What makes a museum special?
This lively collection brings together 23 short essays that were commissioned by the editors of Intelligent Life for their “Authors on Museums” series. As Nicholas Serota, the director of the Tate, notes in his foreword, these visits are a “form of pilgrimage.” Most of the contributors are British, but editor Fergusson (Michael Morpurgo: War Child to War Horse, 2012, etc.) includes a couple Americans, like Ann Patchett, who chose Harvard’s Museum of Natural History. It’s “perhaps my favourite place, period. You can feel the science pressing in from every direction.” Roddy Doyle visited the Lower East Side Tenement Museum in New York City. The rooms looked like Jacob A. Riis photographs, and the author was mesmerized by the floral, “gorgeous” wallpaper and other design elements: “It is grand and it is also squalid.” Allison Pearson recalls first seeing the sculptures in Paris’ Musée Rodin, especially The Kiss, as a “weary” teenager from the Midlands: “Here was remarkable news. Dead people had felt these things; and the living went on feeling them.” Children’s author Jacqueline Wilson has a soft spot for Paris’ Musée de la Poupée (dolls): “It’s like stepping straight into a Victorian storybook.” Matthew Sweet, a lifetime ABBA fan, delights in visiting their Stockholm Museum, while Julian Barnes travels into Finland’s hinterlands to see Jean Sibelius’ home, where “high art and practical living” are joined. A.D. Miller is drawn to Odessa’s State Literary Museum, a “theatre of both art and suffering.” Gogol, Chekhov, Bunin, Akhmatova, and Babel: “They all came to Odessa—all the classic Russian authors I have learned to revere.” The most poignant piece is Rory Stewart’s tale of his visit to Afghanistan’s National Museum in Kabul, with “its empty galleries, its quiet displays and its loyal staff.” Other contributors include Claire Messud, Alan Hollinghurst, and Aminatta Forna.
These graceful, vicarious tours to museums famous and obscure are almost as good as the real thing.