Museums are national treasures. Without them, vestiges from history would gather dust in the gilded basement of Russian oligarchs, and school children everywhere would be deprived the sight of a levitating blue whale skeleton in the heart of London.
So why when walking around a museum do you see glazed eyes, yawning mouths and minds wandering to their next notification? I’m no less guilty. While exploring the Ancient Rome exhibit at the British Museum, I found my brain occupied by the tantalising prospect of a blueberry muffin rather than the historical artefacts before me. It seems like we experience museums like a 4 year old experience their first book — in pretty pictures. Why is it so difficult to be interested by a real medieval sword from in a real historical battle, and yet get excited over a fictional sword from Lord of the Rings?
In my opinion, it’s all about storytelling.
In contrast with my meandering journey through Rome, there was another museum recently that had the exact opposite affect. In fact, it was so compelling as to capture my attention for an afternoon, prompting multiple walkthroughs and a desire to soak in every last detail.
The exhibit was the Churchill War Rooms at the Imperial War Museum, where you’re taken underground to explore the preserved Map Room, BBC broadcasting station and living quarters of Winston Churchill’s government during World War 2.
There are a number of reasons why one might find the Churchill War Rooms more captivating than the Ancient Rome hallways. It’s a subject matter that feels close to home and surrounded by rich detail that’s harder to define with events from 2000 years ago. Yet I don’t think one historical subject is inherently more interesting than another. While the scars left by WW2 are still visible today, the Roman Empire is woven in our societal DNA, from language to law to page numbers. Not to mention it birthed a story even more legendary than Winston Churchill himself: the story of Julius Caesar.
So what made the difference in my museum-going experience? Well there is one important detail I have neglected to mention thus far, which is I entered the War Rooms 2,500 pages into William Manchester’s epic biography of Churchill. I walked through the museum doors familiar with Churchill’s story, giving every little detail a role to play in a grander narrative. This turned a mind occupied by blueberry muffins to complete captivation as the War Rooms added clarity to the broad brushstrokes of a biographer’s pen.
In contrast, I think most of us go to museums looking for inspiration and reasons to care. But it’s unreasonable to expect museums to weave the mile-wide tapestry of story required to give every object meaning. As a result, visitors walk away with vague and unsatisfying takeaways like ‘Egyptians sure liked their cats’, and ‘Romans used weird looking money’.
Museums come into their own when they add clarity to a pre-existing framework of knowledge. The cracked vases and armless statues are far more interesting when you can imagine the people pouring the vases and admiring the statues. Without this context, historical objects float in disconnected brain space, and are promptly forgotten.
I’m looking forward to revisiting Ancient Rome at the British Museum, this time armed with a well-thumbed copy of SPQR and an eagerness to bring those stories to life.