At the Museum of Marco Polo, our storytellers (there are two of them – one older and one younger) will tell you that museums are places that tell stories in three dimensions and that you can always tell a museum that does it well because artefacts, stories and spaces dovetail sweetly together in ways that are utterly satisfying.

And they will also tell you – so long as you are not looking too bored – that how intuitively the story unfolds through the spaces is partly a physical matter (the shape of your spaces, ways in and ways out, the routes through) and partly a story-ish issue (how are you shaping your story? where are its peaks, its troughs and its turning points?).

And it’s exactly at the point when you start to decide these things – so quite early on in the museum-making process – that passions begin to run high. Because although all this may sound geeky the fact is that those who shape the story determine what’s important about it, and what’s remembered and forgotten. As always, the storyteller is god. No wonder passions run high.

So how then should we shape our story? For a long time there was no debate around this point. Chronology ruled – the principle of ‘and then and then and then’ – and had done since at least the 19th century. But by the beginning of the 20th century chronology had become caught up in the big, colonial story, the grand narrative of Britain as a major power. It ceased to be about neutral Time and became about progress – more specifically, our, the West’s progress. By the middle of the 20th century it had become so laden with dubious values that it became discredited. At more or less the same time post-modernism came along and under its pressure the big narratives began to splinter anyway and to fall into different viewpoints.

Thus revealing the questions that underlie all these discussion. Is there a story bigger than the individual objects? What is it? Who chooses it? And how do we express it?

In our experience when we sit in a meeting and ask, ‘So how are we laying out this story?’ back will come a dozen answers. This is how the conversation tends to go.

Person A will say, ‘Surely we are not doing this chronologically?’
‘So how else?’ asks Person B.
‘Thematically,’ says Person A, ‘Definitely thematically.’
‘Themes are harder,’ says Person C. ‘You have to work harder to explain them and to draw the visitor across to them. At least with chronology everyone gets it.’
‘Actually they don’t,’ says Person A. ‘Most people don’t know any dates at all.’
‘But chronology isn’t about dates’ says Person C, ‘Chronology is just the idea that one thing happens after another.’
‘But how,’ asks Person D, ‘are you going to lay out a story chronologically when you don’t know which way people will go through an exhibition? You can’t make them follow only one route. An exhibition isn’t a book.’
‘No,’ says Person C, ‘but you can use objects to tempt them in one direction or another.’
‘Can’t we just be old-fashioned here and let the objects lead?’ asks Person E plaintively.
‘Difficult,’ says Person A, ‘These are little scraps of pottery. They don’t say much to most visitors. We are not talking about exquisite porcelain.’
‘Maybe it’s neither themes nor chronology,’ says Person F suddenly. ‘Maybe it’s like a collection of short stories and you can sample as many as you want in any order that you want.’
‘I like that,’ says Person D, ‘I think it works better for museums.’
‘Have you read that novel by Perec called ‘Life: A User’s Manual?’ asks Person G. ‘It’s all about the inhabitants of a black of flats in Paris. Every room and every person in it has a story, but you can read them in any order that you want.’
‘That sounds perfect,’ says Person D, ‘just the kind of story-telling that works in museums.’
‘So do you mean?’ asks Person C, ‘that you have all these short stories but you don’t have a big, over-arching narrative that holds them together? You just wonder around and discover them.’
‘Exactly,’ says Person A. ‘That’s how Perec’s book works. And I think it’s right for museums too. I mean, which one of us believes in those big narratives that museums used to tell?’
‘But unless you have a big story visitors get lost because the big story guides them. And anyway I thought you said that a museum isn’t a book,’ says Person C more plaintively than ever.

And it’s at this point that the Museum’s storytellers want to leap to their feet – and sometimes do – to say, ‘But hang on a second, are you sure you have understood what Perec’s doing here, because that’s not how I understand it.’

Perec’s book is a strange and wonderful novel about the inhabitants of a block of flats in Paris. The book is a vast hymn to people and their infinite numbers of things as well as stories. It bursts with lists and has the same manic quality that many museums have, the feeling that everything that has ever been made in the world could be here, in this verbal junkyard. Though written pre-computers, reading it is weirdly like following a Google search, with one thread leading on to the next and no one moment seeming to have any more significance than any other. The stories at the level of the people are wonderful but the book appears to avoid a bigger story. If you are wondering how to lay out an exhibition and puzzling over the relationship between the over-arching narrative and the smaller ones, then Perec – you might think – has given you an answer.

