sun 16/06/2024

Sunday Book: Treasure Palaces - Great Writers Visit Great Museums | reviews, news & interviews

Sunday Book: Treasure Palaces - Great Writers Visit Great Museums

Sunday Book: Treasure Palaces - Great Writers Visit Great Museums

First kisses and favourite dolls: a collection of memories to dip into

Home to more than mere objects: writing about a favourite museum invites unexpected insights© Profile Books

The modern experience of visiting museums is so far from the hushed contemplation envisaged by our Victorian forebears that the very idea is sufficient to induce a rosy glow of nostalgia, as befits the time of year. And while the Christmas hordes in the Natural History Museum are surely motivated less by the vain hope of a quiet corner than some brief respite from enforced conviviality, museums remain as much a part of the festive cocoon as carol-singing and ghost stories.

If museums house our pasts on a grand scale, they are the keepers of small memories too, and perhaps it is the sense of rooting one’s own story within a greater, overarching narrative that makes them fertile ground for personal storytelling. As Nicholas Serota points out in his Foreword – somewhat ironically, perhaps, given his association with one of the world’s most impersonal museums – very few of the 24 writers featured in this anthology go for the big institutions. Instead their focus tends to be small and off-the-beaten-track, collections that have more to do with individual histories than societal ones. In these more intimate settings, where the aura of objects is still intact, and encounters are close-up and vivid – visceral, even – people seem most likely to find something of themselves.

And so it is that Jacqueline Wilson writes about the Musée de la Poupée in Paris, a place that she first visited with her adult daughter and that, she says, is “like stepping straight into a Victorian storybook”. Stuffed with dolls from the 19th century through to the 1960s, the enchanted world of the museum allows her and her daughter to revisit childhood memories through their shared love of dolls. Coming face to face with the very Sindy dolls her daughter had as a little girl was especially poignant, “because my glamorous professional daughter suddenly became that long-ago little girl with a page-boy haircut and stripy dungarees, begging me to play dolls with her.”

Wilson casts back further into her female ancestry, the dolls given to her each Christmas a treasured token of her mother’s love. For her motherless grandmother, Hilda Ellen, a big German china doll was not just a beloved companion, but one of the few constants in a chaotic and uncertain childhood.

Paris is the setting for Allison Pearson’s essay, too, in which the Rodin Museum, first encountered as a teenager on a school trip, has become a sort of yardstick by which she gauges her changing self. With the symmetry afforded by time and memory, Pearson’s first kiss is linked inextricably to Rodin’s The Kiss, c.1882 (pictured above right in one of Steve Panton's excellent illustrations). But while “Dave from Oadby” is all but forgotten, Rodin’s sculpture has secured a fond place in her heart, neatly, if rather tweely, expressed as follows: “The kisses bestowed by art, unlike those of men, are set in stone.”

Pearson describes the revelatory power of the Rodin museum all those years ago, affording her the realisation that “Dead people had felt these things; and the living went on feeling them.” Perhaps most intriguing are her observations on our changing responses to art, her youthful, hormone-fuelled admiration for the frigid perfection of Rodin’s marble lovers giving way in later life to an appreciation of the less highly finished, more instinctive terracotta modello nearby.

In a book that brings together a clutch of fine writers like Margaret Drabble, William Boyd and Julian Barnes, it seems appropriate that the most compelling essay is by Andrew Motion, celebrating the array of manuscripts on public display at the British Library. From Beatles songs to the first draft of Tess of the d’Urbervilles, Magna Carta and Jane Austen’s portable desk, the remarkable treasures in the John Ritblat gallery make this the most under-celebrated of museums and Motion writes beguilingly of the almost mystical qualities of a great manuscript, and the influence they have had on his own development as a writer. Such encounters with manuscripts have over the years yielded insights into the writer’s craft, the crossings-out and rewrites a stern reminder that inspiration is never without perspiration.

For all that, Motion’s delight in the objects themselves is very evident: as a teenager he had held the manuscript of an essay by Virginia Woolf, and was struck by the significance of these sheets of paper: “It was irrefutable proof that something astonishing in its intelligence and association had been produced by a human being who sat down one day, unscrewed her pen-top and simply went to work.” For those who go in for such things, this is an observation that might rouse one to a New Year’s resolution, but at the very least it might inspire a holiday trip to this most understated of museums.

  • Treasure Palaces: Great Writers Visit Great Museums, edited by Maggie Fergusson with a Foreword by Nicholas Serota is published by Profile Books


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