Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. A Retrospective, Part 1

On Friday 24 November, between 7 and 10 pm, an event took place in The Hunterian Museum at the University of Glasgow. Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland was conceived as a celebration of the links between Scotland and the fantastic, in close association with the magically diverse collections of The Hunterian. It was also dedicated to the idea of Scotland as fantasy: a place people dream of even if they’ve never been there, whose residents are equally given to dreaming about alternative versions of the land they live in. This blog post touches on some of the thoughts that emerged in relation to the project between early August, when we received news that we would be funded by Event Scotland (Scotland Winter Festivals) and the Being Human Festival, and the event itself in late November, close to St. Andrew’s Day.

The Event

Night at the Museum gives us the opportunity to enter The Hunterian after dark – when it’s at its most atmospheric – and stroll around with drinks in our hands, discovering what the exhibits look like when removed from the cold and rational light of day. The first of these events I went to was dedicated to Robbie Burns and the work of the university’s Burns Centre, and it enchanted me at once with its blend of performances on stage in the museum’s main hall, atmospheric lighting, and research stations or stalls arranged round the edges of the display areas, where you could talk to passionate researchers about the adventures they were having among archivists, librarians, performers, artists, craftspeople, scholars and Burns enthusiasts around the world. It occurred to me at once that Shawn Levy’s original Night at the Museum was a fantasy movie, and that as scholars of the fantastic we should surely be holding such an event ourselves. My colleagues Dahlia Porter and Matt Sangster agreed; and we quickly formed a fellowship with Moira Rankin of the University Library – where William Hunter’s books are held in Special Collections, on the vertiginously elevated top floor – and Ruth Fletcher of The Hunterian, whose astonishing energy, imagination and commitment made her the driving engine of our collaborative project. Together we talked over ideas for the shape and style of the inaugural Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. Together we put in bids for funding. Together we won it, and began to draw more and more conspirators into our circle.

Like the Burns themed Night at the Museum the event was to centre on three elements. Research stations, where the public could meet and talk with researchers whose work touched on the theme of the evening. Performances, where the theme would be brought alive by musicians and actors. And The Hunterian collection itself, which it would be our task to link both imaginatively and intellectually to fantasy and the fantastic. As part of the event we aimed to bring some books from Special Collections to display in a case alongside the permanent items in the main hall. I also liked the idea of having labels or signs throughout the museum, pointing up some of the many connections we could identify between the collection and the idea of fantasy in and of Scotland. Dahlia and Matt proposed we have a quiz or treasure hunt, which would send visitors scurrying from object to object making new connections between the exhibits and the books or stories or myths we had in mind. Costumed guides should be available in every part of the museum, helping to usher the visitors to the more neglected corners of the building. I wanted actors, too, who would appear in unexpected places (balconies, elevators, springing out from behind pillars, swinging on trapeses slung from the rafters) and recite speeches in character about their own particular Scottish fantasy connections. This last dream never quite came to fruition, but one day, who knows? We have a little treasure chest among us stored with ideas that we didn’t have space or time or personnel to try, all of which remain available for exploitation in some future exhibition, festival or happening…

The process of selecting the research stations was both carefully thought out and somewhat random. We knew, on the whole, the fields we wanted to see represented, which included archaeology, Celtic studies, classical culture, museum studies, theatre, film and TV, and art history. We were limited, however, both by the number of researchers who were willing and able to give up their time and by how many stations we could safely fit into the space available. In the end the stations selected themselves from the long wish list we’d assembled. By a kind of alchemy they took shape quite independently of what we had in mind, and the particular selection of research themes and fields imposed a shape or structure on the evening which was not in any sense of our making.

