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The biography museum, a proposal
There should be a museum of biography. It would have no permanent collections, only exhibitions, unless it could become an archival centre for biographical research. It would reveal the history of people’s lives through objects, images, and films.
Imagine being able to explore the life of people like Margaret Thatcher by walking through her life. You could blend photographs and quotes from her early life, with reconstructed rooms from her home; information about grocers and contemporary local history could be illuminated with objects, interview material, a life-size model of her father’s shop; we could hear her reminisce about it, watch her school friends talk about her. Copies of her letters to her sister would be displayed.
By the time we reached Downing Street, we would be looking at portraits and official documents; the video clips would be challenging interviews, scandals on the News at Ten; newspaper headlines like ‘Gotcha!’ would be next to the hand written letters she sent to every mother who lost a son in the Falklands War. The changes and continuities would be palpable.
We are used to doing some of this. Exhibitions of Queen Elizabeth contain rings, dresses, coins, portraits. The Imperial War Museum collates tanks, model ships, mock trenches, documentaries. But that is done in the name of history — this would be about biography.
It would acknowledge that we no longer live in an age dominated by print. To write a biography of Benjamin Disraeli, you have to use print sources. There are no others. Disraeli is trapped inside Hansard, newspapers, letters, diaries, books of memoirs. But Thatcher lives. She is recorded. Radio, television, and documentaries mean there is a wealth of material about her that simply cannot live inside a book. What good is it to transcribe her Bruges Speech or the infamous ‘No, no, no!’?
And the importance of place can only be partly represented in a book. If we want to know what it was like to live the life of a prisoner, we ought to do what all children do on school trips and sit inside a jail cell for five minutes. At the biography museum, we would be able to hear the prisoner reminisce about their incarceration, see the letters they wrote, handle prison clothes, smell the jail.
Could there be a better way to learn the life of someone like Nelson Mandela than like that? Anyone who has visited Ellis Island knows what a good way it is to get a feeling of what it was like to be an immigrant than by being in that space. The closer we get to people’s surroundings and objects the more we know about them. Museums like the Frick and the Isabella Stewart Gardner collection are imbued with a sense of their creators. This would extend that sense by bringing the materials and methods of biography to the exhibitions.
Some places already do this. The Cowper & Newton Museum in Olney is an example of a biographical museum that does wonders for its subject. Hare cages and wheeled sofas bring the letters and poems to life, in context, in a way that supplements and enhances a reading of Cowper’s letters and David Cecil’s biography. Reading Cowper’s letter about keeping the coals hot under his orange tree, and seeing a painting of him doing so, and then going to the garden and seeing the tree is an irreplaceable way of getting to know him.
What we need now is a dedicated space where we can work out how to tell more life stories more completely. The world is full of interesting lives we cannot understand through books — or that we can only understand a certain way through books. Let’s create a museum where all forms of material, original and reconstructed, can be brought together to bring them to life for us in new and refreshing ways.
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