But then look again and you may see something different. Because at the heart of the book are two characters, Bartlebooth and the painter Valene, each of whom – in his way – is in search of the bigger story. Bartlebooth has made it his life’s work to paint landscapes, unpick them into jigsaw pieces, and then reassemble the jigsaws. Valene also wants to create a big story, in his case, a painting of the entire block of flats and everyone inside it, including himself (a classic case of the storyteller wanting to be inside the story as well as outside it). Bartlebooth is also a collector of maps – another example of the big picture; and although it is true that he tries to destroy his reconstituted landscapes it is also true that there is always another character that tries to stop him. In fact I think the entire book is about precisely this – what is the shape or the pattern that lies behind the surface clutter of life? – and who is the person that creates that shape? And it is not at all clear that Perec comes down on the no-big-story side. The book doesn’t feel like a random collection of short stories; on the contrary, it feels strongly framed, by the outer walls of the apartment block, by the covers of the book and by the author’s intentions.

All of which is by way of saying that if you are looking for a way to take the god-like storyteller out of a museum, then Perec’s not your man.

By Rachel Morris

July 20th 2013:  Responding to Rachel’s post (‘The Storytellers’ Complaint’) about the fashion for avoiding any grand narratives in museum-making – the case can be made that this trend is a major cop-out. I am with the historian Tristram Hunt on this. He argues that ‘the place of the progressive past in contemporary debate has now been abandoned. So much of the left has mired itself in the discursive dead ends of postmodernism’. What is actually going on, he argues, is ‘the left’s flight from social history as a political project, that seeks to lay out all the tensions and conflict that really lie behind our island story.’

Without the big narrative museums don’t need to place the stories in an overall structure or time-line. They don’t have to take a line or grapple with history. They lose the ‘Once Upon a Time’ beginning. And they don’t discover how people know they are trapped or caught by the sweep of big history, the impending sweep of major events destroying the lives of individuals and communities – the impact of wars, the closing of the shipyards or the mines. Presenting the Holocaust without the ‘top-down’ narrative arc and just the compelling personal testimony and stories – in other words without the driving motive – you would lose the layered, composed and edited structure.

There are plenty of examples from TV drama series of how the ‘intimate’ and the ‘epic’ can work together. The Sopranos and the Wire are mostly intimate dialogue, but you are always aware of the bigger context – from their masterful title sequences (1min 36 sec), if nothing else. Just the title sequences alone give a structure and a meta-narrative. In fact the stronger the big, narrative frame the more intimate stories you can put in – because you don’t get lost. Focusing only on the intimate throws away the contextual and the causal.

But my biggest reservation is that we are creating an unchallenging template that takes away from a museum’s power as a communicative medium – so that all the talents that make an HBO box set, a film, an opera, or a play – the script-writer, director, editor – are diminished. It means that you don’t need an auteur or a creative director. It’s just easier to ‘test the coherence of the individual story displays and their interpretive approach’, as stated by one museum that has rejected historical narratives, and then sprinkle these stories anyhow in displays. This is playing with content.

I think the ‘Harry Potter World’ (in Watford, north London) gives the lie to this approach – because it has a great story behind it and great artefacts, albeit all fictional. It is planned expertly and moves between parts that are structured and parts where the visitor can wander at will, from a great Welcome to Dumbledore’s study (a cabinet of curiosities) to a massive props store, to a ‘Huntarian’ museum of weird creatures, to the animatronics of a science centre. It is a masterful piece of museum-making in a cheap shed on an industrial park but made with the content professionals who made the films. And it looks after all the visitor cohorts stunningly – as validated by Trip Advisor.

July 5th 2013:   It was when we were making museums in Cairo that I first discovered Middle Eastern history.  The discovery of this strange new world, full of caliphs and Sufis and scholars and travellers, was exhilarating, like falling into very deep water.  I began to haunt Diwan, the bookshop behind the Marriott on Zamalek Island, and it was there that I found Robert Irwin’s books.