Kath Campbell performing ballads

The line-up of performers, too, was the result of a carefully compiled wish list and sheer good fortune. I was obsessed from the start with the idea of having a bit of the musical Brigadoon, about a Scottish village that only materializes every one hundred years, but the company we’d lined up to deliver this had to withdraw at the last moment. I wanted the Haydn settings of poems by Anne Hunter, wife of John Hunter, brother of the museum’s founder William, because two of these poems at least – ‘The Mermaid’s Song’ and ‘The Spirit’s Song’ – deal with fantastic themes; but we couldn’t find a singer able to perform them. We had better luck with other things on our wish list. Supernatural border ballads were a necessity – there’s simply no other aspect of Scottish culture that’s given rise to so many haunting fictions all over the world (think of Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, Ellen Kushner’s Thomas the Rhymer, Sally Prue’s Cold Tom, Diana Wynne Jones’s Fire and Hemlock). My colleague Kirsteen McCue knew exactly who should deliver them, and put us in touch with Kath Campbell, a scholar of ballads and Romantic literature as well as a superlative singer. I knew from the start who I wanted for our final act: those long-term stars of the Glasgow Cabaret scene Bert Finkle and the Markee de Saw. Bert Finkle I was lucky enough to know already; he’s also known as Neil Williamson, author of speculative fiction, whose novel The Moon King blew me away when it came out in 2013, and who put me in touch with the remarkable group of writers known as the Glasgow SF Writers Circle (SF here stands for Strange Fiction), thus revealing to me the very heart of the fantastic in my home city. I couldn’t believe our luck when they agreed to put together a bespoke show for our event, inspired by that most seminal of Scottish fantasies, Peter Pan. Afterwards I went around for days with the last song sung by the Markee ringing in my ears: it was Schubert’s ‘Nacht und Träume’, and I’d forgotten what an exquisite melody it had and how strange its lyrics were. I found out afterwards that the Markee works in the Gilchrist Postgraduate Club where I and my co-conspirators had been putting our heads together for so many weeks. Small world, and a decidedly weird one.

Alan Riach gets monstrous

The non-musical performances came about through serendipity. It was Moira Rankin who suggested we contact Professor Kevin O’Dell to ask if one of his Zombie Science team would put on a short show for us. We were lucky enough to find Laura Richmond available, goggles and all, and her dazzling Superhero Science son-et-lumiere thriller had her audience, young and old, completely mesmerised (I sat next to a child on the night who was rooting loudly for the villains throughout the performance). Later, our colleague Professor Alan Riach suggested he perform Edwin Morgan’s poem ‘The Loch Ness Monster’s Song’, which is written entirely in an unfamiliar dialect of monster-ese, of which Alan is surely the most authentic human speaker. Again, the crowd was mesmerised (perhaps that’s why the monster is inclined to sing rather than roar when she emerges from the icy depths – she attracts far bigger meals that way). These four performances were all we had time for; perhaps the last-minute withdrawal of one of the acts was a blessing in disguise, as my Grandmother would have said.

Photo by Martin Shields

The most crucial element of the event was the volunteers. I had a vision of masses of people in peculiar costumes swarming through the museum in a whirl of colour and prosthetic ears and noses – something close to the mayhem that made up the best scenes in Shawn Levy’s movie. For this we needed help from students: postgraduates past and present who have (for reasons of their own, like the jilted lovers and runaway criminals who join the French Foreign Legion) elected to take part in the MLitt in Fantasy at Glasgow, or else to embark on PhDs or DFAs in this strange field of scholarly and creative activity. Over the two-and-a-half years when the MLitt has been running I’ve come to know something important about Fantasy graduates: that you’ll never a find a more passionate, friendly, imaginative group of people to collaborate with in the length or breadth of the Deep Dark Forest – or anywhere else, in fact. I wasn’t disappointed. When I asked for volunteers to dress up in costume, staff some of our research stations, guide our guests around the building, many stepped forward from last year’s cohort, and many more from the intrepid crowd who joined us in September. From among their number we found ourselves an intern to work with Special Collections in identifying books for display; an experienced stage manager to liaise with the performers; a world-class Harry Potter expert; a team of creative writers several of whom were established authors, published and unpublished, before they joined the MLitt programme; and too many more to list here.

Our army of fantasy-focused helpers was joined by equally passionate researchers from a range of other disciplines: the School of Education, who brought with them specialist expertise in Scottish fantasy for children and an astonishing range of examples; comics fans from across the College of Arts; games enthusiasts who know everything it’s possible to know about the different varieties of fantasy-based playing environments (one of these was a Fantasy Mlitt graduate); lexicographers from the world-renowned Oxford Thesaurus project, whose playful approach to words brought out their latent magic; and specialists in sexual health, who encouraged our visitors to think fantastically about sexually transmitted diseases (I still covet one of the furry herpes-shaped creatures they doled out as prizes). An undergraduate ably stepped forward to lead the team of specialists in palaeontology who could explain the science of the Loch Ness monster (what kind of a creature could she reasonably be if one were to set aside for a moment one’s scepticism as to her longevity and her ability to thrive in those icy depths?). I’m still astonished at the energy and passion these researchers and volunteers showed as they entertained and informed our guests for three solid hours, in many cases without a moment’s rest.

