26th April 2014:  To the ‘Chaos at the Museum’ conference at Central St Martin’s where, amongst many ideas and much sociability, there emerges over lunch the idea of the Museum with many clones. The thinking goes like this – that digital technologies mean that every museum can be replicated a thousand times in digital form across the web, and that whilst many of these clones will be poorly made and unimaginative, there will be some (a few?) that will be beautiful, imaginative and more than a match, in their own way, for the real thing.

But stranger than this is the fact that none of these clones, nor their content, will be under the control of the original museum. Which gives us the dizzying prospect that we may get digital clones of the Natural History Museum that take the same artifacts and present them as evidence for creationism.  Or we may get a version of the Imperial War Museum where the artifacts are taken as evidence for the German point of view?

‘It’s going to be the Wild West,’ as someone at the conference observes with gloomy relish.  ‘How are we going to know the truth about anything?’

To all of which the objectors will reply, ‘But there have always been paper museums – because that’s exactly what a catalogue is, a museum in the form of a book – so what’s the difference now?’

And it is true that in (for instance) 1791 the Dutch brothers John and Andrew van Rymsdyk published a book that they called ‘the Museum Britannicum or a display in thirty two plates, of antiquities and natural curiosities in that noble and magnificent cabinet the British Museum . . . ‘   And then went on to list what they saw in the real museum, including ‘A brick from the Tower of Babel;  a very curious Coral, modeled by nature in the form of a Hand or a Glove; and the Flagello, an unlawful instrument used in the Irish massacre of King Charles I’s time, although far be it from me to advance anything that is untrue . . . ‘  (I love that qualification.)

But the difference now is that whereas in 1791 a book might take several months to cross the Atlantic a virtual museum now can spin round the world in thirty seconds and acquire an audience of millions, each of whom could visit the real museum with a different version of the content buzzing in their heads . . .  Thus raising the question, So who owns the Museum’s content now?

Hence the enormous and transformative power of the web.

With thanks to:

‘Chaos at the Museum’, Central St Martins, 25th and 26th April (www.re-xd.org)

Dave Patten of the Science Museum (@davepatten)

and Elaine Heumann Gurian (www.egurian.com) who collectively set this train of thought in motion . . .

(The image is from the Children’s Museum of Memphis Blog)

A conversation has been zig-zagging through the office, dying down when we’ve all been busy, and starting up again when we have some time on our hands.  It concerns the scale of the stories that museums tell and who should choose them?

It begins when the office decamps to the old Post Office building near Paddington to experience the latest Punchdrunk show, which – in case you haven’t heard of it – fractures its story into about twenty incomplete fragments and then allows you, the visitor, to wander through a series of ruined spaces, picking up fragments of the story in any order that you happen upon them, and reconstructing the story like a jigsaw puzzle.

After the show opinions are divided. Some of us like reconstructing stories.  Others think that a story should be more than a puzzle, that it should have feeling and meaning, and how can you get that from fragments?

This conversation dies down but starts up again in a different guise when some of us visit Riverside, Glasgow’s new Transport Museum, which tells its story through dozens of small and very personal vignettes, many chosen by the community, whilst avoiding a big narrative altogether.  Which makes some of us (okay, mainly me) wonder how you can make any sense of Glasgow without knowing the big story – the growth of cities, the rise and fall of manufacturing and shipbuilding, the two world wars, the coming of globalisation and all the rest.  If you don’t give your visitors the big story surely you are cheating them of any understanding of why their lives are what they are?

But with its emphasis on the personal and on small narratives the new Riverside has a Punchdrunk feeling.

By now you will have seen which way this post is going – that it is about the rise of a particular form of storytelling, which we can call post-modernism because it has no third-person, authorial voice – and what happens when that kind of storytelling meets museums.

