Welcome to today’s stop on the blog tour for The Museum Makers by Rachel Morris. My thanks to Diana Riley for inviting me to take part in the tour and to September Publishing for my review copy.
About the Book
“Without even thinking I began to slide all these things from the boxes under my bed into groups on the carpet, to take a guess at what belonged to whom, to match up photographs and handwriting to memories and names – in other words, to sort and classify. You can tell that I am a museum person because my first instinct – I can’t help myself – is to believe that in the past lie both the secrets and the answers.”
Museum expert Rachel Morris had been ignoring the boxes of family belongings beneath her bed for decades. When she finally opened them she began a journey into her family’s dramatic story through the literary and bohemian circles of the nineteenth and twentieth century. It was a revelatory experience – one that finds her searching for her absent father in archives of the Tate, to wonder why Gran was predisposed towards tragic endings, and which transports her back to the museums that had enriched her lonely childhood. By teasing out the stories of those early museum makers, and the unsung daughters and wives behind them, and seeing them reflected in her own family, Morris digs deep into the human instinct for collection and curation.
Format: Hardcover (272 pages) Publisher: September Publishing
Publication date: 27th August 2020 Genre: Memoir
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Subtitled ‘A Journey from Dark Boxes of Family Secrets to a Golden Era of Museums’, the book is described as part memoir, part detective story, part untold history of museums.
The author argues persuasively that objects have the power to evoke memories more strongly than words alone. Not just because they can be experienced via other senses, such as touch, but because they provide a more direct link to stories. The author’s passionate belief in the power of stories comes across as she talks about them making objects “glint with light” and helping to “set them moving in our imagination”.
The book traces the transition from 19th century national museums “devised by history’s winners” to the museums of the 20th century aimed at telling the stories of “the underdog, the poor, the dispossessed, history’s losers”. In doing so, Rachel Morris addresses topics of contemporary debate, such as the racism and colonialism associated with the acquisition and display of some objects in museums. (It was for this reason that a recent article in The Guardian newspaper about Hans Sloane, founder of the British Museum, caught my eye.)
In uncovering and collating the stories that constitute the author’s family history, it helps that it is peopled with characters such as the Free Lover and the London Aunt. The person who features most prominently, and memorably, in the book is Gran, one time romantic novelist and curator of most of the family’s stories. Those stories involve family scandals, illegitimate children, mistresses and the author’s rascal of a father. The latter gives rise to the detective story alluded to in the blurb.
Being a fellow book lover, one of my favourite chapters was the one in which Rachel Morris discusses imaginary museums in books (and film). To her list of suggested titles, I’d like to add Meet Me at the Museum by Anne Youngson, The Signature of All Things by Elizabeth Gilbert, Behind the Scenes at the Museum by Kate Atkinson and The Museum of Broken Promises by Elizabeth Buchan.
The Museum Makers is a fascinating book about the history of museums and museum-making. In picking out some of her personal favourites, Rachel Morris reveals herself to be drawn to the small and/or curious, such as the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. But what makes the book even more interesting – and poignant – is the author’s childhood memories and her desire to tell the stories of the (often long-suffering or overlooked) women of previous generations of her family. In this respect, the family tree is useful for navigating the complexities of the author’s extended family and there are some wonderful photographs to help bring those people to life.
I can’t do better than echo the author’s own description of The Museum Makers as being the ‘catalogue’ for her museum – “a quirky, unconventional, very personal catalogue”. I hope her fears for the future of museums, especially small local museums, due to loss of local authority funding prove unfounded.
Follow this link to listen to a fascinating interview between Rachel and Imogen Greenberg in which Rachel talks about the inspiration for the book, what she learned from writing it and much more. As well as being the Globe Theatre’s podcast presenter and producer, Imogen is also Rachel’s daughter. You can also hear Rachel reading an extract from her book here.
In three words: Fascinating, honest, persuasive
About the Author
A director of the museum-making company Metaphor, Rachel Morris has been part of the creation, design and delivery of some of the most exciting displays, renovations and museums of the last few decades, from the New Cast Courts at the V&A and the Ashmolean, Oxford to the Terracotta Warriors at the British Museum and Grand Egyptian museum in Cairo. Rachel is also the author of two novels.