The first one I read was on the Arabian Nights.  It traces a giddy path through the history of this labyrinth of stories – and sometimes stories inside stories – with sorcerers, magicians, storytellers, adulterers, jinns, princesses, treasure hunters, the daughters of merchants and Death itself all leaking out across the pages and escaping from one story into another.  Over them all presides Sheherazade, one of the great heroines of all time, a nimble, fast-talking woman, spinning stories to save her life.

I read Irwin’s book – which is witty and scholarly, grumpy and sardonic – stretched out on my bed in a hotel room looking out on to Cairo. By the end of Chapter One I was hooked. By the end of Chapter Two I decided I had led a shamefully sheltered life.  How come I had only just discovered all these things?  I kept getting up and going across to the window to listen to the Call to Prayer and to watch the city’s golden lights, the threads of which were wriggling and squirming through the vast darkness.  The stories are saturated with the personality of medieval Cairo, the same Cairo that lay sprawled beyond my hotel room.  In its time it was one of the biggest cities in the world, and the most legendary.

Cairo days are hard but Cairo nights are blue and green, and light and springy.  One night we drove into the Moqattam Hills, climbing past the city’s rubbish dumps, looking for the model makers who were building a museum model for us.   We found them squatting with their families in an abandoned block of flats high up in the Moqattam Hills.  They led us in past huge, empty rooms where children slept lined up on the floor in sleeping bags, took us to their work room where they brought us glasses of mint tea and let us admire their handiwork. It was just before the Revolution and the city simmered but held on to its patience by a thread.

Robert Irwin’s book led me on to ‘Stranger Magic’, Marina Warner’s book on the Arabian Nights. By this time we were no longer working in Cairo and so I read it in green and rainy North London.  Once again I was hooked.  She’s more psychoanalytical than Irwin, more interested in the ways of thinking behind the stories, their fabulous twists and turns and why exactly they exert such a magic over us.  She loves the bravura displays of storytelling, the way that one story is nestled inside another and another – sometimes up to seven of them. Many of my favourite writers appear on her pages – Borges, Calvino, Angela Carter. It was like being invited to a party only to discover all the friends you have in common.  (‘But I didn’t know you knew each other’.)

By now I was no longer haunting Diwan but the bookshop of the London Review of Books, which is behind the British Museum. Next I discovered Irwin’s book, ‘Sufis, Mysticism and the Sixties’ in which he hitchhikes to Algeria in the 1960’s and converts to Sufi-ism – more revelations of worlds about which I knew nothing – and from there I jumped to John Barthes’ witty and beautiful short story about Sheherazade  (the ‘Dunyazadiad’).

It is an admiring tribute to a character who, in this version, is beautiful, stroppy, sexy, highly intelligent – in fact just about everything except a storyteller.  That last attribute belongs to the peculiar-looking genie – smooth-shaven and bald as a roc’s egg – (aka the Writer) – who turns up from some future world (ours) and, seeing the plight that she’s in, feeds Sheherazade the stories that will save her.  Pretty soon Sheherazade is an equal devotee of storytelling and the two indulge in some delighted exploration of storytelling techniques. Never has a story been so saturated with such wishfulfilment as well as with the admiring, competitive, I-bet-I could-have-done-that-betterness of a couple of professional storytellers.

And now I have just zigzagged back to Robert Irwin’s novel on 12th century Cairo, ‘The Arabian Nightmare’ in which the city is a labyrinth and the hero is the naively optimistic Balian, who comes from Norwich.

These are book-trails, where one book leads you on to the next and the next, and where each one is as satisfying as the last. Sometimes they go on for months. There’s nothing better.

Illustrations for the Arabian Nightmare are by Isabel Greenberg

Next time we’ll post on how stories work – or don’t – in museum-making.

 

15th May 2013   You will have noticed that at the Museum of Marco Polo we are intrigued by the power that museums and libraries have over our imaginations.  If you look at the ways that film-makers and novelists use museums and libraries, you can see that they are metaphors for the subconscious, treasure stores where inanimate objects come to life, and places where the secrets of the universe are hidden.  It doesn’t matter if we are talking about high-minded Italo Calvino or not so highminded J. K. Rowling, author of Harry Potter, the effect is still the same:  libraries and museums exert a power over all of us.  If you go to the Harry Potter experience in London you’ll see that Dumbledore’s study looks remarkably like a Cabinet of Curiosities.

