Museum expert Rachel Morris had been ignoring the boxes of family belongings for decades. When she finally opened them she began a journey into her family’s dramatic story through the literary and bohemian circles of the nineteenth and twentieth century. It was a revelatory experience – one that finds her searching for her absent father in archives of the Tate, and which transports her back to the museums that had enriched a lonely childhood.
By teasing out the stories of those early museum makers, and the unsung daughters and wives behind them, and seeing the same passions and neglect reflected in her own family, Morris digs deep into the human instinct for collection and curation.
What I Thought:
I’m thrilled today to be kicking off the blog tour for Rachel Morris’ The Museum Makers. What starts out as a woman reclaiming her own family history becomes a fascinating insight into the inner workings of museums and collections, no matter how big or how small.
We’re all guilty in lots of ways of falling out with our family history, be it intentionally, or purely because we are all too busy to think much about what has gone before in our family. For Rachel, it is harder to forget as the ephemera of her family is quite literally taking up space in her home.
At the heart of the book is Rachel’s fascinating family, including a bohemian ‘Free Lover’ who brings his family to America in the aftermath of a scandal, one of his sons who seduces the wrong girl and a headstrong young woman who, throughout her life, never quite escapes looking after children. In this varied and yet not quite secure environment, a young Rachel learns to love books and reading and museums and the stories that those things can tell us.
This leads into an exploration of how the large, 18th Century museums (such as the British Museum) were born and how they attempted to bring the stories of far away cultures to the people of Britain, however disreputably their artefacts may have been collected.
Hearing from a professional who creates museums and collates artefacts is so interesting, as she explains how museums have gone from being buildings in which dusty items with dusty index cards are there for us to look at, to interactive exhibits where items are pulled together with a common narrative to make them come alive. It’s the stories of the people behind the objects that give them their power, rather than just their curiosity value and being something to stare at.
Returning to Rachel’s own family and her often-missing father you get a real sense of her pain at missing out on so much with her parents, and her deep love for her Grandmother, the only real constant in her life. We so often only think of our relatives in relation to ourselves, so to read about Margaret Birkinshaw as a creative young woman of ambition is both tragic and uplifting at the same time.
At the end of the book there is an extensive reading list for further exploration of the large and small museums that Rachel Morris uses as examples in this book and there is plenty that you will want to read on about after you’ve finished here.
For such a personal exploration of family, this book casts a wide net over a whole world of museums and their dedicated creators, curators and caretakers. It’s a delight to look at the museums Rachel Morris mentions in a new light, and perhaps it will make us all appreciate our own – personal and public – museums all the more.
The Museum Makers is published by September Books.
To find out about Rachel Morris, her work and this book, you can check out her website, which includes some great starting points to begin thinking about your own museums and collections of family history. You can also connect with her on Twitter.
This review is the first for a blog tour celebrating the publication of The Museum Makers. For more reviews and exclusive content, please do check out some of the blogs below:
Please note: I was sent a copy of this book for review. All opinions are, as ever, my own.