This, I think, is the timeline that lies behind post-modernism and museum storytelling.  Back in the 70’s and 80’s post-modernism began to question the classic story form, to undermine the author’s voice and to question the big story. But back then it was largely confined to academia.  Then in the 1990’s post-modernism met the new technologies which were fueling the rise of self-created content – at which point the professional storyteller found himself increasingly unemployed as readers vanished and everyone became a storyteller.  And then finally, more recently, has come the rise of community museums, with a fashion for small, personal and very local stories. Which brings us back to Riverside and to Punchdrunk.

Small, personal stories are lovely but they are also safe. Big narratives are contentious, sometimes political, often debatable and difficult.  Small stories can be made to have a universal significance – in which case they are wonderful – but it takes a great deal of storytelling skill to give them that significance. I think it would be a pity to tell only small, personal stories and to abandon the big ones.

When we started making museums it seemed revolutionary enough to say that museums are storytelling places. But now the bigger questions are, ‘Yes, but who is going to choose those stories?  And how are we going to tell them?’  And since museums are one of the ways in which we remember the past and pass it on into the future, all this matters a lot.

So who do you think should choose the museum’s stories?  And who should do the telling?

Incidentally, if you are in search of a post-modern and immersive take on storytelling, rather than Punchdrunk I prefer Philip Pullman’s Grimms Fairy Tales, currently on at Shoreditch Town Hall in east London.  Like Punchdrunk the story is spread through the ruined spaces of an old building, but unlike Punchdrunk, each fragment, being a fairytale, is complete in itself.  And although each story is different each circles round and alights on a similar set of themes – which means that each story is more powerful than the last.

The stories go back before the rise of publishing and the spread of reading in the 18th century.  They may even go back before the invention of printing in the 15th century, back to a world when memory was everything and only stories of a startling simplicity and truthfulness were likely to be remembered and survive. When you listen to them you can feel them come alive – because the spoken word is their true medium.  On the page they lie down and die but when spoken they get up and walk.  In the Museum of Stories they would be prime exhibits.

14th January 2014:  Don’t ask me how it does it but one of the most poignant and touching of London museums is one that breaks all the rules:  no Level 1 texts, no lighting to speak of, and displays that have scarcely been touched in the 10 years that I’ve known it. And yet, for charm, poignancy and more than a little strangeness, Pollocks Toy Museum is up there with the best of them.

It sits behind Goodge Street Station in a couple of old brick houses that lean up against each other in a crooked, dolls house way. At its heart is a collection of toy theatres once belonging to a Mr Benjamin Pollock, a modest and diffident man billed by history as ‘the last of the toy theatre makers’.  To this collection has been added a collections of dolls, dolls houses, board games, toy soldiers and 19th century optical toys.

Look in through the windows and you will see all the trappings we find so appealing, of a prosperous,19th century childhood.  But go inside and climb the stairs and you will soon find the pretty nostalgia undercut by currents that are much sharper and blacker. The dolls are stunning but they are not necessarily cosy.

Wax can give a doll a death-like sheen.  Others have the white skin and rosey cheeks of the consumptive.  (I am reminded of something I once read, that in 19th century London the doll-making families, the Bazzoni, the Montani and the Pierotti, who all specialised in dolls made from wax, used their own children’s hair and modelled the dolls’ faces from those of their own children.  It is a feature of the dolls’ story that it drifts very quickly into strange waters.)

Pollocks, in short, is full of ghosts.

But I am here today to look at the optical toys – the magic lanterns and the Praxinoscope, a toy from the 1870’s that you could spin round faster and faster until it seems to unfold a moving story.  What I love about these toys is that it was from these that the mighty, 20th century cinema industry evolved.  (And if, at this point, you go down on your knees and peer closely at the back of the case you will see one of the original lantern slides, showing a dancing devil in a blue jacket. He is horned and tailed, and is tapping his cloven heels in rhythm with a dancing girl.)

All museums are about lost worlds but children’s museums are about lost worlds doubled, because the children have grown up and gone, whilst Pollocks feels removed a third time, because it stands outside the current of mainstream museum development.

