Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

The Museum as a Journey

9th June 2014

All museums are about journeys.  Like Death, that other omni-present quality, the theme of Journeys is everywhere in museums, although you wouldn’t always know it.

The first museum I ever went into (and one of the most journey-ish) was our local museum in Saffron Walden, Essex.  In the local village where we lived there was absolutely nothing to do (and I mean nothing – no laptops, no internet, no television, very few books, not even a car) and so I spent a lot of time mooching around Saffron Walden, waiting to grow up.

I went back the museum recently and discovered that, despite having been spruced up, it is still essentially what it always was, a hymn to the beauty of lists – not any old list but a glorious list, a list that you can chant out loud and whose sounds you can fall in love with, a list that has been raised up to heights of dreamy power and poetry.

I saw flint knives; the tooth of a woolly mammoth; stone axes; an iron-age dagger; a Roman dinner service made from Samian ware; a Roman enamelled brooch; a blue-glass urn; a Roman child’s lead coffin;  a piece of a flayed Viking’s skin (or so they say), preserved under the handle of the church door in the nearby village of Hadstock; an Egyptian mummy; a part of the Egyptian Book of the Dead; an Egyptian statue of a man and a wife sitting side by side and with their legs drawn up to their noses so that they look as square as a brick; a fireplace with carved stone bees and cropping horses; earthenware tiles showing eighteenth-century women walking amongst classical ruins; and upstairs, Zulu beadwork love letters; a quiver of arrows from the Gambia; brass scales for weighing gold dust; a sword with a leather scabbard; painted gourds; moccasins from the Iroquois; a toy sledge as long as your finger; a funeral costume decorated with sticks of mother-of-pearl that click together as you walk; a spoon made from rhinoceros horn; snow shoes like tennis rackets; and so on and so forth – raising the interesting question of how and why did a small country town museum like Saffron Walden’s accumulate such a wide-ranging collection.

The answer i discovered (from Claire Loughney’s article – you’ll find it on the web)  lies in the energy and curiosity of a group of local businessmen in the 1830’s who began the Saffron Walden Natural History Society.  Its founder members included Jabez Gibson, a local Quaker banker, maltster and amateur taxidermist, and Hannibal Dunn, an upholsterer and cabinetmaker.  They met for dinner on winter evenings and soon formed a plan to approach eminent academics, scientists, colonial administrators, bishops, navy physicians and members of the East India Company to ask for specimens, as well as local people who had relatives who lived and worked abroad across the Empire.

Soon the specimens came pouring in.  Hannibal Dunn’s brother Robert was living in Algoa Bay in South Africa and after hunting expeditions into the interior sent back to Saffron Walden, the preserved bodies of an elephant, a rhinoceros, a giraffe and a hippopotamus.  Another donator was George Wombwell, founder of Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie, who was born and brought up near Saffron Walden and who donated, amongst other animals, a stuffed lion.

On the day that I went back to Saffron Walden the narrow, seventeenth-century streets around the museum were nearly empty.  As the darkness settled in I began to see why Jabez Gibson and Hannibal Dunn might have formed the ambition to reach out and connect this town to the world. Saffron Walden doesn’t lie on a main road to anywhere.  It has always had an isolated feeling.  Creating a museum there in the 1830’s  would have been like standing on a lonely seashore, devising ways of sending messages in bottles to other worlds.  This Museum is what resulted when the messages came back.

Museums, I decided, don’t make enough of the journeys that made them.

For details of Jabez Gibson and Hannibal Dunn, see Claire Loughney’s study, ‘Collecting the Colonies:  Victorian  Museums and the Re-creation of other landscapes.

The image is of a Victorian lion tamer – Geoge Wombwell’s Travelling Menagerie would have looked like this.