Every so often the past makes a pass at you. An old school report, a train ticket, a curl from a first haircut falls out of an envelope and sends you tumbling back through the decades. For most of us these things are flotsam and jetsam, of momentary interest, but for Rachel Morris they are vital. It is partly that she works in museums, so is deeply invested in the past, and partly that her family history is so mysterious, fragmentary and ‘soaked in sadness’ that she relies on ‘things’ to help her piece together where she came from, and who she is.
This book has two strands. First, it’s an exploration of Morris’s passion for museums — how they came into being, why some have flourished and others struggled to survive; secondly it’s the tale of her emptying boxes that have sat under her bed for years unopened, and sorting their contents to create a private ‘Museum of Me’. Neither strand alone would have made a satisfactory book, but they are skilfully interwoven, history, reflection and detective work bouncing off one another to build a spirited narrative. And knitting them together is Morris’s belief in the importance of creating and telling stories. Without stories, she suggests, we are no more than Eliot’s ‘bits of paper blown on the cold wind’.
Morris’s history of museums begins in the mid-18th century, with the founding of the British Museum, and then of many small, local museums, created by schoolmasters and clergymen (no women), and fostered by the 1845 Museums Act, which encouraged ordinary people to become antiquaries (‘My eyes ached from looking so far back into the abyss of antiquity,’ wrote William Pengelly, an early archaeologist from the south west). There are vivid descriptions of Hans Sloane himself guiding visitors round his museum in Chelsea Manor, and of the porter ringing a handbell to warn visitorsto leave the gardens of the British Museum by sunset.
Alongside massive museums, we learn of tiny ones: ‘I have heard of museums intelephone boxes, even in upturned hats.’ There are ones saved, in wartime, by heroic, life-risking curators. And there are some that never, thank God, came off. During the second world war the Nazis planned a Museum of Judaica in Prague. It would have told the story of the people they had made extinct, and with this in mind they had gathered and catalogued 200,000 Jewish artefacts.
Two hundred thousand! As someone allergic to clutter, I have to admit that the weight of stuff in this book sometimes made me mutinous. ‘Things,’ Morris believes, are the ‘last and final’ way in which we remember people we love. Really? In Colin Thubron’s novel Falling, Mark Swabey keeps in his prison cell a photograph of the woman he adores; but he has looked at it so often it has become meaningless, dead.
A few years back, I worked at the Economist magazine Intelligent Life, and it was my job to commission famous authors to write about their favourite museums. I had a sneaking sympathy for the ones — Rose Tremain and Richard Ford, for example — who couldn’t be doing with museums at all. Not that I wasn’t thrilled when my invitations were accepted. Some wonderful pieces came in — most memorable for me being Roddy Doyle’s on the Tenement Museum in New York.
Doyle’s piece worked, in part, because the Gumpertz family he wrote about — who had lived in the Lower East Side tenement — were poor, and their lives were hard. It’s relatively easy to preserve the possessions and stories of the rich; much harder those of the penniless and peripatetic. And this, in part, is why Morris’s story is so engrossing. How did all those boxes — stuffed with love letters, poems, diaries, jewellery, samplers — survive intact as her family moved about and fell apart, too poor to hang curtains at their windows or to eat square meals?
‘I didn’t always lead a lucky life,’ she writes: an understatement. As she unpacks her past, we learn how her creepy great-great-grandfather, the ‘Free Lover’, caused misery that seeped down the generations. Morris’s mother spent much of her life in a mental asylum. Her father — gifted, handsome, feckless — drank himself to death, his body lying undiscovered for weeks. Morris was so anguished as a child that for an entire year she ceased to speak.
‘All my life I’ve wanted to be anywhere else in time but here,’ she writes — by ‘here’ meaning in the present. But perhaps, having made such a great job of ordering her past, she will find the present more comfortable. And then, of course, there’s the future. ‘Someone, somewhere, will build the Museum of the pandemic,’ she writes in an afterword, hastily added at the start of lockdown. ‘Collecting for it has already begun.’