Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

What I’ve learnt from Fictional Museums

2nd July 2019

So today I am in search of the best writing I can find about museums.  I don’t mean the intelligent, serviceable, workmanlike text we all aspire to write when we want to get an idea across. I mean the words that your favourite novelist might use if he stepped into your favourite museum and was knocked stone-dead by the wonder of it all.

And I soon find something curious. Novelists describe medieval museums (‘Wonders will never Cease’ by Robert Irwin) and they imagine post-apocalyptic museums (‘Station Eleven’ by Emily St John Mandel) and they riff endlessly off the concept of Victorian museums (most of the Harry Potter books). And they write without stopping about the Pitt Rivers museum (Philip Pullman’s ‘The Subtle Knife’ and James Fenton’s poetry just for starters). But do they use contemporary museums in their stories? – I mean museums built or renovated in the last 15 years – well, hardly at all.

I think the reason is that novelists and museum people love two very different things.  Novelists like to think of museums as places full of shadows and secrets, jam-packed with artefacts that hover on the edge of life, and with a strange capacity to jump you back in time.

Meanwhile museum people are in search of something diametrically opposite.  They are not interested in shadows and secrets.  In fact they want to do the opposite and take museums out of the darkness and into the light.  (And the more novelists dwell on the gloominess and the drama of Victorian museums the more baffled museum people become, since Victorian museums are currently drowning in a torrent of – largely justified – criticism for their originally racist beliefs.)

It seems that novelists and museum people are on opposite sides. I don’t always side with novelists in this struggle.  When Penelope Lively (see the video, ‘The Pitt Rivers Museum is . . . shut’ by Celia Lowenstein on the internet) remarks loftily that the lovely thing about the Pitt Rivers Museum is that it ‘doesn’t hammer you on the head with information’ then I want to wail crossly that knowledge is not necessarily our enemy, that sometimes it even enhances the artefacts.  But there are other times when I can see the novelists’ point of view, especially when I consider the wild popularity of the darkness and gloom of the Pitt Rivers Museum.  To have created something that novelists want to story-fy – well, that seems to me an enormously lucky thing.  And anyway, novelists are not a different species, they are just like the rest of us but more so, and what appeals to their imagination is likely to appeal to our visitors as well.

There are also often moments when novelists – despite not being museum professionals – have captured a truth about museums.

  • When Ripley, the alchemist, is describing his museum (in ‘Wonders will Never Cease’ by Robert Irwin) he says, ‘It’s as if you’ve walked into my head, for my brain is shaped just like that room’ – which is a wonderfully economical way of expressing the relationship between the museum-maker and his or her museum.
  • In Philip Pullman’s ‘The Subtle Knife’ the Pitt Rivers Museum is a place where different worlds meet and overlap. This is literally true in ‘The Subtle Knife’ but if we take that idea metaphorically and think of the different worlds as past and present, then the observation is true of all museums.
  • In ‘Station Eleven’ the survivors of the apocalypse build a museum to remember their lost world before the apocalypse came.  That same impulse seems to be true of many defeated people.
  • In Orhan Pamuk’s ‘The Museum of Innocence’ the main character realises that there are some stories – the story of a city, the story of a life – that are best told through the expansive, three-dimensional-ness of a museum, because a novel is just to linear to do them justice.

So here’s a suggestion: that novelists, museum-people and museum-visitors come together in a  conference to understand museum-imagination better and to encourage storytellers to tell more stories about museums.

The image at the top of the page is of labels from the endlessly story-fied Pitt Rivers Museum.

If you like this article you might be interested in –

  • Museums, Things and Fairy Tales
  • A Brief History of Fictional Museums

Happy Reading.