The stage was set for our spectacular. As bonuses, the wonderful Louise Welsh – Professor of Creative Writing, novelist, activist, opera maker – agreed to cut the ribbon for our event, while further well-chosen and generous words were to be uttered by Sarah Churchwell, Director of the Being Human Festival, and Steph Sholten, Director of the Hunterian.

In the meantime, Dahlia, Matt and I were getting to know the museum.

The Museum

The Hunterian in the 1830s

The Hunterian Museum was the brainchild of the physician and collector William Hunter, who built up a huge collection of paintings, books and objects in the course of his lifetime. First opened in 1807, and housed in a specially constructed building off Glasgow’s High Street, this is the oldest public museum in Scotland and one of the oldest in the world, a worthy forerunner of the New York Met, the Pitt Rivers, the Smithsonian and the V & A. That first building was neoclassical, a model of rationalism worthy of the age that produced the great Swedish biologist Carl Linnaeus, who invented the modern system of cataloguing plants and animals, as well as the economist Adam Smith and the chemist and anatomist Joseph Black, both professors at the University of Glasgow. When the university moved from the High Street to the West End in 1870, Hunter’s collection got another purpose-built home, this time a neo-Gothic hall at the very heart of the new campus. Designed by George Gilbert Scott in a fairytale style he called Scottish Baronial, the hall sends out mixed messages, unleashing a torrent of dreams, quasi historical narratives and industrial-technological associations which make it something very far from a model of rationalism. In its role as a feudal dining hall it welcomes visitors to a feast of history, while gently impressing them with its aristocratic grandeur. This is an ancient house, it seems to say, and long connected with the ruling elite; you may also think of medieval churches if you look at the rose window high up in the east end. As a work of architectural engineering, on the other hand, it would have impressed its early visitors with its modernity. The university’s main building was one of the first in the world to be constructed round a riveted iron frame, and the ironwork is obvious both in the exposed steel girders visible as you climb the magnificent staircase towards the museum’s front entrance and in the soaring pillars that support the timber roof of the museum hall itself. Rooted in the past, we look to the future, this ironwork declares; who knows what that future will bring, but we have done our part to ensure that it will be built on solid foundations.

The Hunterian now

The iron, which comes from the foundries of Lanarkshire and Ayrshire, and the blond sandstone cladding the hall, which comes from the nearby quarries at Bishopbriggs, link the new structure with the Scottish industrial landscape. From the front of the university’s main building you can look out across Kelvingrove Park towards the Clyde, which helped spread the products of these industries across the world. The details of the museum building – the rose window, the metal columns with their fancy capitals, the stained woodwork of the ceiling and banisters – these are imaginative, the whims of dreamers, albeit dreamers with a sound knowledge of architectural history and engineering. The quality of the materials from which it’s constructed, on the other hand, and the huge amount of work that’s gone into putting them together, suggest that they are products of a time when labour was cheap, and when labourers and their families had little prospect of taking advantage of the university education whose physical housing they had helped to build. Fairytales and facts, history and dreams, politics and extravagant imaginings are interdependent, and it’s incumbent on us to tell the story of the sometimes vexed relationship between these disparate elements, and to celebrate the fact that the premises which house The Hunterian are now accessible to a wider range of social classes than ever before.

The Fantastic

The best narratives I know about the politics of museums occur in fantasy or fantastic fiction: stories that contain one or more element which is avowedly impossible, an artifact with magical properties, a face-to-face encounter between a still-living past and an unsuspected future, the discovery of a portal in the archives leading to strange alternative dimensions. Such fantasies invoke the foreignness of the new context in which museum objects find themselves, the clash between the cultures and beliefs that shaped them and the new narratives to which they find themselves contributing. They conjure up the excitement of the unexpected discoveries to which the often random eclecticism of a museums’ displays are always giving rise. And they remind us that there has always been something supernatural about museums, since they were first dedicated in ancient Greece to the worship of the nine Muses, those mountain-dwelling goddesses of science, art and memory whose names and functions were always changing with the changing times.

