The Museum of You and Me and Everyone

So you’re at a museum, some particularly narrow remit drives the collection and the narrative within, perhaps it’s the Icelandic Phallogical Museum  focusing on the Penis (The Author is far to sensible and adult to laugh at penis…. instead he giggled) or it’s the Vent Haven Museum of Ventriloquy, wherever it is, you’re there for one or a number of reasons. Perhaps that particularly narrow subject of specialism is a shared area between yourself and the collector/curator, perhaps curiosity has bloomed and it’s attractive petals have caught your attention or (and this is a genuine reason written in a visitors book I once inspected) “It’s raining and my wife is shopping – it’s alright for something small like this. Also it’s free, that’s always nice!” – I won’t presume to know your reasons, dear reader, for visiting certain sites, collections, exhibitions, stately homes, ruins etc etc over others, it’s not fair of me to do that.

I’m here because I have been moved to write about something that’s been sitting in the corner of my mental study. Whilst the desk is piled high with “Accessibility Audits” and great texts offering examples of how we limit access to shared Heritage (one project) and equally piled high with a vast array of sweet biscuits, all with labels attached such as “Byzantine Empire” and “Georgian England” (Equally another project #historyandbiscuits) – The Author has accidentally made a note in a book, just a throw away one. It was “Our Story” that was the original one, followed by that being scribbled out and ultimately the phrase “The Museum of Human Interest and Memory” – Sounds like some obnoxious Art Instillation…. It isn’t. It’s a potentially silly idea but equally one that has actually kept me awake with ideas.

I offer this up to you, dear readers, the missions statement or perhaps Manifesto of “The Museum of Human Interest and Memory” – The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is a non physical but equally entirely physical Museum, featuring a collection of incredible social and historical importance that has a direct relationship with the heritage of EVERYONE and equally a single person all at once. The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is a repository for public access and private contemplation. The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is a remarkable collection of agreement and conflict, comparison and contrast. All in all, it’s about people and their own heritage.

What is the Author talking about? Has he purchased a steel shipping container, painted the words Museum of Human Interest and Memory on the side? Is he now charging an entry fee? (Unless you have a Blue Peter Badge, which affords free entry to all museums apparently… The BBC equivalent of being a Freemason) – No, it’s far more simplistic actually, the above Mission Statement is simply for the amusement of the Author, who takes pride in tweaking the nose of the pompous and frosty y-front wearing Old Guard. It’s quite simple really…

Whilst wandering around on Twitter, the Author (@magpiememoria) found it necessary to complain about the lack of biscuits in his office. Noting that the rich tea fingers seemed appropriate for a house made notable by it’s chief former occupant, Oliver Cromwell, the great puritanical folk devil. Thus began the great #historyandbiscuits conversation, seeking to connect key eras in History to a biscuit and offering up why one is representative of the other (That is another blog….) – One of the responses elicited came from Twitter User @DemonArcher1 who sent a reply that ultimately changed the course of idea for the Author (The Author is so up himself he talks in the third person….) and ultimately planting the seed that is now growing as I write.

“The Barmouth Biscuit… from the 70s… because it reminds me of family holidays & nostalgia.” In these few words, spoken in to the ever increasingly dangerous sphere of Twitter, sang to something deep in the heart, soul and mind of The Author. One forgets all to readily, that History and Heritage isn’t always about Crowns and Gowns, it’s about people, individuals, families, tribes and it builds up from there. Heritage is not something to be kept in a Museum, not in it’s most organic instance and equally it is unfair to judge what is “Prestigious” – You’ve probably noticed the recurring theme about bring heritage to people, linking people with their shared past. Well, here we have a perfect example which could sadly be lost to pomposity.

The Author was forced to Google a Barmouth Biscuit as, despite his almost unsurpassed knowledge of 21st Century Biscuits, this particular one had missed him. I am pleased to announce that is is a thin, circular crisp biscuit, I am however saddened to note that it is no longer available. A french version exists, but purists on the Internet have denounced it as inferior. Is this not a note for the list of reasons it should be preserved in a Museum? The Original as it were, now copied and it’s memory and purity threatened, surely this would go some way to having it’s place in a glass lidded, slanted cabinet, made sacred…

Actually, I know the last sentence of the previous was written to be a tad humorous (Yes, Dear Reader, it was a joke, I promise to make them clearer in future… perhaps a different font.) it is the purity of the memory, the link that is created by @DemonArcher1 to memories he obviously holds dear, or returns to. A biscuit is a biscuit to you and I, but to him? It is perhaps wet canvas overhead, in the Lake District, perhaps it is jokes still uttered though the subject and context are long since lost but for some reason they still make the familial audience laugh, perhaps it’s none of this. Perhaps there is a story not told, perhaps it should never be told, but a story untold is still a story. We forget that, i feel, sometimes. We forget that the ice skates in the Museum in Ely, belonged to someone, they glided across ice, carrying a person who carried with them emotions, memories, experiences, and would go on to have many more.