Something curious happens to museums when they don’t change. They become less about a dialogue between past and present and more of an intense hit of ‘pastness’.  And whilst I love that hit of ‘pastness’ and would defend the right of every museum to be exactly what it wants to be, there are times when I would want Pollocks to change a little.

I would like it to be a bit more, well, playful.  I would love to see a magic lantern projection so that I could see the dancing devil strutting his stuff. (So not modern technology but more insight into how the 19th century technology worked.)  And I would love it to communicate more and to help me understand  more about the strange world on which it is a window, the world of lost childrens’ childhoods.





27th October 2013:  For as long as I can remember the arguments have raged between the Pure Museum-ists (objects and nothing else) and the Modern Museum-ists (objects enhanced by film, audio, graphics, art installations and so on).  The Modern Museum-ists accuse the Pure Museum-ists of being old-fashioned and not caring about the visitors; the Pure Museum-ists accuse the Modern Museum-ists of being – well, barbarians and not caring about the objects.

It’s a very moral debate – ‘shoulds’ and ‘shouldn’ts’ are scattered in every direction. But I suspect it’s all beside the point as other huge changes sweep down on museums anyway.

And one of these huge changes is that museums will become content creators.

Over the last 15 years the music and publishing industries have been turned upside down as words, sounds and pictures have proved all too easy to digitalise.  It is tempting to assume that museums are different, that because objects exist first and foremost in the  ‘real’ world, from whence they derive most of their power and their meaning, that the digital revolution will somehow be less revolutionary when it finally hits them.

This seems unlikely.

For the fact is that though objects may exist first and foremost in the real world, the digital channels and destinations that spread our understanding of them (websites, podcasts, Twitter, Instagram etc.) are all proliferating, connecting and merging together.  They are taking the content in which museums are so rich and multiplying it many times over as they spread it round the world.

The digital world is even yielding revenue (the more so because it has such huge audiences). Museums that have their wits about them like the V&A are making money from the copyright on their content. And although most of this is the simple release of digital images, museums are starting to add to and embellish their digital content and to tell stories about it, to become in short real content creators.

Now I know this seems unlikely when you look at the dreariness of some museum websites.  (Which dreariness comes partly from a lack of clarity about  what exactly a museum website is for, other than to tell us about opening hours.)  And I know that even to talk about content creation implies an old-fashioned sense of authorship which is at odds with the way that content is borrowed, distorted, merged, mashed up, bounced about and generally played around with across the web, which means – amongst other things – that one organisation can be spread across many different digital homes, Facebook, Youtube, their own website.

But even so, the minute a new medium is invented the human brain gets busy, seeing what it can do.  One day museum websites will have their own purpose, and be exceptional, creative and inventive in their own right (especially when they are allowed to breath a little).

And even now they are changing museums.  They are starting to bring in new skills – editing, journalism, film making.  And inevitably all this will change the balance of power inside museums.

And visitors are changing too.  It is not that they think less of the real objects; on the contrary the authenticity of an object gives it a huge rarity, an enticing strangeness in an otherwise digital world where everything else is endlessly duplicated.  But the more visitors play around with the content the more they feel they own it so that when they come into museums they will see the objects differently. The world, once changed, never reverts back to its previous state.

And none of this is necessarily bad – although even to say this is to use the old language of morality. Which is really not the point.

(Why the museum world phrases so much of its discussions in terms of shoulds and shouldn’ts is an interesting question.  Sometimes I think we could learn from book publishing where all kinds of genres are celebrated and the only stipulation is that they should be as good as they can of their kind.  Looked at like this it would feel okay to have all kinds of museums – Pure and Modern included – so long as they were done as well as possible.)

The image at the top of the page is from a William Morris textile, ‘Brer Rabbit’, in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.



4th October 2013:  It’s peculiar the loyalties that form across the centuries. By far the most poignant story about children that I’ve come across, after ten years of working in museums, is the story of the Merle brothers in the Museum of the Order of St John in Clerkenwell in London.  And though they have been dead for nearly 500 years I still find them haunting my thoughts.

