The Imaginary Museum

What is a museum for? What sort of things might it contain? How do these things help to shape our perspective on time and change? These questions were the starting-place for some marvellous poems, written by children from Mrs McLeod’s class, Year 7, Tweedmouth Middle School, Berwick, working with me, Berwick Museum, and the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, as part of  The Imaginary Museum of the North.

Over time, even the most ordinary objects become important or interesting, because they represent a moment, a place, a person or group of people, and tell a story. So we began with a session in Berwick Museum, in which we were allowed to handle some exhibits, including everyday objects from the human past, such as an embossing stamp and a butter churn, together with much older natural history specimens of fossils and minerals.

But a museum is not just about old things. In the days before the internet, photography and easy travel, a museum such as that begun in the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, at the end of the 18th century might be the only place to encounter new discoveries, inventions and curiosities – things that evoke distant countries, other worlds. We looked at pictures of objects from the Lit and Phil’s early collection, including Egyptian mummies, outlandish inventions, and specimens of wombat and duck-billed platypus from New South Wales.

The children began to think about the contents of their Imaginary Museum.  They wrote lists, containing ordinary things from the present that they might want to save for the future; objects that are personally important to them in their daily life; things which represent the place or area where they live; interesting inventions from our own time; and, more excitingly, ideas for things that they would like to see invented, and exotic objects from far away, even from other worlds. The children came up with a stream of brilliant ideas, from ‘a model of the three Berwick bridges, the last one with a train going along it’, to ‘an endless notebook’, ‘a hurricane simulator’, ‘a machine to bring dodos and mammoths back to life’, ‘a space hotel’ and ‘another colour’. They sent postcards with these ideas to the Lit and Phil, where they are on display as part of the exhibition.


Poetry gives its writers and readers a structured way to explore a subject, and a heightened sense of emotional engagement with it. So in the second session at Berwick Museum, we worked on poems based on the children’s initial ideas. I asked them to choose two of their favourite things from their lists, and to imagine a conversation between them. We thought about how to find interesting words and sounds without using rhyme, and how to give more impact to words using short lines and careful line-breaks. As an alternative to rhyme we decided a structure for their poems using a simple repeated line or ‘refrain: ‘In the Museum of the Future…’

Next we imagined opening the door on a room from the past – perhaps an Egyptian mummy’s tomb; then opening a door on a room from today in the far future. What do the objects in it look like, sound like, how do they feel to touch? What might today’s commonplace objects say to children of the future about each of them, their home, and today’s world? Then the children thought about what a future invention might say to them, the children of tomorrow’s past. Again, I suggested that they structure their poem by repeating a refrain: ‘Open the windows, open the door’.

‘This is the feeling you have longed for,

It is called being free.

It is possible to get this,

But not behind a phone…’

                                                                               ‘…For they are old, quiet, irrelevant things,

                                                                                 And we are young, loud, relevant…

                                                                                 Open the windows, open the doors,

                                                                                  It is time to be heard

                                                                                  In these museum walls…’ 

The results speak for themselves. The children’s poems are original, mysterious, funny, striking, moving. Every single one has something I love about it. The creative inventions of scientists and artists all begin in the same place, the imagination, and these poems spring from that place – the thoughts and dreams of the scientists, artists, poets and inventors of tomorrow.

The Imaginary Museum of the North runs at the Lit and Phil, Newcastle, until September 8th.

Berwick Museum ‘Fragments’ exhibition, with work by potter Graham Taylor, photographer Jose Snook and poet Katrina Porteous, runs until September 30th.