The Museum Makers

By Rachel Morris

September Publishing, £16.99

Review by Susan Flockhart

WHAT went on in museums during the long months of lockdown closure? Probably very little, if you discount the virtual bustle of digital tours. Within the buildings themselves, the stillness would have been almost complete – broken, perhaps, by the occasional flash of a caretaker’s torch or the flit of moth-wings emerging from glassy-eyed taxidermy.

As for the exhibits: forget notions of protracted Night At The Museum-style uprisings. Without visitors to bring them to life, all those stuffed corpses and suits of armour are utterly inert. That shard of grey stone becomes a Neolithic arrowhead only when someone imagines the hands that sculpted it or the hunter who held it aloft.

It also requires someone to tell its story and Rachel Morris’s new book is about the people who operate behind the scenes of our museums: the collectors and curators who gather artefacts and interpret their histories, labelling and arranging them to show what they were and how they were used – in the process, offering annotated glimpses of vanished worlds.

A museum-maker who’s worked on collections in the V&A, British Museum and many others, Rachel Morris has written an appreciative account of her professional forebears, from 18th-century pioneers who trawled the world for specimens to heroic warzone curators who risked their lives defending national treasures against cultural genocide.

The book is also part-memoir, recording the author’s attempts to make sense of her confusing childhood. Born into an unconventional lineage of artists and writers, Morris’s knowledge of her family’s complicated history had been hazy. With their mother in and out of hospital and their father inexplicably absent, she and her brothers had been raised in bohemian penury by their grandmother, an inveterate storyteller and unreliable narrator of the family history.

In middle age, Morris decided that having spent her working life sorting through objects to “make meaningful patterns out of the muddle and confusion of the universe”, she would do the same with the ancestral ephemera that had mouldered for years in her attic. Sifting through boxes of letters, diaries, photographs and locks of hair, she determined to try to make sense of her “incomprehensible childhood” by creating “the Museum of Me”.

The process would take her back six generations of a family tree that shimmers with luminaries including a pre-Raphaelite painter (William Gale), a composer (Henry Holmes) and two detective novelists (Edgar and Selwyn Jepson).

And despite Morris’s observation that “most of the women in my family … died utterly anonymously”, the female celeb-count is high, including a sculptress and a concert pianist. Her maternal grandmother, the inveterate storyteller, Margaret Birkinshaw (nee Jepson) was a well-known novelist whose death in 2003 was recorded by a lengthy obituary in The Times. Moreover, Morris’s late mother’s sister, referred to in the book as “the London aunt”, is the hugely successful author and playwright, Fay Weldon.

Anyone familiar with Weldon’s autobiography will know about Margaret Birkinshaw’s arrival in London from New Zealand with her teenaged daughters, Jane and Fay, in 1946. They’ll know that the adult Jane became severely mentally ill then died of cancer aged just 39.

Reading about this tragedy from the perspective of Jane’s then 12-year-old daughter is heart-rending and it’s clear that for young Rachel, the secrecy that had surrounded her parents’ circumstances helped create an enduring sense of loneliness. Aged 16, she decided to search for her father, Douglas “Guido” Morris, an enigmatic artist-printer who’d been absent for most of his children’s lives. A few years before he died, she found him, living alone in alcoholic squalor.

Decades later, sifting through Guido’s old letters and unpaid bills, Morris would despair over the impossibility of gaining genuine insight into the person her father had been. “How difficult it is to resurrect the past with truth, to get the dead to stand up in all their contradictory but coherent whole.”

That, surely, is the crux of the museum-maker’s challenge. The past is not only a foreign country; it’s also hotly disputed territory and as Morris points out, “even museums do not always tell the truth”. August Victorian institutions used plundered treasures and racist “craniometry” to glorify empire and legitimise colonial power, and although contemporary curators have increasingly sought to present the perspective of history’s underdogs, we no longer believe they “breathe the air of moral goodness and objectivity”.

The Museum Makers was written before the recent debate over slavery-linked statuary but Morris warns against dismantling the “versions of history” with which we now disapprove, suggesting instead that “past attitudes need to stand as documentation, some beautiful, some repugnant – although preferably, in ways that allow visitors to argue back”.

What about people’s personal histories? Memory is notoriously subjective: even siblings’ recollections of their shared past can vary greatly and families have been torn apart by disputes over the veracity of events related in misery memoirs.

The Museum Makers isn’t that kind of book and Morris doesn’t play the ancestral blame game. Her grandmother, on the other hand, seems to have been racked with parental guilt, even blaming herself for Jane’s mental illness. She was also haunted by the fatalistic notion that “bad blood” ran through her family, visiting “the curse of sadness” on each generation.

There was certainly plenty of scandal. Margaret’s grandfather, Henry Holmes, was an ardent practitioner of “free love” who was sacked from the Royal College of Music for “debauching pupils entrusted in his care”. Her sister, Faith Jepson, was locked away in an asylum aged 17, after she’d been found in bed with her uncle (who seems to have got off scot-free).

Faith died in the asylum 12 years later. Her mother, Frieda Jepson, had never visited her, never breathed her name again, yet retained her own light-hearted disposition right into her 90s.

Or so the story goes. Hearsay doesn’t record what torment she may have endured in the sleepless watches of the night and as Morris discovered with Guido, resurrecting the dead, with their conflicted inner lives, is impossible.

Yet she remains convinced of the need to try and understand the world of our forebears, and the power of the things they leave behind to help us do that.

“Things knit the present together with the past,” she writes, adding that objects can also be “piercingly sad because they remind us of lost worlds”. Toy museums are particularly poignant in that they document “a past that’s doubly gone, because first the children grew up and then they died”.

Today, with cash-strapped museums facing an uncertain future, some of those lost worlds risk slipping away forever. Perhaps now that public buildings are finally reopening following lockdown, we should all visit our local museums while we can.

There is plenty to learn from the stories told by hard-working museum-makers but as Morris reminds us in her immensely thought-provoking book, we should reserve the right to argue back. Because however powerful the tale, it might not actually be true.