Rachel Morris launches her new book on the 27th August 2020, inspired in part by her childhood visits to Saffron Walden Museum….
There can have been few children quite as geeky and eccentric as I was when I was ten. We were living outside Saffron Walden with our high-minded and austere grandmother, the four of us surviving on her state pension. It was because we were always broke that I spent my childhood haunting Saffron Walden library and museum, where I could drift around for hours on end and no one would ask me any questions.
Years later I became the director of a museum-making company called Metaphor and started to remember my ten-year-old self. My book ‘The Museum Makers’ is about time and memory and museums, but also about families and the secrets they carry and the stories they tell. One theme that’s threaded through it is Saffron Walden museum.
I don’t remember the museum’s Victorian incarnation (though I wish I did) because they did up the museum in the middle of the 20th century and the majority of the old Victorian exhibits were swept away. But some photographs have survived to show how typically Victorian looking the old museum had been, with its dark brown wooden showcases and its rows of deer antlers and its stuffed elephant in the middle of the gallery. It’s companies like mine that have updated many museums and although there is much I don’t miss about Victorian museums (they were often racist) I do admire their grandeur and the rather gloomy drama of the way they looked.
I didn’t go to Saffron Walden museum to learn things – though I did love history and I was always reading children’s books about time travel. I went partly out of curiosity, partly in search of wonder and amazement, partly out of a restless urge to go to places without having to ask my family first. I don’t remember many specific things – I was too young for that – though I remember Wallace the Lion. And I remember the overall look of it, as well as the approach up the drive, with the castle ruins beyond, and the way you went in up the steps to the front door – as if into a house, except that it was not like any house I had ever been into.
I doubt that there was much interpretation at the time (museum interpretation didn’t really take off until the end of the twentieth century), but for me that didn’t matter. I generally visited the museum after having visited the library and so I always arrived with a head full of the stories that I had already consumed (usually whilst lying flat on my tummy on the library floor with the soles of my feet in the air). And anyway, like lots of children I liked to look at things and to tell stories in my head about them. One story I learnt either then or later was how the museum’s elephant was taken to London to star in the Great Exhibition in 1851. Now that’s a story I would have loved when I was little.
After the museum I went round to the Common to pick up the bus home, with the first of my library books already open and me starting to read.
Children have a natural affinity with museums. They share with museum-people a love of things and a willingness (well, this is true of children at least) to ascribe to them magical powers. It’s no accident that a film like ‘Night at the Museum’ has been so popular with children. And so likewise the popularity of fairy tales that are stuffed with things that have magical powers, like slippers that can’t stop dancing and a ring that makes you invisible. The other thing that amazed me about museums when I was little was the sheer profusion of things inside them. My high-minded grandmother had got through life owning not much more than a small suitcase of belongings. One of the qualities of museums that so entranced me when I was little was that they were thing-worlds (and so the very opposite of home), filled with more things than I could count.
Saffron Walden Museum is a family-focused museum with a long history of being child-friendly. As early as the beginning of the twentieth century schoolchildren were being encouraged to visit the museum when Guy Maynard was the curator.
My book, The Museum Makers, is about many things but its basic premise is that if museums have always been about sorting and classifying and making sense out of the confusion of the world, then – in the way that we hold on to our things and our memories and try to make sense of our own pasts – we are all museum makers.
My book is also very definitely a thank you to the museums of my childhood, of which Saffron Walden was one.
Click here https://bit.ly/TheMuseumMakersextract to hear Rachel Morris reading an extract from her new book, The Museum Makers which is published by September Publishing on August 27th 2020.
For more information behind this story visit https://bit.ly/TheMuseumMakersbook