In Praise of the Muses

I’m writing this post outside a museum, The Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter (RAMM). The galleries, that were re-opened in 2011 after a refit four years in the making, are truly excellent. I’m here to see a show that I helped produce, Initmate Worlds, which according to tag-line is about ‘Exploring Sexuality through the Sir Henry Wellcome Collection’

Pompeii lucky penis and less lucky Victorian anti-pollution ring

Pompeii lucky penis and less lucky Victorian anti-pollution ring

Chastity belt - fake medievalism to appeal to the Victorian (male) collector

Chastity belt – fake medievalism to appeal to the Victorian (male) collector

My own work with this exhibition included being part of an award winning project with staff from various museums in the South West of England & The University of Exeter. I also helped facilitate a workshop, with various stakeholders, that informed the curation of the space.

As they say these days, I has a proud 🙂

2014-06-18 12.04.09

What is a museum? One way I explain museums, especially if I’m working with teenagers, is that like Facebook, a museum has two core functions. The first to act as a space where we, as a community, as a culture, can ‘like’ things. A museum is typically a building where we stick all the stuff we ‘like’ and therefore don’t want to see destroyed, even if it is no longer in general use (steam engines, flint axes, Egyptian sarcophagi). If we ‘like’ something and wish to preserve it,  for many objects the best course of action would be to seal them in plastic and bury them deep in the earth. This would certainly be a way of protecting what we ‘like’ but what is the point of ‘liking’ unless we can also ‘share’? We share by putting these ‘liked’ objects into buildings with advertised opening hours, minimal or no charge at the door, and glass cases. We also proactively share, seeking what in the trade we call ‘new audiences’ (ie getting people to come to the museum who generally don’t or can’t), going out to schools with wonderful things from collections, putting images of treasures online and much more.

Ndungu spirit costume made by the Kongo people, Central Africa

Ndungu spirit costume made by the Kongo people, Central Africa

Why do we do this? The British Museums Association summarises it really nicely “’Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.” But since this is a blog about magic I’m going to put that same point in a slightly different way; namely that museums are simply what it says on the proverbial tin. They are, from the Ancient Greek Μουσεῖον (Mouseion), places or temples dedicated to the Muses (the patron divinities of the arts), these buildings are quite literally ‘shrines to the Muses’.

Small gods

Small gods

The nine Muses are a series of Goddesses who are the daughters of Mnemosyne, the Greek Goddess of memory. For this reason a museum is a storehouse of memory. It may be the memory of a particular activity (such as the use of plastic materials at The Museum of Design in Plastics, or magic at  The Boscastle Museum of Witchcraft). It may be the memory of a specific place (from Brighton to Wounded Knee) or it may be the memory of specific collector and their interest (or obsession) like this or these. Without memory there can be no muse.

Cutting edge science

Cutting edge science

Once we find our groove in a museum (and like getting acquainted with any Goddess the Muses take time to get to know) we can draw amazing power from these spaces. First we need to know how to move within them. Some museums do this by brilliant manipulation of the visitor; sometimes even a single case can achieve this. We are asked to peer down tubes, lift up flaps, and interrogate things through magnifying glasses. Sometimes a little showman’s flare can be beneficially employed. (An example I encountered recently was one stalagmite, presented in a case in Torquay Museum as a beautiful dancer. She was installed on a miniature stage, between parted velvet curtains, and recounted the story of her millennia long growth with a fabulously plummy pre-recorded voice.)

Shep en-Mut whose name lives

Shep en-Mut whose name lives

One of the things I do in my museum work is to produce games and other strategies to help people find their own ways into the museum experience. For some visitors the classic technique of drawing the objects works just fine but for others, particularly groups of children, there are many other strategies that we can use. These are magical, enchanting places but unless we are successful in the evocation of our curiosity they can also be some of the most tedious locations to traipse around.

Infant's respirator from World War II

Infant’s respirator from World War II

When we enter the museum, if we can get beyond the cattle truck mentality of the tourist industry, we are in a place of great power. We can see our own lives made significant (things from our place, our community, even our personal history) and simultaneously part of a much bigger picture (I saw a stone axe from 250,000 years ago in Exeter museum and imagined the hand that held it, like mine yet separated by a seemingly unimaginable gulf of time). We can glimpse, even from these sometimes wood-panelled Victorian walls, even beyond the confines our home world (a meteor sits near the flint axe, a rock formed when the solar system was young).

We can compare our stories; our own vicissitudes with the lives of others. (As I walk through the RAMM galleries I am reminded of the work of Philip Gosse, contemporary of and correspondent with Darwin, trying to square the circle of his literalist creationism with his observations as a scientific naturalist). We can feel the pain and confusion of those who have gone before, the elation of their successes. We can judge them, admire them, and feel both similar and different from them.

Fabulous observational drawings by Gosse

Fabulous observational drawings by Gosse

Within an increasingly secular culture my view is that such shrines to the Muses are more important than ever. In these places people can be encouraged to draw, often to take photographs, and to sit in contemplation of ourselves and our relationships with others. These are temples which exist in many towns, cities and even villages around our planet, and they generally aim to be accessible to everyone. They are secular, humanist and inclusive sacred spaces. And while some writers have theorised that the museum creates an environment where the objects within it become psychically neutralised, I suggest that, once we have found the right way to explore a museum, the right way to worship at these shrines, the things within them can come alive in many new ways.

Ceremonial hooded cape made by the Anishinaabe people, Russia

Ceremonial hooded cape made by the Anishinaabe people, Russia

Once we have found our museum level (whatever technique we choose to use to get there; mindfulness meditation prior to going in, and a brief silent prayer to the Muses is what I like to do) these places can nourish our spirit, our soul, our mind and hearts. They are great mirrors reflecting back (albeit of course in partial, curated, edited ways) the world to us. They are both a refuge from the cares of the day and a place where we can be starkly confronted with the sharp end of reality. A museum is a nexus, a power spot where time and matter condense to form a rich brew from which may come all manner of inspirations.

When is your next visit to the temple of the Muses?


3 thoughts on “In Praise of the Muses

  1. tim50stroud says:

    Shame.. the Intimate exhibition finished on june29… but I’m down that way in August so the museum is added to the list 🙂

  2. Gordon says:

    Great post. And congrats on the show.

  3. […] and engage people. One aspect of engagement is to encouraging people to visit spaces like MWM. Visiting museums, especially places of the quality of MWM, can be a powerful, authentic, moving experience. Sure you […]

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