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Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020


The Future of Remembering/Museum of Marco Polo

7th July 2014

Am just back from  Lindisfarne Island where I went with the Chief Illustrator to the Museum of Marco Polo, who is in search of English magic (don’t ask) – which is how it was that I was in the graveyard at Lindisfarne, admiring the gravestones and thinking how economically every one of them tells a story and how cleverly they had licked the challenge of ‘Remember Me’.

The theme of ‘Remember Me’ chimes with various books that I’ve been reading, not to mention what I’ve learnt over the last year through the writing of this website, all of which suggest that what we remember, as a society, as well as how we remember it, are changing in ways that are fascinating.

So bear with me if the following sounds like a lecture because I promise you, it’s more interesting than you might think . . .

The history of Remembering goes something as follows.  For thousands of years we were largely an oral society.  Only a minority of people could read and write. The Past was fragile and easily destroyed, and although people remembered it in all the ways that they could – through story, song, dance and ceremony – Time would keep sweeping away our pasts.  Stone was the nearest thing that we could get to the material of immortality – and so it was the material of kings, although later on the material of all of us – although only after death, in the form of our gravestones.

And then, from about the 18th century onwards, as literacy spread, organisations grew up, like publishing houses and museums, whose job it was to record and remember the Past. Remembering became easier but also highly privileged.  It was the top-down past that we remembered, the past of the few and the important, not that of the many and the nameless.

And so things went on, until digital came along, a wonderfully cheap, powerful and democratic medium, and released a great surge of storytelling, as everyone took advantage of it to get their story out there, to say ‘Me too, I also matter’.  Although nothing is ever perfect and this surge of storytelling has all but destroyed the professional storytellers, undermined the business cases of the old publishing houses, and is currently lapping around museums.

The rise of the community museum is no coincidence.  It’s all part of a great wave of Me too/I also want to be remembered.  And it’s all strangely and interestingly democratic – as if we are returning to the old, pre-literate world in which no one person owns the storytelling medium.

It will certainly change museums in ways we can only guess.

But, and this is where it all gets puzzling, although digital is clearly a powerful medium for recording huge amounts of data, it doesn’t feel like a medium for the expression of Eternity, in the way that stone, for instance, does.

In fact, you only have to run a website for a while to discover that (unlike with writing on stone or paper) the true nature of digital feels transient, changing, flexible, personal, provisional, provocative, deletable and playful in ways that stone could never be. (Which is why, dear Reader, the Museum of Marco Polo has a playful feel.)  All of which sets me wondering how does the personal, the playful and the provisional work if you are looking for a medium to express Eternity?

The interesting thing about new media is that it always takes them 50 years or to so settle down.  When printing came along in the 15th century it released a flood of printed books – but most of them were printed versions of books that were already in existence.  When film arrived at the end of the 19th century it took many years before it became the medium of big storytelling.  In book terrms we are somewhere around about 1500 AD, in film terms round about 1890.

We don’t yet know what digital will become, although we can be sure that this will also depend on the platforms that we develop to deliver it.  Right now I am looking at my ipad mini where words and images have the brilliance of stained glass windows – and I am thinking to myself, I bet you, this will be the medium of short stories and pictures, and that long novels with words and nothing else will not survive.

Meanwhile back on Lindisfarne, the Chief Illustrator, who is still in search of English magic, suggests that we go down to the water’s edge to watch the tide come in. And so we go down to the causeway where the tourists are now hotfooting it off the island in advance of the rising tide. We settle down to watch, and as we do so the grey clouds come down, the seagulls begin to rise and keen, and the westering sun comes slanting through the clouds in long ladders of light. At which a look of delight comes over the Chief Illustrator’s face at this bit of English magic, laid on just for her.

(c) Rachel Morris

The book I have been reading is ‘Information Ages:  Literarcy, Numeracy and the Computer Revolution’, by Michael Hobart and Zachary Schiffman.  It’s interesting.