So the theme that touches me – and maybe you as well? – is the theme of Lost Museums and Lost Libraries, probably because it contradicts what feels to be a universal truth, that museums and libraries are meant to last for ever.

All of which was going through my mind when we were driving last week through Mortlake in West London where – improbably enough – the Renaissance magus and alchemist John Dee once had the finest library in Europe.

Dee was a navigational expert who advised Queen Elizabeth on the search for the North West passage but he was also an alchemist who talked to angels and who pursued the age-old ambition of turning base metals into gold.  He was interested in astronomy, astrology, alchemy, geometry, Arabic learning, optics and the first language spoken at the creation. He believed in sacred, white magic through which he could harness the power of the sun and moon.

Dee spent his life at Mortlake in a rambling house beside the Thames.  Outside there were gardens and orchards and a boat moored on the water.  Inside was his library, which was probably rooms lined with shelves concealed behind painted, wooden doors.  As well as books he would have owned globes, maps, astrolabes, shew stones (stone mirrors) in which he hoped to see reflections of the angels, and distilling equipment to brew up his alchemical potions.   The books would have come by boat upriver, some from the bookshops that had sprung up around St Paul’s Cathedral, others direct from abroad – the so-called Latin trade.  Some would have come from Christoph Plaintin’s printing house in Antwerp, which still stands and is now a museum (but that’s another story). It was a dangerous business, loving books in the 16th century. Many books were forbidden, and England’s ports were full of waiters, or searchers, whose job it was to find them.

Dee only left England a couple of times, one of which was in the 1580’s when, in order to avoid his creditors, he fled to Prague and tried to persuade the Emperor Rudolph to fund his search for ways of talking to the angels.

After many adventures he returned home to England to find that his library in Mortlake – the finest library in England – had been pilfered by his friends.  His grief at their treachery and the loss of his books is so vivid that it echoes down the century – and so got me wondering, one mildly insomniac night, what exactly were the books on John Dee’s shelves?

I thought it would take months of detective work even to take a guess at them but I underestimated the curiosity of all historians everywhere.  A gaggle of historians had got here already, and from their work we can tell the actual books, as well as the kinds of books, on John Dee’s shelves.

We know he had account of the journeys of Christopher Columbus, written by his son;  92 editions of the work of Paracelsus, a famous alchemist; and the Book of Soyga, a treatise on magic in Latin, full of spells, incantations and mirror-writing. It was thought to be lost until 1994 when two copies were rediscovered in the British Library.

And we know he would also have had dictionaries of Greek, Latin, Hebrew, Syriac and Aramaic; the writings of Plato and Aristotle and Euclid’s works on mathematics;  histories of England, beginning – as histories did then – with the life of the great wizard Merlin;  and herbaria, with exquisite hand-drawn paintings of herbs and plants, the knowledge of which was essential for the mixing up of medicines.

He would also probably have owned books by the medieval philosophers Roger Bacon and Albertus Magnus, many of which were on the Vatican’s Forbidden List;  ‘De Secretis naturae,’ by Ramon Lull, another forbidden writer (he came from Spain); and the works of Avicenna, ‘the Aristotle of the Arabs’, the Arabic alchemist Geber, and al-Kindi’s treatise ‘On Optics’, because Dee believed that God’s wisdom reaches us through invisible celestial rays.

What I love about this story is how connected the world was then.  Books travelled – as did ideas – crossing cultural boundaries between Islam and Christianity.

So now I know what were the books on John Dee’s shelves but I still find myself wondering – on other, mildly insomniac nights – how it was that he arranged them and whether he did so alphabetically?      By Rachel Morris

 

Creating Small Worlds

The Designers

27 April 2013   Recently we found ourselves designing small worlds.  The brief came from the museums of Pennine Lancashire, which – if you’ve never been there – is a landscape of high moorlands and deep, wooded valleys, bleak in November but brimming with bird song and streams in high summer.  The more we talked the more specific grew their brief, which in the end became a request for welcome moments in each museum that would capture their shared personalities.

Now one of the things that makes Pennine Lancashire feel so quirky is that the descendants of the old industrialists – the ones who made such fortunes in the mines and the mills – often spent their money on the products of high art.  Which is why it is that the museums around there are so full of exquisite textiles, Byzantine icons, Persian ceramics and Tiffany glass.

