This article on museums in SF/F is part of the Science in Sci-fi, Fact in Fantasy blog series. Each week, we tackle one of the scientific or technological concepts pervasive in sci-fi (space travel, genetic engineering, artificial intelligence, etc.) with input from an expert.
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About the Expert
Graeme K. Talboys was a teacher in schools and museums before he became a full-time writer. As well as works on museum education he has written a number of general non-fiction books. He has also written several fantasy novels. His latest series, Shadow in the Storm, is being published by HarperVoyager. He lives in Scotland with his wife and two cats (and 5 million Scots). You should follow him on Facebook or Twitter.
Museums in Science Fiction and Fantasy
Make a list of the museums you have encountered in SF/F books (put your hand down Brown, your stuff doesn’t count). Well, for those of you old enough to remember DC Comics’ Strange Adventures, there is, of course, ‘The Space Museum’, a portmanteau series with each story sparked by an exhibit in a museum. A museum of sorts. A kind of precursor to Warehouse 13 in which dangerous objects are collected and hidden away.
Dr Jones and Lara Croft had some contact with museums, although not as much as Lady Alexandra Lindo-Parker who worked from a version of the British Museum that probably had staff there rolling in the aisles.
H G Wells famously included a museum in his The Time Machine in which the Time Traveller pondered on all that had been lost. Robin Jarvis set a whole YA trilogy in a museum to great effect.
There are other examples, but mostly in works in which we must either stretch the definition of SF/F to breaking point or where museums are entirely peripheral to the story.
So why is this? “Maybe,” you say, “museums just aren’t relevant to SF/F.” To which I would reply, rolling up my sleeves: “Step outside and say that again.”
Debunking Myths About Museums
If you believe they have no place in or relevance to your writing, this is probably down to your experience or perception of museums. Unless you were like me (who spent his childhood haunting museums) your first encounters with such establishments were probably when you would rather have been doing something else. This leaves most people with certain misconceptions, many of which can shackle you as a writer.
Myth #1 – Museums are static and boring.
Well, one is not synonymous with the other. And anyone who is bored by such a display of treasure and human ingenuity, no matter how small or specialised, really isn’t going to be a good writer.
It is true some museums, especially small and under-funded ones, can seem a bit static, but many are not. And in the end it’s what you put into your experience that counts. Besides, a bit of peace and quiet in which to contemplate artefacts and the stories behind them is far from being a bad thing.
What is more, if museums are so anodyne, ask yourself why dictators appropriate them, why armies and insurgents attack them in times of war and revolution, why there is such a huge international trade in stolen artefacts and works of art?
Myth #2 – Museums are a relatively modern concept and do not belong in early cultures or analogues thereof.
Wrong. Museums – that is, collections of items of cultural significance, have been around at least since humans stopped being nomadic and probably before. The remains of a museum were found in Ur. That’s getting on for 6000 years old. And they have been found all around the world. So any society you are likely to create, even a nomadic one in a colony spaceship between stars, is likely to have an area devoted to displaying (or hiding) ancient artefacts along with a lot of people dedicated to collecting, studying, and trying to understand them and the people who created them, as well as passing on their knowledge and understanding to others (or keeping it well hidden). This might not be central to your story (although given the number of tales that involve mysterious artefacts, it is a wonder why), but your world, be it past, future, alternative, or wholly fantastical should at least acknowledge the fact that the past is important to the present and the future.
Myth #3 – Old bits of pottery and other items from the past (and therefore museums), have no real relevance to SF/F.
Well, yes they do. If you are constructing any kind of world, you need to be aware of just how the real world is built in order to create convincing new ones. Even on a brand new spacecraft, the crew will have personal items – a photograph, a keepsake, a pair of lucky shorts. Not exactly museum quality, but nonetheless a link with the past that helps to explain their character and add colour to the world they inhabit. The same is true for cultures – their past defines their present. In a fantasy world there will always be extremely ancient places out of myth, ruins, the two hundred year old plough or pot still used by the farmer your central character encounters, an ancient sword, an old man with a horde of old books. All these things are to be found in museums because they are important to us. They will be important to your characters and your world, even if they simply add background texture.
Myth #4 – Museums have no relevance to story telling.