Modern fantasy (as Jamie Williamson has recently argued) has its roots in the same antiquarianism that produced the first museums in Britain, including The Hunterian. Exploring the past led writers to speculate about it; reading about mythology inspired writers to develop mythologies of their own; gaps in the historical record prompted writers to tell stories to fill in the lacunae. It’s no surprise, then, if museums feature widely in fantastic narratives. Even the story of Middle Earth has its repositories for historically or artistically significant items. When Bilbo Baggins gets home from his adventures in The Hobbit (1937) he lends his beautiful mail shirt to the museum or Mathom-House at Michel Delving, though he later recovers it to set out on fresh adventures in The Lord of the Rings (1954-5). In taking it out again he fulfilled one of the objectives of fantasy and the fantastic: to breathe new life into old ideas and objects and stories by bringing them into conversation with the ideas and desires and problems of today. Long before that – measuring time by the chronology of the fantastic texts themselves, that is by their date of publication – the Time Traveller in H. G. Wells’s first science fiction novel The Time Machine (1895) learns much of what he learns about the far future by visiting what he calls the Palace of Green Porcelain, a giant museum encrusted in tiles like the real-life museum complex in South Kensington. Unfortunately the palace doesn’t have much to tell him because all the books in it and many of the specimens have fallen to pieces. When the Time Traveller reaches for a lever on one of the giant machines it shelters, he doesn’t trigger some unguessed-at technological process of the far future but instead wrenches it off to use as a weapon, a stone-age club, against the skulls of the cannibalistic Morlocks who seek to ambush him in the building’s depths. In this book, then, the museum has lost its ability to communicate, to unfold a coherent chronological narrative, apart from the one of loss and decay that can be deduced from its dilapidated condition. The episode has, of course, a political edge. The great museums of the world are designed tell a story – indeed, multiple stories, one of which concerns imperial conquest, the process that enabled such a vast array of remains and artefacts to be brought together and displayed so far from their places of origin. The Palace of Green Porcelain declares that the time of conquest is over, that even the story of the cultures that inflicted it on their neighbours will soon be forgotten, rendered illegible to later generations by the long, slow processes of atrophy and decay. The Time Traveller, as a representative of the imperialist age of Victorian Britain, is himself reduced to stone age status by the need to protect himself against his own descendants, whose desire to devour his body is read by him as barbarism – despite the decades and centuries of equally savage exploitation, the cannibalism, so to speak, of colonized cultures, of which his body and mind are themselves the products.

The Time Machine, then, makes a story out of the loss of the museum’s story. It reminds us that a museum is a time machine, whose objects transport us back to earlier epochs – but which also make nonsense of those objects by incorporating them into new settings where they are decidedly not at home, just as the Time Traveller is not at home among his children’s children’s children, the elf-like Eloi and goblin-esque Morlocks. The notion of the museum’s contents being reassembled into a new shape – something strange, ungainly, threatening – is taken up by China Miéville in his novel Kraken (2010), which includes a museum that has somehow transformed itself into an ungainly deity cobbled together from the contents of its storage facilities and the glass containers that preserve them. Here is its first appearance, as it rescues the protagonist – a museum curator called Billy – from a vicious attack by a London gang:

It was a skull on the top of a giant jar. A huge glass preserving bottle, of the type that Billy had for years been filling with preservative and animal dead. This one was nearly five feet high, full of flesh slough and clouding alcohol. On its glass lid was a shabby human skull liberated, Billy absolutely knew, from one of the cupboards of remains in the Natural History Museum. It snapped its teeth. Where the rim met the lid the flaring glass served as its shoulders, and the thing raised two fleshless taloned arms taken from bone boxes, humerus, ulna radius, clacking carpals and those sharpened phalanges.

The angel of memory.

The dishevelled and battered angel of memory mentioned in this last sentence, who strives vainly to bring order to the debris of the passing ages, is the invention of the German philosopher Walter Benjamin, who himself died making a bid for freedom in wartime Spain, one of countless victims of the Nazi rewriting of history through so-called ‘ethnic cleansing’. Benjamin speaks movingly in his writings of ‘the heaviness at heart, the acedia, which despairs of mastering the genuine historical picture, which so fleetingly flashes by’, and which is embodied in the figure of the angel constantly blown into the future while stubbornly facing a past which it can never reduce to order. In The Time Machine the museum is a passive monument to this futile endeavour. Miéville’s grotesque museum-angel is an angrier embodiment of the concept, murderously protecting its acolyte, the curator, from the mob of vicious London dandies which aims to ‘pick his brains’ for their own unpleasant purposes. Loosely flung together from disparate parts whose names suggest they may one day know the dignity of being reassembled into a full skeleton, yet enclosing in its glass bowels the decomposing organic matter Miéville unpleasantly refers to as ‘flesh slough’, this latter-day angel of memory is lethally effective, dismembering its barbaric enemies with the speed of a ninja. History may have been reduced to rubbish by neglect, incompleteness, and deliberate falsification, but it still has a potency which means we ignore it at our peril.