We came across their story when we were redisplaying the museum, which tells the story of the crusader Hospitaller Knights of St John who fought in the long struggle between Islam and Christianity that ranged for centuries across the Mediterranean from Jerusalem in the east to Spain in the west. The museum has a handful of letters written by the Merles, a Crusader family from the south of France, who sent their son Rostand to fight against the Muslims at the Siege of Rhodes.  Rostand was only 16 when he left, and was almost certainly a younger son;  no family would have risked their older sons in war.

One of the first letters is written by Rostand on the 7th August 1511 to his brother Francois.  Rostand is in d’Aigues Mortes (‘Plague-Death’),  a French port on the southern coast where he is waiting for a boat to Rhodes.  ‘Monsieur Monpere,’ he writes (‘Mr My Father’) in his beautiful, medieval French, and sends his respects to ‘Madame Mamere’ (‘Mrs My Mother’), telling them that a friend of the family has just given him figs and oranges for the journey.

Six months later comes another letter.  Rostand is in Rhodes now and is begging his family not to send out his little brother Claude, who is only 12.  Rhodes, says Rostand with real fear in his voice, is a bloodbath in which he’s never been hungrier nor his life in more danger. But his family don’t listen because next comes a letter from Claude in which he proudly describes to his mother what he is taking to Rhodes – boots and a robe of fine black cloth; a coat of mail armour;  material for shirts and a doublet and hose;  black ribbons;  and fine lace from Hainault.  Close your eyes and you can see the two of them, with their black jackets and their white shirts with lace trims, and the scarlet blood of which there was plenty.

Then comes another letter, this time dated 1518.  It is from Rostand again and in it he tells them that Claude is dead. He died in the fighting. What happened to Rostand we do not know.

The Merle family kept those letters for hundreds of years until they found their way into the museum.  If you want to know the dream that they were fighting for, take a look at the 17th century models (also in the museum) of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. Each one is made from wood and old mother and pearl, and represents a dream and an illusion.

The lives of children are threaded through the history of museums.  And that’s not surprising.  We shower the people we love with everything we value most, and after they die we cherish what they once owned.  Museums are full of the things that children once possessed and that parents could not let go of – dolls, clothes, toys, miniature armour, baby shoes, dolls houses, diaries – the list goes on and on, adding an extra layer of poignancy to the already considerable poignancy of museums.

Museums are conventionally about thinking, not feeling.  But we couldn’t avoid the emotions in which these letters are saturated.  We laid out them as simply as we could and supported them with illustrations taken from the book that William Caoursin wrote about the Siege of Rhodes, and which he published in 1482.  (The Museum has an astonishing collection of old maps, paintings and books, including a pilgrim’s manual, describing the journey to Jerusalem with illustrations of the animals that you will meet along the way.   They promise you giraffes, hippopotamuses, even a unicorn.)

The  Museums’ Conference, in Liverpool next month, takes the emotional museum as one of its themes.  Museums have changed.  It will be interesting to hear what they say.

Image:  by William Caoursin

The Museums Conference: 11th to 12th November, 2013.  In Liverpool.



24th September 2013:   I am one of those people who will read absolutely anything – street signs, cereal packets, the back of a shampoo bottle – and so I fell with delight on the  Comedy Carpet, a piece of street art inscribed on to the promenade in Blackpool.  It’s an ocean of jokes, anecdotes and short stories – an airy and light-hearted celebration that beautifully evokes an end of the pier world that has gone.  It is in effect a pavement museum – and takes a shameless delight not only in the jokes but also in the wild fonts and typefaces of the red-top newspapers.

As it happens we were up in Little Sparta, just outside Edinburgh, a couple of weeks ago. This is the garden that the poet Ian Hamilton Finlay carved out of the bare Pentland hills and filled with his concrete poetry. I went because I thought I would love it but as it turned out I only liked it.  It’s true I loved the stone and grass and sheep and sky, but the garden? – well, compared to the Comedy Carpet it felt polite and faded.

