How did you first encounter the Museum of Marco Polo?
The Museum of Marco Polo treads a fine (and very post-modernist) line between fact and fiction. It all goes back to a holiday we spent on Buyukada Island off the coast of Istanbul, a place where – improbably enough – Trotsky spent his first four years in exile. I was reading Borges’ short stories at the time and in between we went in search of Trotsky – ‘Trotsky?’ asked an old woman. ‘I have never heard of him. Is he a friend of yours?’ – all of which was enough to put a fictional spin on the place. I remember we stood looking at a ruined villa and a garden of shady cypress trees – and that I thought to myself, ‘Well, you could make a beautiful museum here.’ That – and the fact that Marco Polo is a hero of mine – was enough to get it going.
In the History of the Museum we learn how Marco Polo was (literally) haunted by the ghosts of his past. Is the Museum itself haunted?
All museums play strange games with Time. Objects make such long and complex journeys through time and often outlive us by far. Museums also outlive us – although not always and only for a time. In the end even the British Museum will be a roofless ruin – and the objects probably moved on somewhere else – which is an extraordinary thought. In fact given how strange are the games that museums play with Time I am always amazed that there are not more ‘haunted museum’ stories than there are.
Why are museums, real and imaginary, so important to you?
The truth is that when the Museum of Marco Polo began I thought it was the only imaginary museum in the world. I soon discovered that there is a long history of imaginary museums that runs parallel to thehistory of the real ones. An early example is the 17th century English philosopher Thomas Browne’s Musaeum Clausum, which exists as a beautiful description of an imaginary collection. More recent examples turn up in Angela Carter’s novels and there is of course ‘The Museum of Innocence’, created by the novelist Orhan Pamuk as a novel and which he then built in real life. Lots of writers, artists and film-makers love museums – I think because they fire the imagination – and real museums can learn a lot from this. I think that many museums are works of art (maybe folk art?) and that the best museums have a thread of imagination running through them.
When I was growing up my family would often visit Tring Natural History Museum. My favourite exhibits were the (replica) dodo and the two dressed fleas. Did you have a favourite/local museum as a child?
When I was little I used to come up to London to stay with my cousins. They were way more glamorous than me and I was filled with awe-struck admiration for them. When I had done all the admiring that I could I used to go down to the British Museum. That was before museums became fashionable but I was a very geeky child and they suited me fine. I was reading Mary Renault’s novels about ancient Greece so I spent a lot of time in the Greek galleries trying to make head or tail of them.
Have you been inspired by any recent visits to museums or exhibitions?
I’m a big fan of the Cinema Museum in Turin. It’s in a 19th century building called the Mole (which was once a synagogue) and tells the early history of Italian cinema when Turin was its capital – until Mussolini moved it to Rome in the 1930’s to punish the Torinese for their uppity and anti-fascist behaviour. It has a big central hall where you can recline on cinema seats and watch the long-dead people of Turin flickering across the walls like beautiful ghosts. But my favourite bits are the toy theatres, old cameras, magic lanterns (see image of lantern slides above), and a multitude of other 19th century optical toys in the early gallery. It’s cleverly designed so that the beautiful, chunky things retreat into the background and the luminous images take centre stage.
What would you like to see in the museums of the future?
Wit, imagination, beauty, enlightenment, light-heartedness – all the things that visitors love, that I love – and that can and should be in abundance in museums.
Many thanks to Rachel for answering my questions. You can visit the wonderful Museum of Marco Polo here: www.momarcopolo.com and you can follow it on twitter too @MoMarcoPolo