The Angel Islington by Chris Riddell

Scotland-leaning fantasists are no less seduced by the allure of the museum than their English counterparts. Neil Gaiman is not quite Scottish, although he has a house on the Isle of Skye; but the protagonist of his early novel Neverwhere (1996) is a young man from Scotland. His Scottishness allows him to read the City of London with fresh eyes: eyes that discern both the mysterious under-city of London Below, full of lost souls, forgotten myths and abandoned scraps of history, and the incremental takeover of London Above – the everyday London of the 1990s – by the super-wealthy, who display a haughty unconcern for the intricate ties that bind past to present, or one city-dweller to another across invisible barriers of class, race and culture. For Gaiman and his Scottish protagonist, Richard Mayhew, the British Museum is the central site of this takeover. At a central point in the novel Richard emerges with his friend Door from the labyrinth of London Below by way of an abandoned underground station called British Museum, to find himself in one of the museum’s outlying storerooms which is full of ‘junk’: misplaced or forgotten cultural artefacts whose detachment from their historical and cultural contexts robs them of meaning, despite the fact that this particular junk is ‘magnificent, rare, strange and expensive’. They make their way to a private viewing in the Museum proper, where a multi-millionaire is displaying his collection of angels in a room marked ‘Early English’ (no doubt a reference to Pope Gregory I’s exclamation on first seeing the beauty of the early inhabitants of the British Islands: non angli sed angeli, these are not Angles but angels). The multi-millionaire’s angel collection is remarkable both for its diversity and its disorganization, having been described by Time Out (Gaiman tells us) as ‘indiscriminate to the point of trashiness’. Like the contents of the storeroom it has been reduced by its lack of context to the status of expensive junk, emblematic of the chaos on which the angel of memory seeks vainly to impose any semblance of meaningful order. Later in the book another collector, the assassin Mr Croup, obtains a priceless figurine from the T’ang dynasty and promptly bites its head off; his respect for antique art is clearly no more exalted than his respect for human life, and in this he shares the attitude of the multi-millionaire, whose name – Mr Stockton – suggests his tendency to reduce the world in general to so much stock to be bought and sold for his own advantage. Mr Stockton’s acquisition of the ‘Early English Room’ for the launch of his angel exhibition suggests the displacement of history and public service in his native land, as embodied in the public museum, by the worship of personal profit. It may also be no coincidence that in Shakespeare’s time there was a coin called an angel, or that the contamination of angels by association with total self-interest turns out to play a pivotal role in the plot of Gaiman’s novel. We put in museums the objects our culture values, though by no means always in monetary terms. Gaiman’s London Above has largely forgotten the other things we value them for.

Boris Karloff as The Mummy (1932)

Having said this, one of the angels in Mr Stockton’s exhibition is painted on a door which opens to let Richard Mayhew and his friend into a room containing a genuine angel – that is, a former occupant of heaven. Light pours though the door as it opens: the ancient portal retains its aura, despite having been marooned among a mass of inferior angel-themed artefacts. Museums in more solidly Scottish and Scotland-based fantasies are equally conscious of the magical properties of museums and the objects they contain, when seen in the right light by sympathetic observers. They also seem strongly inclined to follow Wells in drawing out the political aspect of museum collections. Arthur Conan Doyle’s atmospheric short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’ (1890), for instance, which inspired Karl Freund’s 1932 movie The Mummy, tells of a young student of Egyptology who visits the Louvre Museum for research purposes, where he meets an unusually long-lived Egyptian who has nothing but contempt for the efforts of colonial nations to piece together the narratives of his culture from surviving fragments: ‘Your knowledge of the subject is contemptible,’ he tells the unfortunate student, ‘Yet it is superior to that of many who make even greater pretensions’. The Egyptian reveals himself as Sosra, son of the chief priest of Osiris in the ancient temple of Abaras, who discovered the secret of a vastly extended life and was thus unfortunate enough to outlive the woman he loved by many centuries. Thanks to his insider knowledge Sosra is able to supply the full narrative that lies behind one of the female mummies in the Louvre’s collection – it is of course the body of his lost lover – while incidentally expressing his contempt for the European researchers who violate the sacred burial grounds of his ancestors (‘no Egyptian would ever stain his soul by moving even the outer case of a buried friend’). Conan Doyle is unable to resist touching on the distasteful racial theories of the late nineteenth century – Sosra insists on his difference from ‘the down-trodden race of slaves who now inhabit the Delta of the Nile’, and his physical similarity to the figures painted on ancient sarcophagi tends to confirm his claims – but his awareness that the museum context can occlude the stories of the peoples whose artefacts they conserve still resonates in the twenty-first century.

