by Peter Hitchens

The museum is the introvert’s temple. It is more or less futile to go there in company, for it is a place for thoughts, imagination, pondering, and memory. Just as nightclubs and loud parties are inexplicable to me, and even torture, museums are, I always assume, miserable for the outgoing and noisy. What a liberation it was when, quite late on, it came to me that there are different kinds of people and that I was never, ever going to look forward to an evening of dancing, let alone a rock festival.  I suppose the important difference between these two contrasting pleasures is that extroverts living next door to museums never complain about the powerful silence that radiates from them, night and day.  

The first museum I ever encountered was a glass case at a boarding school I attended long ago. Normal calendar years could not properly express how far this place is from me now. I suspected at the time that much of it was an undergraduate joke, but I did not mind. Can there really be such a thing as an “Australian Garden Spider,” the description on the label of a gaudy creature near the centre of the display? I shouldn’t think so. But the spiked leather German Pickelhaube, perhaps salvaged from the Franco-Prussian war, was genuine enough. Perhaps, so was the tiny grey scrap of something, in its own brass setting, alleged to have been a morsel of elephant from the Paris Zoo, as consumed by the starving people of that city during the siege of 1870-1871. How this particular tiny ration managed to remain uneaten I do not know. But if I have a lingering and unsatisfied interest in that strange era, half-modern, half ancient, I owe it to those exhibits. I must go back one day to see if any of this has survived the last sixty years.  Or has it been consigned to what Saki once beautifully described as “The Cupboard of the Yesterdays”? 

Later I would find huge solace in Oxford’s Ashmolean, not as enormous as the vast overbearing institutions in the western world’s capital cities, but still as colossal as a great country house, and often (in those days before tourism) as empty. There is almost nothing in the world as beautiful as the Alfred Jewel, a mysterious ninth-century piece of glory, in crystal, gold, and enamel which is displayed there, and I used to marvel that nobody had walked off with it. It is one of those things, some large, some small, that you cannot see and be same as you were before. Then there was Guy Fawkes’s lantern, taken upon his arrest in 1605, and passed down in the family of the man who seized it, until it ended up in Elias Ashmole’s collection. Could these things truly still exist after all this time? Most of the artifacts of my daily life swiftly wore out, rotted, rusted, faded or were just haphazardly lost. Was it conceivable that I could be able to stand so close to anything so old? Yet these survived, and filled me with thought. I knew very early on that the material world around me would grow old and broken. I knew that much of what we know about the past is guesswork on the basis of a tiny amount of surviving information. We forget so fast. Much later in life I would be actually allowed to hold in my hands the vellum roll on which the original 1689 English Bill of Rights is inscribed. I had seen the American imitation through armored glass in its helium-filled container in the Washington National Archives. But this was a wholly different experience. I had the impression that I had stopped breathing. As a desiccated Protestant, drier than the driest sherry,  I have paid little attention to religious relics. But I think the experience gave me some understanding of the desire to touch, and to visit shrines.  

The Ashmolean was the conventional precursor to what was once the greatest and most disturbing of all museums, the wildly eccentric Pitt-Rivers, in those days hidden behind another more prosaic establishment and open only for a few hours each day. James Fenton wrote a glorious poem about it in those days,  in which he called it a “boxroom of the forgotten or hardly possible” and many other accurate, funny, and moving things which you should read for yourselves. Nowadays, when I return, it seems to me to have been annoyingly rationalized, and also to be far too well lit. But on the winter afternoon in the early 1960s when I first encountered it, it was more or less as it had been from the beginning, the immense attic of an eccentric explorer trying to prove an unlikely theory. Who was that bent figure flitting about the display cases two floors above, feebly lit by inadequate lamps of antique pattern?  As the whole vast room, dominated by a thirty-seven-foot totem pole, was filled with fetishes, objects of pagan worship, and actual shrunken heads, it was impossible to be sure who or what was hanging around up there, and probably unwise to look. Perhaps it was the ghost of the cruel English squire whose grisly steel-jawed man-trap, designed to end the careers of poachers with a crunch of bone and a lot of bleeding, was casually displayed, in the way of the place,  as if it was not especially horrible. I suspect he was also the former owner of the “spring-gun,” a blunderbuss set off  by a trip-wire, also to deter poaching, which may have been the model for certain devices installed for another purpose on the East German border in the twentieth century. My main response to these monstrosities was to chuckle, out of misplaced confidence that the world was on an upward path away from such things. These days I am not half so sure. But its new rulers have other concerns. They fear that the collection might kindle imperialist tendencies among its visitors, and so they proclaim that “The urgency of decoloniality is at the core of our work, with curatorial authority to be shared and/or handed to indigenous curators, knowledge keepers and/or artists, who respond critically to the museum.” So you can be pretty sure that many of those you see there will be busily decolonizing its subversively reactionary shelves and archives. I loved only the strong sensation of the world as a perilous adventure, beginning round about the point at which the steamers and the railways stopped, the zone (as Saki described it) of “chronically disturbed territory” free of “civilised monotony” and  in which “picturesqueness and excitement” might still be found. Years later, in Peshawar, Mandalay, Kashgar, Isfahan, and Phnom Penh, I would find it flooding back to me. 

