One day a couple of years ago I was asked by my publishers to write a book about the history of museums. It’s a huge, sprawling subject, both light and dark and wonderful and shameful, and for a while I had no idea where to begin. I wondered whether to concentrate on size (small museums being so very different from big ones)? Or to think about intentions – why have so many people wanted to make a museum? I even wondered whether to write it as a novel?
At about the same time I was also looking at boxes of old family stuff that had been left, un-looked at for years, under our double bed. These boxes were full of the detritus of my family’s past. There was nothing very valuable in them – just bookmarks, scarves, shoes, poems, diaries, knitting needles – although to me of course all of it was very valuable indeed. When I looked inside those boxes and saw the muddle inside them, it made me think of a collection before anyone had made any sense of it. And suddenly there I had it. If, as I believe, a museum is an attempt to make meaningful patterns out of the confusions of the past, then – in our desire to make sense of our own pasts – we are all museum-makers.
And so the book got written – and became part history of museums, part memoir of my bohemian family, part account of how to make a museum out of your own life. The book is called ‘The Museum Makers’ and since it was published (it came out last year in paperback) I have been giving many versions of a talk, entitled ‘How to Make a Museum out of Your Own Life’. And I have been struck by how therapeutic the audience finds this process, particularly older people, and how much they want to find ways to make sense of their own pasts, to make coherent narratives out of their memories and things, to pass on something meaningful to the next generation. (And of course the Covid crisis has accentuated all these feelings.)
I show my audience how to lay out the things from their past in order to make sense of them, how to conserve things and keep them safe, how to interpret objects, how to interview family members, how to keep things and their stories connected, how to devise a museum catalogue, and how to do something creative (by writing, painting or sewing) with their family history. In short I use all my museum-making skills (I was previously a director at Metaphor, the museum-making company) to help people make a museum out of their own lives. Museum people have skills that other people yearn for – the skills to help us make sense of our own lives and memories.
I tell my audience that if they don’t have things but do have memories, then these too will make a museum – because museums are both boxes of things and boxes of stories. And I particularly emphasise that you have to find ways to keep things and their stories connected, because the two things so easily drift apart. Museums are full of things that seem anonymous to us, because they have lost their stories, of those who made them, lost them, repaired them, gave them, stole them (insert here whatever verb is appropriate). The museum-maker’s job, above all else, is to help things speak.
Sometimes people say, I haven’t got the space at home to do this kind of thing – and it’s true that many people live in very small spaces – but one answer is that small things can be just as eloquent as big things and that you can make your own museum in a box or a suitcase or on a mantel shelf. I made mine in an old tin trunk, not very big, that came down through my family. (The theme of boxes is threaded through the history of museums – and is also fascinating.)
The process is akin to helping people write a memoir and tell their own story – something that many people also find therapeutic It is also related to the ‘Repair Shop’ concept (the Repair Shop being the series on the BBC where people bring in family momentos so that craftsmen can mend and repair them, and so that they can then share the family stories behind them.)
It is easy to think of museum-making as an obscure, elite process, whereas actually I think it is – or could be – quite the opposite. I know that many museums run projects around Memory and Community and Family History, but I don’t know of any museum doing exactly what I am proposing here. (If you do, let me know. I am always interested.) Visitors come to museums for many reasons (and all of them are legitimate) but one of them is surely the feeling that we are all baffled by the passing of time and want to use things and our memories to connect our past and our present selves together. When you are in this frame of mind both museum-visiting and museum-making are therapeutic.
My book is called ‘The Museum Makers’. It is published by September Publishing and is available from their website or from all good bookshops. My twitter feed is @MoMarcoPolo