Closer to Glasgow, Lisa Tuttle’s novel The Silver Bough (2012) revolves around a museum-cum-library which harbours clues to the fairy past of a small West Highland community. Its dull inventories, unvisited storage rooms and neglected corners preserve traces of a magic which, once painstakingly recovered by a diligent librarian, brings the past to life and in the process helps to reinvigorate the small community where the museum is located. In terms of politics, the novel makes an eloquent plea for the value of rural museums and libraries, and its most fairy-tale element may be the sudden financial windfall (an apt metaphor for a novel that concerns itself with the history of apple orchards in Scotland) which brings new life to the museum building at the novel’s close.

Julie Bertagna’s Exodus (2002), meanwhile, brings us to the premises of The Hunterian itself, in a not-so-distant future when the world has been overwhelmed by rising sea levels. Perched on its hill overlooking Glasgow, the university main building and the museum it contains serve as a Noah’s Ark preserving the evidence of past human achievements, deprived of coherence, like the objects in Wells’s Palace, by the loss of historical knowledge that followed the cataclysmic floods of the post-human epoch. For the novel’s heroine, a teenager called Mara, the objects in the museum’s cases embody the infinite achievements of past generations, and the infinite possibilities wasted by their failure to conserve the earth for their descendants by preventing global warming:

Now Mara walks into a hall full of glass boxes. Inside each one is a vast assortment of objects, every kind of human invention. And suddenly she understands. These halls hold the golden names of long-gone people who dreamed up the visions that took humankind from wooden clubs to space telescopes, from bread-making to the building of cathedrals, from baked-clay vases to violins and oil painting, from brittle twig combs to the delicate mechanisms of compasses and thermometers, then to computers and cyberspace. And finally to cities in the sky.

Mara is walking through a history of dreams.

Note here how the present tense stresses the precariousness of the future in which the novel is set. The story unfolds from page to page with no certainty that there will be another future from which to look back on Mara’s adventures, a future such as would be implied by the use of the imperfect mode. Sure enough, the museum does not outlast the second book of Bertagna’s novel series (pardon the spoiler). But the dreams that it evokes continue to animate humanity’s survivors. In particular the life size model of an ancestor of modern human beings, homo habilus, gets carried away from its main hall by a child who represents the next phase in human evolution – a young girl with webbed toes and a preternatural ability to survive prolonged immersion in the rising seas. The model later makes landfall on the shores of Greenland, ready like its new owner to begin a new phase of existence in what was once the harshest of terrains, now transformed into an oasis. We wanted to include the model of homo habilus in our Night at the Museum as a tribute to Bertagna’s novel, but in the end it proved too difficult to move him from the museum’s storage facilities; he will have to wait for another opportunity to resume his former place among The Hunterian’s display cases – though one hopes this won’t be so drastic an occasion as the novel suggests.

The other fantasy I know of that roots itself in The Hunterian collection is Hal Duncan’s exuberantly experimental novel Vellum: The Book of All Hours (2005), which begins with a robbery in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. One of the central characters smashes a glass case in the basement of the university library, where Special Collections was formerly housed, to seize the eponymous ancient volume, with the aim of escaping into its pages and discovering a world or succession of worlds without laws or borders, where the dreams, desires and nightmares of humankind can be worked out without restriction. The volume in question was written by the angel Metatron, and the thief himself is also an angel, as are most of the other major characters in the novel: members of a group called the Covenant, they are sworn to resist any attempt to seize authority on the part of a deity, past or present. The volume contains a map, like all good history books or fantasies; but this map begins with the familiar (a detailed blueprint of the library building) before spreading suddenly abroad into the infinitely strange and unexpected. And it unfolds for page after page; there is no sign that it will ever come to an end:

