there I was in the British Museum last Saturday afternoon, drifting through the galleries, watching the visitors and looking for objects that might excite thing-worship in the audience.  And I soon found one.  In one of the North American galleries in the Aztec section sits several human skulls, one of them clearly a child’s, and each of them studded with turquoise and adorned with black pyrite for eyes.  A crowd was gathered around them, with horror, shock and fascination written onto their faces.  The Museum is too delicate to wonder how the craftsmen came upon this small child’s skull – but as everyone knows, the Aztecs went in for human sacrifice, so it seems likely that this child was murdered.  Nor does the Museum tell us how they happen to have these artefacts, although the scholar Antony Shelton speculates that they may have come from the collection of an early Italian Cabinet of Curiosities, maybe even the collection of the Medici family.  It is even possible that they were part of one of the original consignments of treasure that Cortez sent from the New World to the King of Spain.  Although, as Shelton says, that’s exactly the kind of myth that tends to hang about these objects.

The masks are curiously powerful.  Try rushing past them without looking and you will find your footsteps slowing and your eyes drawn despite themselves.  And so you stop and stare along with everyone else, wonder who the child was, and how the skulls came here, and to where – sometime in the future, when the British Museum is nothing but a ruin – they will continue on their journey.  Because one thing is for sure, these are artefacts that will outlive any museum – and so are classic examples of artefacts that are infused with ‘thing-magic’.  (RM)