The audience we were after was largely families, but the budget was small, and the time in which to work was even smaller.  We couldn’t afford film nor digital interactives.  So thus constrained we did the only thing we could and began designing small worlds, using tricks that have been delighting children for hundreds of years.

It is remarkable the power that small worlds have over us.  From dolls houses, netsuke and the miniature realms of fairies, to ‘Gullivers Travels’ and ‘Honey, I shrank the kids’, small worlds have been entrancing us for hundreds of years.

Small worlds flatter us by drawing us into their secrets. They charm us by suggesting the magic of all microcosms, that the universe can be shrunk to the size of a toy.  And they tease us, because first they give us a god’s-eye view, the power to look them over and examine all their details, and then they block us, because the world they occupy is too small for us to enter.  Thus far and no further – it is the charm and the frustration of miniature worlds.

At Rossendale we devised a model of the museum, complete with miniature artefacts and even including – in Russian-doll style – a model of the model.  In Blackburn we created miniature versions of the museum’s galleries, including its beautiful, green, art deco staircase.  In Towneley Hall we created a Cabinet of Curiosities – boxes really, filled with peepholes and other surprises.

It was the smallest job in the Metaphor office but it had the most charisma.  No one walked past it without stopping to  look.

What we learnt from designing miniature worlds is that detail is everything, that we are enraptured by small worlds because we love their detail;  that games of scale also delight us – tiny paintings next to giant butterflies escaping from their cases; and that playfulness (of which, alas, there is not enough in modern museums though there was plenty in the old Cabinets of Curiosities) goes hand in hand with miniature-ness.

Metaphor created these small worlds with the talented help of Alice Pattullo, the illustrator, and Lucy Askew and Robert Dawson of the Model Room. The best book I know on Small Worlds is ‘The Art of Small Things’ by John Mack, published six years ago but still good. By Rachel Morris

 

18th March 2013:   You have to come from the far north to be so touched by the concept of Sur – the south.

We have been invited to Latin America to teach museum-making skills in Buenos Aires and Santiago. So first to the suburbs of Buenos Aires where behind tall gates and among tall trees we find the Villa Ocampo.  At first sight we could be looking at an English country house – until you see the strangeness of the luminous southern light dappling the shadows across the grass.  It was here that Victoria Ocampo published a magazine called ‘Sur’ for more than fifty years.  ‘Sur’ was the first literary magazine in Latin America, and over the decades published most of the world’s great writers, including Jorge Luis Borges, Albert Camus, Andre Malraux, Antoine de St Exupery and Graham Greene. Those who wrote in English Victoria translated into Spanish, so that their stories could loop on round the southern hemisphere, mingling and transmuting and seeding in other cultures.  The Library still contains 12,000 books and letters, as well as copies of every edition of ‘Sur’.

And from the Villa Ocampo, we go on across the Andes and down into Santiago, where we go to Pablo Neruda’s house, which is a collection of blue and yellow painted shacks that sprawl across the hillside outside Santiago.  It’s a poet’s house, full of shady corners, uneven steps and earthen patios where Neruda cooked up barbecues for his dinner guests.  Sit here and you can eavesdrop on the ghosts of all his guests, as well as witnessing how Cubism collided with Latin America and was transformed into something else. When Neruda won the Nobel prize he went to Paris from where he bought back home to Chile a first edition of Diderot’s Encyclopaedia. And so another object made an unexpected journey and another path was traced, from south to north and back to south again.

Read the first chapter of Neruda’s Memoirs and you will find the following passage about his childhood in Temuko, which is south of Santiago and was once a frontier town and the country’s southern-most outpost:  ‘The rain was the one unforgettable presence for me then.  The great southern rain coming down like a waterfall from the Pole, from the skies of Cape Horn to the frontier.  Sometimes it rained for a whole month, for a whole year.  Threads of rain fell like long needles of glass snapping off on the roofs or coming up against the windows in transparent waves, and each house was a ship struggling to make port in the ocean of winter . . . The southern rain is patient and keeps falling endlessly from a grey sky.’

Northerners dream of the south just as southerners dream of the north.  Neruda’s words are so poetic that, seduced by the concept of the southern rain, I look up at the hot, blue Chilean sky and pray for water.  By Rachel Morris

 

When a museum is a work of art

Marco Polo’s Daughter

February 2013:    When Orhan Pamuk’s ‘Museum of Innocence’ opened in Istanbul last year it joined a tiny group of museums that are real but also fictional – and so seductive you wonder why fictional museums don’t open every week. Naturally the Museum of Marco Polo takes a great interest in these developments.

