Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Imaginary worlds and historic houses

12th December 2013

12 December 2013:  Looking back over the last year I realise that we have spent large parts of it advising clients on how to build imaginary worlds.  It’s a lovely way to earn a living.

Our imaginary worlds are historic spaces in old mills, castles, 19th century shops, 18th century gardens and derelict cottages, and they are imaginary partly because we can never truly know the past but also – paradoxically – because what’s required to make these spaces sing out is not facts but imagination. However much we pursue historical accuracy it will never be enough. It is artistry and imagination that make these spaces so compelling.

I have been reading ‘Building Imaginary Worlds’ by Mark Wolf, from which I learnt that the Story is the narrative thread that unfolds through time, but the Imaginary World is the context that surrounds and sustains the Story.  Human beings have been inventing imaginary worlds for millenia, at least as far back as the island of the lotus eaters in Homer’s ‘Odyssey’.  When you look over the Virgin’s shoulders in a Renaissance painting and wonder at the landscape that lies behind her you are enjoying an imaginary world. And likewise when you pore over a map of Narnia.

Human beings are such profligate builders of imaginary worlds that some researchers believe that they are one of the things that make us human. We build them as children and we build them as adults, through words, film, paintings, or – in our case – using the play of light on old things in old spaces.  ‘Oh, that’s what we do,’ I think with a moment of revelation, ‘we are Imaginary Worlds Advisers.’

The king of historical world-building is the artist Dennis Severs and his successor David Milne who between them created the Dennis Severs House in Spitalfields in London.  This is not so much a historical reconstruction as an artist’s installation, and while it seeks to be historically accurate its power comes from the imagination of its makers. You can see that imagination in the myriad of details – the half an egg shell on the dressing table that held the 18th century make-up powder, the upturned tea cup on the table in the bedroom, the walnut shells on the mantelpiece (did someone stand here eating nuts?), the goose cooked in its feathers in the dining room, the rich black Christmas cake (real of course) that’s been painted with gold leaf, the portrait of a young man with a black feather on the frame to show that the house is mourning him, and above all, the pools of light that come from candles burning with a yellowy, unfamiliar, pre-21st century tallow and in between the pools of light, the rich, brown, unfamiliar darkness.

It is an imaginary world into which you, the visitor, bring the story – which is why it is so satisfying to go there with a friend and invent that story in whispers together.

The Dennis Severs House is not the only way to recreate the past. I have seen it done in a post-modern way – one time frame in the middle of the room, bathed in light, a second one in the shadows round the edges.  And I’ve seen it done in a more interactive way, so that you, the visitor, can sit down, take tea, be waited on.  All of them are ways of jumpstarting our imaginations so that in our minds we leap out of the time that holds us and time travel to another.

But if you are wanting to try your hand at a bit of historical world building then there are some rules (just a few) to follow.

Lighting is crucial.  Modern lighting is flat and even.  Candles are not merely more authentic; they are also more theatrical and atmospheric, creating pools of light and darkness.

The devil is in the details.  The better you devise the details of your imaginary world the deeper and the richer is your journey into it.

Don’t discount the skill required in knowing where to place an object so that it sings out.  Placement is an art form in itself.

Above all remember that you are building imaginary worlds and you can’t do that without imagination and artistry.

(The image is from the bedroom in the Dennis Severs House, 18 Folgate Street, London.)