Museums as Portals Between Worlds?: Themes in Fantasy and Fiction
Over this past Reading Week, I finally picked up one of my highly anticipated books, an historical fantasy titled The Invisible Life of Addie La Rue (2020) by V.E. Schwab. Looking for a break from coursework, I was amused to find a museum catalogue entry on the second page of the book! The notion of the museum – connected to themes of material memory, the act of collecting, and what it means to be (un)able to leave a mark – was recurring and so intriguing that it led to me writing this article.
A lot of us in the MMSt program are probably aware of some fiction prominently featuring museums, or can recall Night at the Museum (2006) as at least one example. The film’s premise is that the museum comes to life at night, prompting security guard Larry to quip, “Isn’t everything in this museum supposed to be, you know, dead?” Watched with a critical eye, the movie brings up questions around the purpose museums are meant to fulfill and how that purpose is viewed by the public. Also sticking out to me from childhood are The Lightning Thief (2005) and The Red Pyramid (2010). Both by Rick Riordan, the opening scene and the inciting incident respectively take part in museums. Museums set the necessary stage for these books, wherein tales from mythology are in fact true, bridging the past and the present.
For me, a few more recent reads drive home the metaphor of museums as doors or portals in fiction. In the urban fantasy Neverwhere (1996), there exists London Above (the world we know) and London Below (one just beneath it). These two worlds intersect and blur throughout the story, with one such memorable scene taking place in the British Museum. Moreover, one of the least likeable characters of the novel has big ambitions in the museum field. To this end, she constantly drags the main character Richard along museum-hopping. This leads Richard to regretfully conclude that, “the great art treasures of the world all blur into each other after a while.” With the foregrounding of a fantastical element, the mundane is brought into even greater focus. This is also the case for Metropolitan Stories by Christine Coulson. Read by the Museum Studies book club back in the summer, this magical realism collection sheds light on the eccentric staff who keep the Metropolitan Museum of Art running, often in very unexpected ways… Again, here is the idea that museums house objects that can bridge divergent times, worlds, and realities.
In addition to a number of other fantastical and adventure stories, many museum-related literary fiction titles have stuck out to me over the years. The Goldfinch (2013) begins at the Met and the main character’s connection to one particular painting from the Dutch Golden Age forms the core of the novel. From Dubravka Ugrešić’s experimental work Museum of Unconditional Surrender (1997) to Heather Rose's performance art-inspired Museum of Modern Love (2016), museum-related fiction takes advantage of the cultural baggage surrounding museums, both real and imagined.
The exterior of the Museum of Innocence, Istanbul, Turkey. Source.
The transformation of a fictional museum to one existing in real life is the journey of Nobel-prize-winning author Orhan Pamuk’s The Museum of Innocence (2008). Set in Istanbul in the 1970s, the story focuses on the everyday objects collected by one man after a devastating heartbreak. Off the page, Pamuk had begun collecting items in the 1990s. The building which came to house them was given the title of European Museum of the Year in 2014. Far from just a marketing gimmick, this “museum, based on a novel, based on a museum” now exists and serves to start thought-provoking conversations about the city’s history.
Beyond providing a few more books to add to your reading lists (even more can be found here and here), I hope that this look at non-academic literature can spark useful critical consideration of how museums are (mis)interpreted and where all our preconceptions come from. In Emily St. John Mandel’s pandemic-focused novel Station Eleven (2012) and All the Light We Cannot See by Anthony Doerr (2014), museums are projected to have lasting significance even in futures following apocalypse and devastating war. In our present, perhaps this literary reflection would assist us in creatively imagining a better future for museums. As one museum professional writes in a blog focusing on decolonization and Afrofuturism, “By reframing a museum as a portal, there is the potential for us to see ourselves as time travelling inventors capable of creating a different world.”