We’ve long wanted to create a pavement museum.   Now someone else has made one and as I read the jokes I feel a pang of envy mixed up with admiration as I think, ‘I wish we’d done this.’  By Rachel Morris

11 September 2013:   Am just back from the baroque library in St Gallen in Switzerland, to which we made a detour (two changes of train and much dragging of luggage up and down stairs) because I am romantic about the history of books – which is probably because I read Umberto Ecco’s ‘The Name of the Rose’ at an impressionable age.

So here I stand in this 18th century library – which is a sweet-toothed, sugar-confection of a place. The ceiling is full of painted clouds. The bookshelves that line the walls are made from rosy-tinted, walnut wood, and are all Rococco swirls and curls.  There is a globe that somehow depicts both the earth and heavens, with the result that there are gold stars sprinkled across the continents and oceans.  The windows are wide open and look down onto monastic courtyards.

And I am thinking, ‘Well, this is all very beautiful but what am I to make of it?’ when my eyes go down to the guidebook and I read that the Italian humanist Poggio Bracciolini came here in the 15th century and discovered some long-lost books from the ancient world.  And now I am delighted, because this is a story I know.

The life and adventures of Poggio Bracciolini go like this.  Poggio and his friends were humanists, backward-looking and romantic revolutionaries who were in love with the classical world and who were looking to change the future by what they could discover about the past. Poggio was a book hunter who spent his life searching remote Swiss and German monasteries for classical treasures.

Very little Greek and Roman literature survived the long journey from the ancient world to the 15th century, and much of it that that did was preserved by monks who copied and recopied the texts because  monastic life required that every monk could read.   Greek and Roman literature made useful tools for teaching monks their letters.

Poggio was urbane, well-read and sophisticated, a writer of beautiful Latin, a secretary to the pope, and a passionate book hunter. He came to St Gallen in 1417, and then went on to the monastery of Fulda in southern Germany where he made his greatest discovery – Lucretius’ beautiful Latin poem, ‘On the Nature of Things’ which had been lost for a thousand years.

So to imagine St Gallen in the 15th century, when Poggio came here, you have to strip away in your mind the modern town and see only a steep, wooded valley filled with brambles and wild animals, a waterfall, the monastery with its high walls and a gatehouse that was reached by a bridge across a gorge, the little medieval houses squeezed between the cliff edge and the monastery’s high walls.  And you also have to forget the baroque library (which dates to the 18th century) and imagine instead a high tower (the Hartmut tower) where the books were kept closely guarded by suspicious monks.  Hidden away in this monastery and protected against fire, theft, flood and war were more than 400 books that dated back to before 1000 AD and a few that went back to classical Rome.

As for Poggio, who was in his thirties when he came here, I picture him with close-cropped hair, an intent gaze and a smile to die for – because it would have taken all his charm to persuade the monks to allow him to take away the manuscripts or at least to have them copied.

I only know the story because I read it last winter (on a cold, dark weekend) in Stephen Greenblatt’s book, ‘The Swerve’.  But now I am standing in the autumn sunshine where the story took place and thinking, ‘Ah, so now I know why I’m here, because this was one of the last places where a road was still open – a very narrow road but a road nonetheless – between the ancient world and the world we live in.’

Stephen Greenblatt’s book, ‘The Swerve’ is published by Bodley Head in 2011 and describes how the world swerved in a new direction in the 15th century.  It’s worth reading.    By Rachel Morris


28 August 2013:   Have become  briefly possessed by the unlikely subject of classification.  It is all the fault of Linnaeus, the 18th century Swedish classifier of plants, who – I have just discovered – defined a category of human beings called Homo Sapiens Monstrosus, that included the Patagonian giant and the ‘agile and faint-hearted dwarf of the Alps’.  He also defined another sub-species called Homo Sapiens Ferus, that included wolf boys.  Sometimes mistakes are as interesting as successes.  Imagine a world, not that long ago, in which men (no, scientists) believed in the ‘agile and faint-hearted dwarf of the Alps’.  It’s the mix of myth and science that’s so startling.

