It's mine, all mine

Sir John Soane's Museum manages to be every visitor's exclusive property. Novelist Bernard Cohen has spent the summer watching the crowds

Sir John Soane's Museum Lincoln's Inn Fields, London

Sir John Soane's Museum is a treasured "secret" to many of its 80,000 annual visitors. I suspect many of them feel they have "discovered" it, that it belongs to them. It's odd, because for the nearly 170 years of its existence the museum has probably appeared in every cultural guide to London published.

Perhaps the petrified chaos of the great architect's collection has a subtle amnesiac effect; maybe visitors forget about the scores of other visitors they encountered along the narrow avenues of antiquities which run the museum's length and breadth. Yet visitors not only remember the artefacts they have seen - and often it has been decades since a previous visit - but the exact position of the objects in the museum. Apart from his space-saving hinged picture planes, Soane's pieces rarely move. This place is a time capsule from 1837, the year its founder died and left the museum and its collection to the nation. By Act of Parliament, the collection remains displayed as it was when Soane lived.

Sir John Soane (born 1753) bought, demolished and rebuilt the three terraced houses at 12, 13 and 14 Lincoln's Inn Fields to house his museum, architectural practice and home. This multiple function is very much in evidence: architecture students' aids and family portraits sit alongside Hogarth paintings and Seti I's sarcophagus.

There are signs of early 19th-century life among the real relics, reconstructed ruins, and paintings depicting imaginary part-demolitions of Soane's own projects (which happen to salvage the most picturesque architectural features). From the window of the North Drawing Room (leaning carefully past the cases of medals) you can see a miniature city of skylights and domes in clear, yellow and amber glass.

Soane, architect of the Dulwich Picture Gallery, built his own museum to shed light (literally) on his collection of fine or (on occasion) puzzlingly hideous antiques, scale models, Venetian and English paintings, and other items deemed collectables if only because they have been collected. As well as the clutter, the other distinguishing mark is the lack of labels. Soane's museum is dedicated to musing; it is uninterrupted by identifying captions, explanatory notes or fixed-on opinions. He wanted his visitors to look at the collection. There is no curatorial pre-digestion here.

As writer-in-residence, my job is to write "fictional" guide notes to the building and collection - these are available free to museum visitors in print and to everyone via the museum website - and to conduct occasional tours in which I give fictional accounts of the museum and its history. Beyond that, I encourage adults and children to write about what they've seen, to make up stories about the objects and spaces. Contributions will be included on the website, and I hope will provide a publicly written guide to a museum of the imagination.

It's a dream space for a fiction writer, full of mirrors and tricks of light and perspective mirrors above bookshelves that suggest secret rooms. During term time the education unit runs architectural workshops for primary schools. I've been supplementing these with Soane-related creative writing exercises and writing-focused tours.

I began one tour last term with a reading from Alice Through the Looking Glass: "The books are something like our books, only the words go the wrong way. Let's pretend there's a way of getting through into it, somehow."

What did the Year 6 group think was through there? More of the same: vases, paintings, models, busts, books, other mirrors leading through to still other imaginary spaces, signs of Soane family life; no cars and no telephones.

I asked the children to pick out a museum object. We descended Soane's famously vertiginous geometric stair and sat before the state-of-the-art cast-iron range in the old kitchen. Their stories constructed pictures of Soane sitting down to dinner with the Emperor of China or lamenting his son's behaviour. Father and son come a lot closer to reconciliation than they did in life.

On my return visit to one school, we turned the school library into a museum. I asked them to think about the purposes of and processes which produced the objects around them: power points, videos and computers, cupboard doors, bookshelves, window latches, lurid beanbags, a wallclock, drawers, a piece of string dangling from the ceiling without obvious purpose. They wrote captions, some serious and critical, some satirical, some silly. They posted their labels on or beside their objects and read each other's captions. They wanted to keep going.

When visitors feel personal ownership over Sir John Soane's Museum, perhaps that feeling stems from the belief that each of us possesses a unique capacity to interpret and enjoy: to understand Soane's secret logic of collection and organisation, to get his jokes. At the start of this residency, every morning I'd visit Sir Charles Lawrence's portrait of Soane which hangs over the fireplace in the librarydining room. I'd imagine how Soane was feeling - each day he seemed different - and make a note. Perhaps other visitors too sense themselves in a 200-year-old personal dialogue with this enigmatic and mercurial architect.

Bernard Cohen, an Australian novelist based in London, is writer-in-residence at Sir John Soane's Museum. Two of his four novels, 'The Blindman's Hat' and 'Snowdome', are available in the UK (Allen and Unwin, pound;6.99 each). His fictional guidenotes can be read at www.soane.org fictional. His next fictional tour is during the museum's monthly late opening on Tuesday September 3 at 6.30pm. General opening hours are Tuesday-Saturday 10am-5pm at 13 Lincoln's Inn Fields, London WC2. Admission free. Family trail sheets suitable for five to 13-year-olds are available at the museum entrance. For enquiries or to book a school visit, tel: 020 7405 2107

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