Museum Makers

Rachel Morris

9 September 2021
Headshot of Rachel Morris.

In attempting to write a book about museums Rachel Morris realised that they are “slippery places – quite hard to pin down”. But in discussing her work she captures their essence very neatly, describing them as places that try to make sense of the world. 

Rachel is among the guests at this year’s Wigtown Book Festival where she will be discussing Museum Makers – a work described as “part memoir, part detective story, part untold history of museums”.

Indeed, she thinks that we are all museum makers in one way or another, sorting and arranging our life stories, in the hope of bringing order to our chaos. 

The child of a Bohemian family (whose ancestors include an infamous Victorian proponent of free love) she was largely brought up by her grandmother who was a tremendous storyteller and giver of wise advise – she warned young Rachel never to marry a man who was enamoured of the poet Shelley’s lifestyle (bound to be a cad).

Characters and incidents like these were resurrected in her memory when Rachel started sorting through a box of family bits and bobs – from poems to knitting needles – that had lain under her bed for many years.

It propelled her on a venture to rediscover her family, to recall lonely childhood years where she took solace in exploring museums – to construct her own museum of the mind and ultimately to write the book.

What she realised was that though the family’s past contained much sadness and tragedy, it was packed with good tales.

Museum Makers is also about museums themselves and the people who have dedicated their lives to them and even. She ranks among these people herself, having become a professional museum designer.

She regards museums as places of wonder and has been to many round the world. In doing so she has developed a particular love of the small and the offbeat (did you know there is a Museum of Innocence in Istanbul?). 

Rachel is also interested in how museums have stories of their own and are never neutral places. They can simultaneously reflect a fascination with a theme or period while also being the products of power or prejudice.

So the museum needs to be understood as much as its collection. Indeed they tell us a great deal about the societies that give rise to them. As Rachel puts it “racist times will create racist museums”. 

That said – museums are the Arks of human history and experience. Without them we would be adrift. With them we can revisit lost times, places, lives and cultures and also stand to discover much about ourselves.

Here and now, as the world begins to open up again after COVID, she vehemently hopes that visitors will return to museums. Many were hanging by a thread before the pandemic and their futures are now deeply uncertain.

Once closed the collections can end up in musty cupboards and decay. When that happens history is lost and our ability to understand ourselves and our origins is inevitably diminished.

You can hear more from Rachel Morris at her Wigtown Book Festival event. Book your tickets here. The Museum Makers is available to purchase from our online bookshop