The Victorians were great classifiers, but the subject has fallen out of fashion these days. It doesn’t match the free-spirited 21st century and anyway we can see all too easily how it led to the 19th century obsession with racial types (and look where that took us).  Nonetheless classification is deep in the DNA of museums – somehow you have to group the artefacts – and for some museums, such as natural history museums, who identify the species and the steps in the evolutionary process, it is one of their major functions.

But there is something about the classificatory mind that is hopelessly eccentric.  Look at Melville Dewey, creator of the classification system by which most American libraries ordered their books and a man driven by a hopeless passion to make order in the universe.

As a child he made an inventory of his mother’s pantry and then set about re-ordering it. As an adult he not only devised a new system for classifying library books – the Dewey Decimal Classification; he also campaigned for spelling reform, writing crossly that ‘Speling skolars agree that we hav the most unsyentific, unskolarli, illojikal & wasteful speling ani languaj ever ataind’.  When he created the Lake Placid Health Club he persuaded the restaurant to serve up ‘Hadok, Poted beef with noodls, Parsli or Masht potato, Butr, Steamd Rys, Letis, and Ys cream’.

Any classificatory system has to figure out how to divide up intelligently the total of everything that human beings know. (Encyclopedias are different. They are organized alphabetically, a system which is easier because it is also meaningless.)  Dewey’s solution was clever – up to a point.  He divided up all knowledge into ten fields, then divided each of these fields into ten more fields, and then divided the ten more fields once again by ten.  After that comes a decimal point and then the process of division starts again.  In terms of content, he makes knowledge descend from the general to the specific in ways that feel natural and that are infinitely extendable, at least downwards – although going sideways is another matter.  Suppose you believe that all human knowledge begins with eleven or twelve fields of thinking, not ten? Sorry, that’s not possible.

And as always the system is a product of its times with all the inherent biases and prejudices that this suggests.  (See, as you would expect, various discussions on where Dewey – or Dui, as he called himself – put women.)

But what I love about this kind of thinking is how rapidly it moves from an absurd pedantry to a beautiful metaphysics (which is something that museums do continually).  For, as lots of people have observed, all library cataloguing systems have to  –

‘ . . . be hospitable to all knowledge, including things that never were, such as phlogiston; things that never shall be, like utopias; and things that are impossible, like the square root of minus one.’

Which suddenly shifts the library from somewhere pedantic into somewhere fantastical.

The classificatory mind is eccentric, pedantic, occasionally beautifully metaphysical, and also sometimes startling and funny – see the famous quote from the novelist Borges in which he says that in ‘a certain Chinese encyclopedia entitled “The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge’  it is said that –

‘Animals are divided into (a) those that belong to the Emperor, (b) embalmed ones, (c) those that are trained, (d) suckling pigs, (e) mermaids, (f) fabulous ones, (g) stray dogs, (h) those that are included in this classification, (i) those that tremble as if they were mad, (j) innumerable ones, (k) those drawn with a very fine camel’s hair brush, (l) others, (m) those that have just broken a flower vase, (n) those that resemble flies from a distance.

There is no evidence that ‘The Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge ever existed – and the more Borges buttresses his prose with footnotes that more likely it is that he made the whole thing up,

But the point is that as a concept it’s beautiful, isn’t it?  And perfectly captures the idea that all classificatory systems – and therefore all museums? – are hopelessly but (sometimes) poetically subjective.

The image is from the Museum National d’histoire Naturelle in Paris.

By Rachel Morris





More debate amongst the Museum of Marco Polo staff on the role of stories in museum-making;  and specifically, what happens when we try to take the over-arching narrative out of the museum.  So, two after-thoughts.

The first is that if we group objects together visitors automatically assume that they are connected and accordingly will invent a narrative that links them together.  It’s the same process that makes film a story-telling medium:  when a number of images unfold, one after another, the viewer assumes they are telling one story. This happens regardless of the musem-makers’ intentions.  Visitors, it seems, want a big story.