We’re getting a bit meta here; we’re moving from the content of your work to the creation of your work. And here, too, museums are relevant. Every display in a museum tells a story, no matter how small. This story will be illustrated with a few examples, and any curator worth their salt will know that you have to be concise, accurate, lively, and appeal to as wide an audience as possible. This makes them consummate story tellers. It is true they have to stick to facts whilst you can make things up, but you have to be consistent with your made up facts and you have to tell a story with them.
Myth #5 – Museums are a closed shop and staff will not be interested in you or your project.
Part of the reason museums exists is to inform and educate. They won’t discriminate against you because you are writing SF/F. However, museums are invariably under-funded and understaffed, so it is good policy to get to know the museum, attend any courses they may run, especially to do with their own behind-the-scenes work. Get to know the personnel if you can. And when you go to them with queries, make sure they are as specific as possible. They will be able to help you more easily.
Myth #6 – Museums have no place in my story.
Maybe not, but they do have a place in your world, even if it’s just a place for your characters to shelter on a rainy day. That happens quite often in real life. Museums are an integral part of most societies. Quite aside from their primary role, they also have an economic function as employers and a social function as a meeting place and a place where people can stay in touch with their own and others’ cultures. What is more, outside of a university they are the places you are most likely to find experts.
The Purpose of Museums
So what, exactly, is a museum? They come in many shapes and sizes, but their prime function is the preservation and display of artefacts of archaeological, historical, and cultural interest for the purposes of education, study and enjoyment. These include traditional buildings with galleries and displays, art galleries, archives, sites of historical and archaeological interest, reconstructions, and so on. And even if you are strangers to them, the importance with which society imbues museums and the artefacts they contain demonstrates that there is a deep, fundamental reason for their presence – one which has existed since museums came into being millennia ago.
Human beings, with their insatiable curiosity, have a collective desire to know, remember, muse upon, and make sense of their personal, communal, and cultural pasts. Self-knowledge in both an individual and a community is essential not just for accumulating other knowledge, but also for creating a sense of identity. What is more, they exist as a partial antidote to Santayana’s observation that ‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’
However, a museum is not just a collection of physical objects. Artefacts need care and interpretation, for experts and the general public alike. There can be no museums without people – people with their ability to interact with aspects of their own and others’ material culture, people with their ability to come to some sort of understanding of both their material culture, past and present, as well as themselves. To achieve this, museums offer the opportunity to see, touch, hear and have sensual, emotional and intellectual interactions with and experiences of what it contains. Ideally, a visit to a museum should be a cultural and creative event similar to listening to music, visiting a library, reading a book, going to the theatre or cinema – an encounter with the products of fellow human beings that is enjoyable and which can lead to revelation and deeper understanding of inner and outer space.
To achieve this, museums: collect items of material culture which they conserve, preserve, care for, and store; they carry out research into items in their collection and use this for interpretation and display of the items. The public are usually allowed access to the display areas and educational use by schools and universities is also encouraged. This custodianship of heritage also serves a wider social function in that museums are often also meeting places and places of inspiration. As such, they also serve an economic function.
Of course, you don’t need to put an actual museum in your work for museums to feature in and inform your writing. This can be achieved in several ways. The first is by using museums for research. The second is by using their raison d’etre and their function to colour the world you are creating and make it more realistic.
Using museums for research
“Can’t I just read a book?” I hear you ask. Well, you could. All the best books on any subject are written by people who went to primary sources for their information – things like objects in museum collections. And that doesn’t just mean old bits of pottery, lumps of rock, or great-grandpas woodworking tools. You may well find photographs, paintings, drawings; people’s diaries; a whole host of other documentary evidence, along with all the items not quite up to display standard which are either in storage or collected into handling collections. Yet no matter how good another author’s research and how interesting and well illustrated their book, it is never going to convey to you the kind of information you need to enrich your own writing.
Take a sword for example. Do you really know how to wear different types of sword? How heavy they are? How easy it is to draw a blade from whichever position it is mounted? What the hilt feels like in your hand? How to hold and fight with one? Whilst carrying a shield? And wearing armour of varying types? You can imagine these things, certainly, but the emotional impact of handling a weapon is something that is different for each person and only you can translate your psychological state into that of your character or characters.