The Museum of Innocence is real enough. But it is also fictional in the sense that it is a recreation in three dimensions of a fictional museum in Orhan Pamuk’s novel ‘The Museum of Innocence’. In the book the Museum is the memory of a one-sided and passionate love affair between Kemal and Fusun, which lasts a lifetime. In real life the Museum, also by Orhan Pamuk, is about memory, the meaning of things, Istanbul in the 1950’s and how painful is the passing of time. It is also extremely beautiful and in this way reminds me of another fictional museum, this time in Los Angeles, called the Museum of Jurassic Technology. Both are the creations of artists and each is a work of art. The fact that each is threaded through with fiction only seems to enhance their charisma.

The Museum of Innocence is in a tall, skinny house in one of those steep, narrow streets that run down from the Istaklal Caddesi to the edge of the Bosphorus not far from the Galata Tower. Step inside and you’ll see that the story is told through boxes. Each box is a window on a lost world, and each mimics the way that memories come to us in lightning flashes, each flash illuminating the fingers that tap the cigarette; the clock that ticks in the corner; the dregs of coffee in the bottom of the cup. Collectively the Museum’s boxes evoke the lost world of Istanbul in the 1950’s when rich young men drove sports cars and old men were patriarchs and wore mufflers and heavy overcoats and had sets of shaving brushes with feathery ends; and chemist shops were filled with little bottles lined up on brown wooden shelves; and wealthy women were bosomy and wore off the shoulder dresses and had big, flashing smiles and beautiful temples. Woven through this world is the love affair of Kemal and Fusun.

In one of these boxes a small child in a home movie squints into the sunlight with a look of innocence and bemusement on her face. It is that innocence and bemusement, as life hits us like a train, that is the subject of this Museum. Its other theme is Time. ‘It was the happiest moment of my life, although I didn’t know it,’ says Kemal, the hero of the story, and straightaway you know that in the Museum of Innocence time runs backwards and that all that is best in life, indeed all its meaning, resides back there in the past.

So if I were being picky I would say that the boxes are a strength, but also a weakness, that they hold the story in too tightly and stop it from leaping out across the rooms, that what’s the point in being able to tell a story three dimensionally and then confining it to two? But this is the pickiness that comes over you when you look at something really good. You want it to be better.

And what really strikes you as you stand in the museum is how eloquent objects are. I don’t mean grand art objects – which speak their own international language – but ordinary things – home movies, cheap toys, photographs, bottles of soda, hair grips, a summer’s dress, clocks, cooking utensils, house keys, summer gloves, a single tennis shoe, each and all of which has been laid out in the boxes. All these objects Orhan Pamuk deploys, just as in his other life he lines up words, to say something that’s in his heart. The objects conjure up an atmosphere and a time, and achieve a tone of voice – smoky, nostalgic, painfully sweet – that words struggle to keep up with. Words are more exact but things can do something different – bypassing the brain and going straight to the heart.

This Museum is emphatically one man’s voice and one man’s vision, and that is its great strength.  The Museum is as personal in its way as a novel, and just like a novel it has its own distinctive voice. You can like it or hate it but either way the novelist/museum-maker shrugs his shoulders and says, ‘I’m sorry but that’s how it seems to me. Your past is your past. This is my past. If it doesn’t feel true to you then make your own.’

And he would be right of course. There is nothing to stop each and every one of us using things, just as we use words, to create our own museum, which would be the story of our lives.  By Rachel Morris

 

 

On Lost Museums

Marco Polo’s Daughter

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

After the old man died the first thing that happened was that the stories got muddled up.  Some became attached to the wrong objects; others vanished altogether. The old man had foreseen this danger, and in the last months of his life had taken to buttonholing his grandchildren and trying to impart to them everything he knew.  But he had left it too late, his voice had grown weak and mumbly, and the children had no patience for listening.

Within a few years of his death they had forgotten what the golden passport said, the story behind the wolf-skin robes, and in which direction the compass pointed (the lettering was in Chinese).  An object without a story is on its way to bric-a-brac and dust. One day the smallest grandson took the compass out into the street to play with it and then dropped it in the canal and never dared confess.

