Perched on the edge of a large velvet sofa, trying desperately to hide my bitten nails and nervous shakes, my University interviewer, and Director of Studies to be, thought for a moment and then asked, “What is the point of a museum?”
What? My brain cried, what sort of question is that? I’ll explicate the causes of the 1917 Russian Revolution! Expound on the limitations of the Great Reform Act of 1867 or deliberate on the role of women in the decline of the Liberal Party. But museums? What have museums got to do with history?
After mumbling something about making history accessible to everyone I quickly moved on to firmer ground, weighted in dates, names and facts. Five years down the line and I can barely remember what I had for breakfast, let alone who the Chancellor of the Exchequer was in 1905 (oats and Asquith respectively…) but that question did stick. And, as with all the best historical theories, my thoughts have changed considerably over time.
I used to be someone who worked with history, and now I’m someone who loves stories –and I’ve realised that actually those two aren’t so far apart. Museums, stories, history – it’s all about getting under the skin of someone else. I spent most of my degree standing on the edge of yesterday and asking my brain to put together a kaleidoscope of stories to cobble together something approaching truth. And not much has changed. Michael Gove’s decision to move the curriculum away from the history as experienced by people, understood as a complex web of experience, lies, stories and great moments, towards something that can be drawn neatly along a ruler is at once astoundingly naïve and also, I believe, wrong.
History is as much about the stories as it is about the Bills, laws and coronations. When an archaeologist uncovers a piece of jewellery, a Roman wall or an ancient shoe, historians work in the realms of guesswork and creativity to connect the dots and make ‘history’ bigger. Museums are a great bridge from stories to fact, you have to use a touch of imagination to bring it altogether but underneath the guesswork and possibilities are the scavenged artefacts of truth.
The best museums (in my opinion) are the ones that encourage you to use your imagination to really understand the past. Some people think that history is something abstract and intangible that can be recited from books and learnt from timelines (*coughs* Gove. Ahem.). BUT…not so. I fell in love with the idea of history as a thing in its own right aged 7, sitting in an Andersen shelter listening to the bombs falling over London, and comforted by the kind cockney women telling me to keep my “chin up”. Granted this was in the confines of the Imperial War Museum and I’d only recently emerged from the trenches – but, down there with the benches shaking and the smell of smoke creeping through the walls, that history was as real and as valid, as any textbook or timeline might claim.
There are many great museums that really let you get a first-hand taste of history. Recently we went on a Victorian themed tour of Bloomsbury, visiting The Dickens Museum and then The Foundling Museum.
Shortly after breakfast I was a maid making porridge on a huge iron stove. Quickly followed by a stint as a servant boy where I explored the wine cellars, jumped at a rat and realised I’d left the oats on to burn.
A restorative latte later and I was Thomas Coram, establishing the Foundling Museum, taking in waifs and strays from across London and transforming the face of British society. And then briefly a girl left by desperate parents with only a small ‘token’ as a clue to my true family. Segueing from an anonymous servant girl to a man whose name lives on as one of the great philanthropists of our time, and back to a life of hard graft- I was able to pick up stories, get a taste of history and really learn something (*cough*).
So the moral of this story? The imagined past is as good as any story. Museums can be the alchemists touch which turn numbers and names into history gold. Children are excellent at understanding the complexities of a history. Don’t take away the dressing up! Lastly – I look great in a wig.