Admittedly, medieval weaponry, castles, and battlefields are (if that is the baseline for your fantasy) a bit thin on the ground if you live in the Americas, but even if your local museums cannot help you, they will undoubtedly know someone who can. Re-enactment societies and the peripheral trades and skills required will exist and will only be too happy to help, especially if they get a big thank you in your acknowledgements.
Of course, it doesn’t need to be anything as spectacular as weaponry or fighting. Everyday living in various historical periods can act as a useful analogue for your world building. Simple things like bedding or food are easy to sample (it wasn’t all straw pallets and stew). Little details, especially those that have appealed to your senses – how something feels, its texture, weight and so on; what things taste like; what they smell of; the kind of noises they make (what do riding boots sound like on wooden floors?); their colours and shape and the simple impact they have on you the first time you see them and how that marries up with your other sensations. You cannot get that from books in a way relevant to you and your characters.
Not every museum near you is going to have a collection that suits your research. Unless, of course, you live in a big city. And even then, some items will be impossible to find in some places. There is one thing, however, that every museum has. An expert.
If you are very lucky, you’ll find an expert on the subject you are interested in and they will be able to offer all sorts of advice, reading lists, places worth visiting, people worth getting in touch with. And even if they aren’t experts in your field, they will either know people who are or know how to find out.
Experts have another skill already mentioned that I will return to shortly.
Muses and Museums
Even if you have no specific goals or interests at a particular time or, more importantly, if you are stuck, blocked, can’t work something out, then remember that a museum is a place of the muses. Who knows what you might see or experience if you wander about an exhibition? It’s a kind of inspired meditation. You walk about absorbing all sorts of new sights, the objects and pictures on display, the other people visiting the museum. Somewhere in there may be the solution to your problem or the spark for a new story. And even if it isn’t, you have hauled yourself out of your chair, had a bit of exercise and done something different that is good for body and soul.
World building with Museums
Those experts I said we would return to, the curators and keepers, the archaeologists, archivists, conservators, designers, and all the rest. They have another expertise that is often overlooked. They are, as already mentioned, in the same business as writers of SF/F. They are world builders. And they are very good at it.
Consider the displays in a museum. These aren’t just random objects thrown in where they will fit. Rather, each case or display has a story to tell and each item on display has been chosen to illustrate that story. Even items as apparently incomprehensible and random as flint chippings can be assembled to show how a flint knapper works a piece of raw flint to create an arrow head or a scraper. Accompanied by a piece of video of a modern day knapper at work and suddenly the little bits of stone have not just a story of their own, but a person behind that story who has honed their skills and contributed to their community. It might not be a complete picture of that distant world, but there is enough there to feed the imagination – thousands of hours of research distilled to a few items and choice words that paint a vivid picture in the mind of the reader. A lesson for all writers.
Archaeologists and historians do the same, sifting for evidence on which to build their interpretations and stories. They do not always agree. Stories evolve the more we learn about what is happening. First contact and first impressions can be wrong and interpretation is always done from the cultural bias of the person making the interpretation. If they see a large building with a bell that rings once a week and to which everyone gathers (to sing), chances are that it will, to begin with at least, be interpreted as a place of worship even if it is nothing of the kind.
With all this material, the curators and other staff create a narrative for visitors to explain the objects and their context. They bring together scientific and artistic disciplines to indulge in one of the oldest of human pastimes – storytelling. They are world builders and tellers of tales. That they are trying to tell as accurate a tale as possible about the past is simply the genre they work in. But all writers of SF/F could learn from their example.
So, even if you don’t ever have a museum in your stories, you could learn a great deal as a writer by studying how museums tell engrossing stories using minimal material. The people who create displays and galleries are expert world builders. Most of their material is never used in the finished display, yet their understanding of that material enables them to pick the richest, most relevant, and highly evocative items to illuminate the narrative they are creating.
Museums are about world building. If you are world building, creating other races to make them credible to your reader, you are, in effect, creating your own museum of displays and specialists dedicated to these new peoples and their culture(s). You are building up a picture of these people and a narrative to explain them to others in exactly the same way a curator would – using increasing amounts of evidence to posit and refine theories as well as inform the public.
Take a break from your writing desk. Visit your nearest museum. Get to know it – there’s no right or wrong way to do this. Simply enjoy it and think how it might help you with your work.
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