The umbrella and the kaftan meanwhile had both lost their stories – they had died with the old man who could never bring himself to utter them.  And so no one knew that the child who had worn the kaftan had had blue-black hair like a bird’s feathers (he got that from his mother) and the wide-eyed look of the westerners (he got that from his father) and that when it rained he had liked to take giant steps from puddle to puddle although he was only four.

Not long after this the Polo family fell upon hard times – and so they melted down the golden passport for money, and sold the salamander cloth to an up and coming merchant.  The gunpowder was frittered away in small boys’ explosions. The wolf-skin robe was left out for the children to play with until it grew too threadbare to be comfortable.  The umbrella, the kaftan, the Mongol armour, a bolt of silk and both the books, one with the map folded inside it – all this was packed away inside a trunk and left in the corner of the room to be forgotten.

Meanwhile the old man’s extravagant stories, which had been written down and passed from hand to hand the length and breadth of Italy, now began to blow back on the wind in ever more fantastical forms.  But as the Polo family said, ‘There’s no money to be made in stories.’

 

 

 

 

 

Marco Polo grew old and the older he grew the more he remembered.

In the eighth year of his travels he had come to the city of Hang-Chou.  It was not long after the Mongols had over-run the Empire of the Song, and the streets of Hang-Chou, the old capital, now swarmed with Mongol soldiers. Hunger swept the city, but the Song, those indefatigable pleasure-lovers, were unwilling to give up their old habits.  The Song artists were still taking views of the Heavenly Mountain; the Song girls were boating on the Waters of the Moon, the lake between the city and the mountain; and the Song bureaucrats, who were as eternal as the rising sun, had returned to their desks to record the city’s wealth (though it was much diminished) for the purposes of taxation.

But the Great Khan didn’t believe their figures and instead had sent Marco Polo to make a tally.

And so it was that Marco Polo, dressed in gaudy, Mongol robes and with his hair tied up to one side in a Mongol pigtail, was walking through Hang-Chou’s ruined streets.  He was twenty-four, skinny and good-looking, and much beloved by the Great Khan, who now bestrode the world.   At this moment Marco Polo thought that he might live forever.  Behind him trailed his entourage of Mongol soldiers and downcast Song officials.

In due course Marco Polo and his entourage came to the Palace gardens and to the Museum of the World, which the last Emperor – only eight when he died – had created for his even younger consort.

The Museum resembled a temple.  At its heart the Emperor had laid out the achievements of the Song – the dragon ware, the flawless porcelain, the landscapes painted onto silk, of tiny travellers amidst wooded hills and towering gorges;  even an encyclopaedia of the known world, which ran to several thousand volumes. Around these he had laid out the possessions of the lesser people, the Jin and the Tanguts.  And around these, in a further ring, he had laid out the monsters who dwelt in the deserts and mountains, and the huge fish who swam in the sea.  Deserts, mountains and Ocean together guarded the Empire’s frontiers, except to the north.  It was from here that the Mongols had come.  After the Empire had fallen the Emperor’s Chief Adviser had taken the eight-year-old Emperor in his arms and leapt with him from a high cliff into the Ocean, rather than surrender.

Marco Polo stopped in front of a huge bronze fish, and behind him his entourage paused also.  He thought, ‘This was the kind of fish the Emperor would have passed as he sped like a comet to the bottom of the Ocean.’  For one moment his excitement paused – before its bubbles started up again on their upwards trajectory.

On he walked until he reached the back of the temple, where someone had laid out scraps of pottery and other odds and ends that had not yet been categorised.  A piece of coloured glass caught his eye.  To his amazement he saw the Lamb of God, curly-haired, curly-horned, big eyes drooping downwards mournfully at the outer corners.

He bent down to look at the label:  ‘A piece of Christian glass.  From a barbarian town on the Western Ocean.  Possibly Venice.’  Sharp as a knife a memory stabbed upwards under his ribs and he gasped.  The sun dimmed. Hang-Chou turned to ashes.  ‘Oh my mother,’ he thought, ‘Oh my sisters.’

It is the fate of travellers to be ghosts in the countries they leave behind, and ghosts in the countries they come to.  All this Marco Polo tried to say but the words wouldn’t come out.