The Macromimicon. Was it then a book of maps, not of what was, but of what might have been, of a world that had taken a different course, with this village growing into a town instead of that one, this town burgeoning into a city instead of another? I turned another page. […] Strangely – in retrospect – it never occurred to me that this book might actually be nothing more than mere invention, a work of fancy: perhaps the accuracy of the blueprint of the library held that idea from my mind; perhaps it was the power of the old family legends engrained so deep within me. All I know is what I felt: a growing conviction that this book spoke somehow of a higher truth.

The novel Vellum is the product of many hours’ research in the University of Glasgow’s Special Collections. It encompasses (among other things) the ancient Sumerian myth of Inanna and her descent into the underworld, Aeschylus’s tragedy of defiance against the gods Prometheus Unbound, the Egyptian Book of the Dead (that beloved resource of the American experimental novelist William S Burroughs), Freud’s psychoanalytic narratives, and the myth of Metatron, the Recording Angel of Jewish mysticism. Each of these textual resources (at least, the original manuscripts and objects on which they are inscribed) is worthy to be housed in glass cases in the world’s finest museums. But Duncan’s book liberates them from all glass cases, as the thief liberates The Book of All Hours, in the process demolishing the constricting grand narratives that the great museums of the world were designed to propagate. In Duncan’s book, chaos and anarchy are not destructive but boundlessly creative, and this attitude, freely shared among the members of the Covenant, is finally able to free Benjamin’s angel of memory (as embodied in all the angels in the novel, with their different perspectives and interweaving narratives) from the authoritarian constraints of official records.

Photo by Martin Shields

This is one of the ‘higher truths’ we wanted to carry with us into Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. For the evening, we wanted to suggest alternative narratives for The Hunterian’s displays which would head our visitors off in new imaginative directions, some of which have been touched on in this little meditation on the museums of fantasy fiction. The dynamics of the evening – with no particular route mapped out through the museum’s displays; with many displays left untouched by our Fantasy Scotland labelling but (perhaps) rendered a little more mysterious by their proximity to labelled objects; with performances breaking out at odd moments (we did not provide a programme so as to avoid excessive crowding around the stage in the main hall); with random volunteers wandering among the exhibits and research stations, some costumed, some not – the dynamics of the evening allowed for every visitor’s experience to be subtly or even wildly different. (One child sat at the creative writing station all night long, brushing off all her parents’ attempts to draw her attention to other happenings while scrawling page after page of – what? We never found out.) So, the eighteenth-century Blackstone Chair, which has been used for several centuries to examine students in the humanities or classics, became for the evening a kind of sorting hat in the corner devoted to Harry Potter and fantasy for children; but the nearby skeleton of the False Killer Whale remained stubbornly itself. The Dire Wolf inevitably got recruited as an extra in George R. R. Martin’s novel sequence A Song of Ice and Fire, while its next door neighbour in the same glass case, the Thylacine or Tasmanian Tiger, kept its own counsel, moving mysteriously through the bush of its native island, half real, half legendary. The magpie’s nest became temporarily the nest of the Never Bird from Peter and Wendy, while Ferdinand Verbiest’s Chinese-language Map of the Whole World continued to show the world as it was in the seventeenth century, from a Chinese perspective, for purposes you would have to turn to history to find out. The Hunterian’s mummy, Lady Shepenhor, became the mummy of Sosra’s lover in Conan Doyle’s short story ‘The Ring of Thoth’. Most of the Roman artefacts from the Antonine Wall just stood there, waiting for something to take place in the spaces between them.

We hope that as a result, Scotland as well as the Hunterian Museum has got just a little larger, a little stranger, a little more fantastic.

 

[In the second post on Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland we provide the quiz handed out on the night and the labels that decorated the museum’s cases.]

Photo Credits: all photos of Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland are by Stuart Dyer and Oliver Rendle

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2 Responses to Night at the Museum: Fantasy Scotland. A Retrospective, Part 1

  1. Ruth Fletcher says:

    I’m delighted to have been part of the team that made this happen. The Hunterian was shown in its best light with the magical sparkle added by your inspiration and your enthusiastic students. Here’s to the next venture!

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