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A Story in Three Parts
Museums, museums, museums, object lessons rigged to illustrate the theories of archaeologists, crazy attempts to co-ordinate and get into a fixed order that which has no fixed order and will not be co-ordinated.[i]
—D. H. Lawrence
When she was young a museum visit was a treat. Rows upon rows of things she didn’t understand, things she had never seen before, and things she had – but they looked different there. Combs and scissors and pots and tools, proud and protected by cases of glass, and hoisted up onto miniature plinths, exuding importance. The small labels inside the cases told her what things were, how old they were, and what they were made from. She recited facts to her father as they wandered through walls of white, text jumping out from every angle, information to be taken in, consumed. Her brother liked to visit the science museums, where they were encouraged to interact with things, but she didn’t like to interact. She liked to look, nose pressed up to glass vitrines, fogging the surface with hot, contemplative breath. Besides, things that could be interacted with weren’t real museum things – you weren’t allowed to touch those. That was a rule.
Now – less young – looking back on herself, she sees an enthusiastic child with blonde, shoulder-length hair, pink shorts, jelly sandals, a yellow t-shirt, and red sunhat. This might be an image from a photograph that she has seen of herself, or perhaps a mental image patched together from her love of bright clothes, and her mother’s inability to colour coordinate anything. Precocious. That was a word she first learned in relation to herself. Aloof was another. She learned how to spell them in case anyone asked. According to her mother, at the age of four she particularly enjoyed impressing people with her ability to spell “Mississippi”. “Em, ai, double ess, ai, double ess, ai, double pee, ai.”
The museum was a prime place to learn the facts and figures with which to impress people, reciting information to make herself look smart. And, she supposes now, that’s all education was, then, really. She had no idea, sat at her wooden desk in school how “eight-times-eight-equals-sixty-four”, but she knew that it did because they had chanted it over and over on Tuesday and Friday mornings. This flair for recital, for repetition, got her far; exams calling for the remembering of dates, facts, figures, and formulas – and who knows, those early visits to the museum might have helped as well.
In 1954 police raided the London home of John Nevin, a backroom assistant of the Victoria and Albert Museum. John had been an employee of the museum for twenty-four years, was well liked, and generally cheerful, despite the peculiarity of his gait and posture due to injuries sustained during the war. He was part of a team that retrieved artefacts from storage once the war was over, and returned them to their rightful place in the museum storerooms.
A museum stocktake in the summer of 1954 revealed the loss of hundreds of artefacts, and quickly the search was narrowed down to Nevin. Police were informed, and a raid was issued on his three-bedroom Chiswick council house. The officers could not have been prepared for what they found there, and discovered, upon entering the property, that almost every inch was decorated and adorned with priceless items that Nevin had stolen. Reports of the raid, which were finally released from embargo in 2009, tell of ornaments and trinkets hidden in the toilet cistern, underneath floorboards, and in the chimney breast, eaves, and vacuum cleaner bag. Nevin’s wife is reported to have used an Italian leather and tortoise-shell handbag for her shopping, and a three-hundred-year-old tapestry hung on the living-room wall. In all, over two thousand stolen items were recovered from the couple’s home.
Nevin, it transpired, had been systematically taking things from the museum since 1944. His general modus operandi was to put items down his trouser leg on his way out of work, and he had successfully taken, among other things, twenty Japanese sword guards in this manner, and had even managed to dismantle a small table and smuggle it out in parts. Though there is no evidence, it seems reasonable to suggest that Nevin did not sustain injury during the war, and that his unusual gait was, in fact, due to the artefacts he had posited in his trouser legs. On his arrest, his wife expressed her relief that whole thing was over, whereas John’s only defence was that he couldn’t help himself – “I was attracted by the beauty”.[ii]
I started volunteering in the social history stores of a museum in 2011, when I was twenty-four years old. Though I was interested in the objects there, the ephemera collection quickly became the area in which I invested my time. Paper documents, letters, and diaries fascinated me; a small transient piece of someone else, someone long gone that I could never meet, never know. Yet for a while I felt like I did know them, a little bit – I had been given a glimpse into their life. Museums and archives are full of these traces, not just in the object itself but in the information that surrounds them. Often a statement is taken from the person that donates something to a museum about the providence of the item; where it has come from, a little about the person to whom it belonged, and their relation to the person donating it. Stories are as important to social history as objects – people are as important as things.
On the run up to the centenary of the outbreak of World War One I pored over letters home from soldiers, ration books, and diary entries, transcribing each with the care and the attention I supposed that they deserved. I dug out the catalogue card that accompanied each item from the type of old archival drawers that one imagines when thinking of old archival drawers, and cross-referenced it, making sure it had been filled out correctly by a previous volunteer. Another small snippet of someone’s life contained in the filling out of a device used to denote a small snippet of someone’s life. And the exhibition came and went, and my name was printed on an information board in the museum, my work recognised and thanked, and I went back to diligently transcribing letters from different time periods.
A few weeks later, while walking through my local flea market, I saw a bundle of letters and postcards that I recognised as from World War One. The rain was dripping steadily from the tarpaulin covering the stall onto the postcards, distorting the fragile pencil in which they were written. I moved them to safety, and asked the market stall holder about them, did he perhaps know of their provenance? For a moment he looked as though he may have something interesting to tell me, and replied: “Not a clue, they’re ten a penny, love. The lot’s yours for a quid”.
[i] D. H. Lawrence, D. H. Lawrence and Italy: Sketches from Etruscan Palaces, Sea and Sardinia, Twilight in Italy, ed. by Simonetta De Filippis, Paul Eggert, and Mara Kalnins, London: Penguin Classics, 2007, p. 435.
[ii] Chris Hastings, “How a modest council house was furnished with thousands of Items from the V&A”, in The Telegraph, 3January 2009.