An absolute delight.A.L. Kennedy

This list comes out of writing Little, a novel about Madame Tussaud, whose waxworks on the Marylebone Road has always seemed to me a museum about one person. Marie Tussaud lived through the French Revolution, and many of the people she cast she actually knew. Her wax figures represent the different stations of her life: she lived at Versailles and modelled Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette from life (and later their severed heads); she met Voltaire and Franklin; she was ordered by the Convention to cast the murdered (and rapidly decomposing) body of Jean-Paul Marat so that the artist Jacques-Louis David could make his famous painting from it; she had access to Napoleon because she was imprisoned during the Terror alongside Joséphine de Beauharnais, Napoleon’s future empress. Wherever she went she seemed to bump into famous people, and she brought her figures from Paris to London so that history could be witnessed by an eager public – for a fee. Here are some other museums that have wonderful and distinctive subjects.

 

Hans Christian Andersen Museum, Odense

This museum dedicated to Andersen includes a replica of his tiny childhood home (little more than one room), his enormous shoes (he had very big feet and was conspicuously tall), his dentures (the last story he wrote was the deeply unsettling ‘Auntie Toothache’), some lengths of rope (he always carried rope in his suitcase just in case there was a fire in the hotel he was living in – he never had his own home – so that he might escape), and his beautiful, ornate papercuts and the large and unwieldy scissors he made them with. The spirit of Andersen is all over the museum, you feel very keenly his loneliness and his vanity, his strangeness and his brilliance.

The chief delight is Hugo’s own art, huge strange landscapes and many sketches of hanged men. They’re atmospheric, disturbing and portentous.”

Maison de Victor Hugo, Paris

As the museum is Hugo’s own home, you feel like you’ve called as a visitor or have broken in. The rooms are pleasant if dark, and the decor rather brooding like the man himself. It feels rather Victorian, the furniture seems to be saying: you are not welcome, your bottom shall never sit here. The chief delight is Hugo’s own art. When I first visited the museum his art was everywhere, huge strange landscapes and many sketches of hanged men. They’re atmospheric, disturbing and portentous. Like many a teenager he liked to write his name a great deal, and there are dramatic storm scenes painted in brown and black inks and dominating the whole scene are the forbidding letters ‘VH’. His artwork is not that well known, but it should be.

 

Misery by Käthe Kolwitz, 1897. Musée d’art moderne et contemporain, Strasbourg / Wikimedia Commons

Käthe Kollwitz Museum, Berlin

Kollwitz’s depictions of grief and suffering are breathtaking and heartbreaking. She was an incredibly brave commentator of her time: she lived through two world wars, and was stripped of her position at the Berlin Academy of Arts by the Nazis. To see her works together – sculptures, etchings, woodcuts, lithographs – is to feel the power of her vision. I cannot think of an artist who has ever portrayed suffering with such urgency. Her works are simultaneously brutal and beautiful. Sorrow in black gashes. Mothers holding dead children. Her art has lost none of its bite, it never will – Kollwitz will always be relevant.

 

Herschel Museum of Astronomy, Bath

This is the former home of the astronomer brother and sister William and Caroline Herschel. What’s most instantly noticeable about the house is that it’s no grand Georgian pile with enormously high ceilings, rather it’s rather a dull, pokey sort of place. It is also a place of work: in this house telescopes were made, you can see the oven were the lenses were cooked. In the garden (a small garden) William, with his homemade telescope, discovered Uranus, his sister discovered eight comets. There’s a music room – money was earned from giving lessons to pay for their passion for astronomy. What I think makes the museum so moving is the relationship between brother and sister, Caroline was pockmarked and tiny – 4’3” – due to suffering from smallpox and typhus as child. She had an abusive relationship with her mother and elder brother, who used her as a servant. William rescued her and treated her as an equal. This rather average building is transformed by the pair’s mutual admiration and industry.

 

The Empty House. Montage at the Museum of Innocence © