To the Musee de la Chasse in Paris, a museum which – if it were a short story – would be indirect, poetic, fragmentary, full of atmosphere and able to create effects in ways you know not how.
It tells the story of the medieval forest, a lost and mysterious world, both savage and beautiful, that was haunted by Virgins and inhabited by Wolves, Stags and Unicorns. The Museum is full of leafy tapestries, old muskets, a fox curled up on a flowery chair, the suggestion of blood and carpets of flowers and faithful hounds, the droppings of wolves and the whiff of a world that has gone. There is none of the usual paraphernalia of museum-making, no graphic panels pointing out that these people believed in unicorns.
Instead, like a good storyteller, it takes the viewpoint of the past as given, and in so doing takes us into the heart of their world.
Now it’s possible that since French is not my first language I’ve misunderstood a whole level of interpretation here. But I don’t think so, and either way my point would be the same, that museums can get magical effects by not distancing themselves from their subjects. It’s what they teach you at Creative Writing classes – Always show, Never tell. And it’s what Hilary Mantell does in the ‘Wolf Hall’ books – collapsing her own viewpoint with Thomas Cromwell’s – with entrancing effects.
Museum exhibition-making is a new art form and we don’t judge the results with the same fine-grained, thoughtful fussiness that we apply to books – although we could. We tend to judge exhibitions in two ways only – by the significance of their artefacts and by what we learn from them. And because of this nobody sits around and says – as we would of books – ‘I’m not sure I believe in its premise, although it’s beautifully done,’ or ‘Mmmm. What I admire about this museum is the voice of the unreliable narrator.’ (Although if that’s what you’re after I have just the museum for you: the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Los Angeles. And the Museum of Marco Polo also has a weakness for the unreliable author’s voice – but that’s another story.)
So back to the idea that the Musee de la Chasse is a short story. In which case who would it be by? I try various writers for size and then I remember Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s memoirs (‘Living to tell the Tale’) and how he learnt to write magical realism by listening to his grandmother recounting wonders in a deadpan voice. So there you go, I think; definitely a Gabriel Garcia Marquez story. And although I wouldn’t want every museum to be a slice of magical realism – sometimes I’m in the mood for plainer, simpler stories – I would fight for museums, like books, to come in every shape and form. And museum-criticism likewise.
Meanwhile what I took from the Musee de la Chasse, apart from a baffled delight, was a curiosity to understand tapestries better and a half-desire to believe in unicorns. And what more could anyone want?
The Musee de la Chasse et de la Nature is at 60, rue des Archives, Paris 3.
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