Secondly, there is a quote from ‘The Rehearsal’ by Jean Anouilh, the 20th century French dramatist, which goes as follows –

‘Life is very nice but it has no shape.  The purpose of art is to give it some.’   (Jean Anouilh)

I thought it said it all.


My Dinner with Alaric

Rachel Morris

11th August 2013:   I am whiling away a train journey (a very long train journey) wondering whom I would most like to have dinner with from history.  I consider Camille, the most charming of the French revolutionaries, but decide that I might not get a word in edgewise.  I think about Mark Antony and Cleopatra, but decide that they will be too busy throwing plates at each other to concentrate on the supper. I am tempted by Hector from the Iliad, but then I think that if Camille talks too much Hector might not talk at all. And so, after considering various options – I told you it was a long journey – and after consulting Google on my phone, I settle on Alaric, king of the Goths.  For various reasons.

Firstly, because the Goths were so interesting.  They were a barbarian tribe who first appeared in history in the late 4th century at the end of the Roman Empire.  They came from the mysterious land of Gothia which lay just beyond the borders of the Empire, and whose lands still run flat for hundreds of miles as far as the Russian steppes.  It was a place where Romans rarely went, except on marauding expeditions or as part of hostage deals.

The Romans feared and hated the Goths, believing that they were treacherous, that they were possessed by demons and that they spoke the language of animals.  And yet at the same time they couldn’t do without them (for the Goths were formidable fighters) and so the Goths were everywhere at the end of the Roman Empire, on both sides of the frontier, feasting with emperors, marrying princesses, fighting the Empire’s battles.

The Goths, for their part, envied the Romans their baths, their wine and their comforts, but otherwise preferred each other.  The love of the Goths for their brothers was legendary.  The barbarian kiss of comradeliness sealed a love that lasted til death.

And of all the Goths Alaric is the most interesting.  He was the son of a Gothic king and was born on an island in the Danube on the frontiers of the Empire.  The Romans took him hostage as a child and brought him up as part of the family of the Emperor Theodosius.  But then his people called him home – because they were being squeezed by invaders from the east – and voted him their king and begged him to help them.  And so Alaric took them west into Roman territory, the old people and the children in the swaying, creaking wagons, the Gothic warriors trudging along the roads beside them.  Alaric was demanding a kingdom for his people.  He was living proof that in the end blood calls to blood and you cannot trust a barbarian.

The Romans wouldn’t negotiate.  He tried to talk to the Emperor Honorius, son of the late Theodosius and so in effect Alaric’s brother, but Honorius had fled to Ravenna from where he first gave his word and then withdrew it.  And so at last with a kind of lordly reluctance Alaric sacked Rome and the western Empire never recovered.  Alaric died in southern Italy and his grieving men diverted the course of the Busento river, buried him in the stream bed along with his treasures, and then released the waters so that they flowed back over him.  His grave has never been found.

I decide that over dinner I will ask Alaric what it felt like to be brought up as a child hostage in the palace in Constantinople, what did he really think of the Romans, did he mean to bring the Empire down, did he know what was going to happen?

There is nothing (as far as I know) in any UK museum that connects us directly to Alaric, although if you go to the Musee de Cluny in Paris you will see there a crown that was once worn by the seventh-century kings of Toledo, who were descendants of the Spanish Goths and so distant cousins of Alaric.  It is a beautiful thing – like a cake ring, but made from beaten gold and with large, mauvish rubies hanging off it.

And if you go to the Museum of London you will see an Anglo-Saxon brooch that was found in the ruins of a Roman house in the City of London.  It was dropped there in about 450 AD when London was a ghost town;  presumably it was lost by a woman or a girl, clambering through the ruins. By this time it was forty years since Alaric had sacked Rome. Did her parents or her grandparents tell her about it?  And did she make the connection between the far-off ruins of Rome and the ruins of London in which she was now standing.

So who would you have dinner with from history?