We can share Heritage, from our surnames to our location of birth, and all of those Meta-Concepts, but equally we must preserve our particular and personal heritage – it is the realm of photograph albums, whispered stories, drunken arguments and silent tears in the dark. Do these things not deserve their own Museum?

Below are two items for the collection, submitted by M W Routledge on the 24th November 2017 – Accession Number – 1 and 2

  1. One Yellow Ticket Stub – Typical of the ones provided by low denomination gambling machines in Seaside Arcades, popular throughout the latter part of the 20th Century and in to the 21st. – Donation Narrative reads “Obtained by throwing a large number of two pence coins in to a machine in an Arcade on the seafront in Cromer, Norfolk. This time was spent with *Name Redacted* and much amusement was had.”
  2. One .33 spent Blank Firing Cartridge. – Typical of examples used in Historical Re-enactment. Donation Narrative reads “Fired from a replica Naval Pistol, the first shot fired by the Named Depositor, on a field in England, unremembered with good friends.”

I wonder, if any of that will mean anything to any of you reading this? It offers a slightly odd, but never the less important and potent, snap shot in to the life and legacy and the heritage, of an individual – perhaps you sat next to The Author in that Arcade, or you heard the pop of his gun going off, in Kent.

The Museum of Human Interest and Memory is accepting donations to it’s collection – why? Because the risk of loss is too high that they may be left behind, and that’s not right.

“How to solve a problem like… Team Building?!”

It was possibly the oddest brief I’ve ever had, whilst working in Heritage. I took a call from a friend and colleague, Steve Blake of East Anglia Puzzle Rooms, who I first met during the gestation of the “Royalist Round-up” Pop-Up Escape Room at Oliver Cromwell’s House. A project which began as a slightly crazy idea, combining an site of great historical importance, the oak panelled office in which Oliver Cromwell would have worked during his time as Collector of the Tithe, with the latest craze in “Experiences” – the Escape Room.

An Escape Room is the physical version of the internet craze of the early 21st century, often “Point and Click” flash games, with problem solving driven scenarios, usually a combined selection of seeking and finding key items and solving puzzles, allowing the player to progress. They are now often found in industrial estates, with wonderfully crafted but still “synthetic” surroundings and props. It’s fair to say, since they appeared in Japan, they have begun to spread across the globe, creating a whole new sub-section of “Tourism” – Escape Room Tourists, like their E-Gaming cousins, dedicated and professional individuals or teams who tour their local area and beyond, taking on every room they can. The disposable income and the hunt for non-tangible experiences has driven this industry to a point of great expansion.

What Steve and the Oliver Cromwell’s House team wanted to do however, was to create something unique, something that couldn’t be put in a box, taken from one place to another, unpacked and recreated. From a single weekend per month, with sceptical and ultimately limited hope, the Royalist Roundup went from a few sessions booked to extra sessions being added, corporate groups seeking a new and exciting form of team building and over a year of great success, leaving Steve Blake and I in a position where we both take pleasure in saying “We never ever get tired of hearing people say “Wow” when they enter the puzzle room.” It’s been fun, it’s been frightening at times and it’s been hugely successful. But where next?

Steve received a call from a client, wanting a large scale team building exercise to allow a cohesive union of different office groups, due to a large scale restructuring, he was given a location, a budget and left to his own devices. That’s where I came in. As i said at the start of this post, Steve called me. He called me one evening and said “Remember we talked about….” This unspecified point of reference is and was, a theatrical experience Steve had enjoyed in Suffolk, based around theatrical led interactions and puzzles, imagine a large scale Murder Mystery event and throw in the concept of “Cluedo” or as our beloved US cousins would call it, “Clue” and you might begin to get the idea…. Well we’d talked about it over a few ales, in a beer garden in a pocket city and then we’d sadly put it to the back of our minds. Steve had a Lord Protector to be coping with, as did I, Steve also had his business running other pop-up Escape Rooms all over Suffolk, Cambridgeshire and Norfolk and I had my job, which was consumed by large scale events for the coming season. Now however, the ideas came clawing back to the front of our minds.

The planning began, in earnest. Steve found the venue, the wonderful Moyses Hall in Bury St Edmunds and after an initial visit, I was given the outlined logistics of what Steve wanted to achieve, agreed with the client, and an enormous span of History and Heritage to work from.

