It’s a childhood dream. You steal into a museum after dark and discover the objects have come to life. Last week I got to do this for real, thanks to the Arts Council of England, who backed an experiment I wanted to try with my performing ensemble Impropera. A mash up of music and museums we’ve called MUSO (see what we did there?)
The idea? Take some virtuoso improvisers, a brilliant academic and an audience of 50 curious strangers. Let them loose (with torches) in a darkened museum and create a show, on the spot, inspired by what you discover.
Which is what brought us to the crazily wonderful treasure house that is UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology.
A “teaching collection” like the Grant – and there are hundreds hidden round the UK – is not just a museum. It’s a 19th century Google – a browser for the knowledge-hungry but UK-bound Victorian zoologist. If you couldn’t study a live elephant, swordfish or anaconda out in the field – this was the next best thing.
Today, knowledge is a click away. So what’s the allure of the specimen jars, plaster casts, skeletons and flasks of pickled moles (I kid you not – go see!) What can a dusty museum teach us iPadded up dwellers of the Information Age?
That was my own personal discovery of the night. The Grant isn’t about Information. It’s about Imagination. About what these long-dead creatures make us feel and dream. Dry scientific fact is not even half the story.
In the middle of the show our intellectual guide for the night, a UCL lecturer in the History and Philosophy of Science Chiara Ambrosio told us the story of Dürer’s Rhino (while we improvised an opera about this). The famous drawing is technically wrong. It was created by an artist working ‘blind’; a composite beast made created from the second- and third-hand accounts of people who thought they new what the exotic Rhino looked like. Hence the double horn and the flanks covered in what looks like riveted armour! But here’s the thing. Even long after when the Rhino was brought to Europe and seen in the flesh – people still preferred the artist’s factually inaccurate imagining of the beast to the scientific reality.
Something to remember next time you try to explain the world with facts and figures. Facts, however scientific, only get you part of the way. To really engage people you need to awaken their imagination.
So, which museum would you like to see sung to life? What hidden treasures make you dream? Let us know.