Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Chinese Emperor’s Encyclopedia

9th November 2014

Was planning to write this week on Small Museums but have been arguing with the Marco Polo Researcher about whether it is possible to write a compelling and seductive article on the subject of Classification.  The Museum’s Researcher says it’s not possible.  I say, ‘I’m not so sure.’  The Researcher says, ‘Well, prove it,’ and so I say –

‘Well, think of it like this. There are two ways in which you can classify the world – as if it made sense and as if it did not – and both ways speak volumes about you.  It was the medieval librarians of the Sorbonne in the 13th century who invented a way of cataloguing books by setting them out alphabetically.  As a mode of display it was considered to be efficient but barbarous, because it didn’t try – as had every library up til then – to order the world in categories that reflected the truth about the Universe.

‘So now fast forward 200 years to the late 15th century and to the Cabinets of Curiosities, much of whose magic came from the belief that they mirrored in miniature the patterns of the Universe.  They categorised the world by dividing up its treasures into ‘man-made’ curiosities, such as mirrors and magic lanterns, sundials and perpetual-motion machines, and natural, or god-made curiosities, such as fossils, Siamese twins, dwarves, dragons and unicorn horns.  Their purpose was to reveal the hidden connections and secret affinities between objects whose origins were widely scattered in time and space.  Thus they offered visitors a glimpse of the secret at the heart of the Universe – that all things are connected and that reality is one.

‘So now fast forward again, to the 17th century and to the story of the Chronologists.  It was a time when the Christian church had shortened history dramatically by fixing its beginnings, those seven days when God created everything, to a point in time – 4004 BC to be exact.  This meant that everything that had ever happened since had taken place in about six thousand years.  History had become a short and very crowded thing.

‘But human history called out for a longer past.  The Renaissance had sparked an interest in the classical past, and the discovery of the New World had posed serious questions – such as how it was that the Aztec stone calendars could go back for so many thousands of years.  The Italian philosopher, Giordano Bruno, said that if native Americans were human beings than the long chronology of their calendars suggested that humans had a very ancient history indeed. An image has survived of Giordano Brune, looking small, skinny, curly-haired and intense.  He believed in multiple worlds and an infinite universe.  For these heresies, and for the heresy about the age of the human race, the Catholic Church burned him alive in the Square of the Flowers in Rome in 1600.

‘Chronology – the study of dates – has a reputation for being dull and pedantic, but once it was glamorous and dangerous.  Who would have thought it?

‘And now finally jump forward to the present day when for every museum and library that exists in the real world we are building its mirror image, in the virtual world.  But the huge question is, how to catalogue these virtual museums so that we can find the artefacts that we want, without the help of a Librarian?  And one ingenious solution that’s emerged is to let the users reveal the mental associations that they make with each artefact and then to tag the artefacts accordingly.  So if a thousand people associate a white-tailed deer with Bambi and Walt Disney, then that’s one way to tag it so that you, the user, can find it.  The geeks of today are heirs to the medieval scholars of the Sorbonne, and thousands of years of thinking about how to classify the world.

‘All these are examples of Classification and you could write a novel about any of them.  So what could be bad about that?’

‘Mmm,’ says the Museum’s Researcher, ‘Interesting, and very Umberto Eco, but how am I going to tweet all that?’

‘Ah,’ I say, ‘Well there you’ve got me.’

PS  And why ‘The Chinese Emperor’s Encyclopedia’?  Because we thought that if we called it ‘Some thoughts on Classification’ you would never read it.