The Pitt-Rivers did not in fact make me an imperialist. I was at that time incubating a strong and virulent strain of teenage Bolshevism, which I now recognize to have been a surprising version of Edwardian thinking. This was confirmed in the now-defunct Central Lenin Museum in Soviet Moscow. This shrine was just off Red Square, though not connected to his nearby tomb. In its day, it contained no fewer than thirty-four halls crammed with objects of worship, portraits, newspaper cuttings, and other rubbish. But its most alluring exhibit was the bloodthirsty monster’s Rolls-Royce, a “Silver Ghost Alpine Eagle” from 1922, with its militaristic caterpillar tracks and skis. It can still be seen by the intrepid in a smaller museum outside the Russian capital. The car and the revolution had both obviously sprung from pre-1914 thought, and share a similar squared-off, decisive, determinist heaviness.  

I wonder, in the meantime, what has become of the old K.G.B. Museum, in a building just behind the Lubyanka secret police prison in central Moscow. I was admitted to this unholy place during my years as a British correspondent. The K.G.B. wished to gloat, for some reason, about the many spies it had recruited from Britain’s shambling drunken establishment, especially the MI6  traitor Kim Philby. London correspondents were invited to view a special exhibit on this subject (which I suspect was cooked up for us alone, and swiftly dismantled as soon as we had gone). I was led past a hall whose marble pillars were the color of dried blood. This turned out to be the K.G.B. social club, famous among its members for its enjoyable dances. And then we were shown the boring old Philby stuff, which most of us had seen a dozen times already. But what caught my eye among the permanent exhibits, guns, documents, flags and such things, was a monstrous, macabre object. It was a large wreath, black as I recall, and made out of bayonets. They told me it was the funeral wreath of Feliks Dzerzhinsky, the supremely ruthless founder of the Soviet secret police. In the high days of Communism, the East German state’s ultra-loyal palace guard regiment was named after him, and its soldiers would chant “Feliks Dzerzhinsky! You have taught us how to hate!” (which in German ends with the long hiss of the word hass). There is a photograph of his funeral, in July 1926, in which the ultimate enemies, Stalin and Trotsky, both dressed in light summer clothes, walk astonishingly close to each other as they carry his coffin. I cannot make out the wreath in the picture, but perhaps it was used only in some internal secret policeman’s memorial ceremony.

By comparison with this, the Stasi museum in the far east of Berlin is quite domestic, and I enjoy it mainly for its faithful recreation of the constipated brownish-grey reality of the German Democratic Republic, right down to the cup of bland alleged coffee which they served me. I like museums that really live their roles, though I suspect it would be illegal these days even to make the substance sold as cakes in the G.D.R.’s coffee shops, let alone sell it for human consumption. What can it have been? But in any case it is a short distance to the Café Sibylle, museum and snackery, on the old Stalin Allee (now renamed). There you may drink proper coffee while examining a small museum in which Stalin’s ear is on display, or rather the ear that once formed part of a huge statue of that mass-murderer, but which had to be removed and hacked to pieces when fashions changed. It is a long way from the Alfred Jewel and Guy Fawkes’s lantern, but the principle is the same.

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