Sir Terry Pratchett, who I miss dreadfully having read his books since my early teens, once said of Folklore “I think about folklore the same way a carpenter thinks about trees” – It is perhaps a little heavy handed to say the same thing about Heritage, but it should be noted with a second quote by Pratchett, “A good carpenter works with the grain of the wood and should endeavour to make a table that leaves the tree glad that it became timber”, that the same should be done by any Interpreter of History and Heritage. Preserving the integrity of memory, association and legacy of an artefact or event should be the primary objective, though equally it should share it’s position on the pedestal with engagement and entertainment.

Without going in to the laborious aspects of the planning, research and consideration, and causing you to drift away from the blog post, the narrative became apparent, the characters began to form from either the rooms, their exhibits and their stories, along with a decent sized lump of imagination and humour. What began as a slightly odd idea, became something more tangible. Utilising murder, medieval history and warfare, along with an exciting Sci-Fi exhibition, a story of mischief and madness took shape and the next steps became apparent.

Steve Blake, it must be said here and now, is a dangerously devious genius. Truly a Puzzle Master, who can be given a very brief narrative idea at 11.30pm on a Monday only to return to the author at 8.34am the next day with the framework of the puzzles, including their links to other later aspects of the experience. It’s like alchemy, you lob the raw base metal in and suddenly you’ve got gold.

As things progressed, we set the date, booked the venue, polished the narrative, Steve designed the puzzles and I found the players for the snap-shots in History that we had chosen. I had a great deal of fun with my own character, The Celestial Meddler (An entity who finds joy in confusion, sadness and puzzles).

Bringing in trusted comrades, one of my closest friends with whom I’ve appeared many times on stage, Damien O’Donovan, and the remarkable History Needs You team, Matthew and Gill, Steve and I with the rest of the team, met outside the venue as the sun set on a Friday evening in November. What we went on to create, with laughter and trepidation, was something truly unique.
Four teams, four rooms, four snapshots of History, each featuring a unique puzzle based around the room, it’s contents and it’s particular narrative, with a rounded character (in appropriate costume) acting as a location specific guide and narrator, turned in to a fast paced, fun and testing event, culminating in a final salvo from The Celestial Meddler, in which all of the teams came back and formed a single unit and were forced to take aspects of each room and defeat the well attired antagonist of the piece.

After the dust had settled, the warmth and delight that emanated from a group of people who had, in many parts not known each other before hand, knocked the entire team of their feet. As people left, they shook our hands and smiled, thanked us and in many cases said they would be coming back to the museum to have a more leisurely wander to explore the heritage of the area.

Whilst we changed back in to a normal selection of clothing and tottered off to a local pub for a well deserved pint, we left a museum and staff, slightly bemused but enthralled by what 5 very odd people can do within a venue that can often be overlooked.

We left very proud, we also left in a very reflective mood, buoyant from what we had achieved, with pockets full of ideas, modifications and future plans. So, when you hear about an “Immersive Theatrical Problem Solving Experience” in a heritage site near you, perhaps it’ll be Magpie Memoria and East Anglian Escape Rooms trawling through the wonderful collections of your local museum, country pile, townhouse or place of faith, crafting something truly wonderful from objects, stories and places, to show you the future in history.

For further information, don’t hesitate to get in touch and keep an eye out for events near you, in the near future, set in the past.

Magpie Memoria

What does Heritage mean to you? That’s not the easiest question to ask, I know. Heritage is a massive subject. If it was a machine, it would be similar to the old style computers that took up entire rooms. The computers of memory and myth, with complex aspects, presided over by individuals, experts in their own fields.

Heritage must be personal, it must engage with the audience on the multiple levels in which it is accessed; such as the individual tourist who has discovered, or through the directory of such agencies, a large historical home with no direct association apart from, perhaps, a sense of nostalgia instilled by, depending on generation television programs such as “Upstairs, Downstairs” or “Downton Abbey”. Perhaps they are someone with an associative memory and connection to the site. a former resident (Though rare, not entirely impossible) or perhaps this particular site houses a noteworthy example of ‘something’ – such as a complete and personal set of stamps, collected by a former occupant and now a part of the very fabric of the building, displayed in a quasi contextual manner in a drawing room, as if the collector had simply “popped out for a piss”. (N.B. The Author swears.)

The biggest question is how does one reconcile all of these particular interests, casual to academic, personal to professional, distant to intimate?

Magpie Memoria is a small operation, dedicated to discovering and disclosing heritage and history in a personal and fun way. Having worked with some of the best Interpreters on a number of projects, with years of combined Historical Re-Enactment experience ranging from the 12th century to the 20th, along with professional experience in Heritage sites, Magpie Memoria can provide and produce engaging activities and historical events along with long term heritage interpretations.


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