Sir John Soane's Museum : It's mine, all mine

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.

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.

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.

Full version of this article in this week's TES

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.orgfictional

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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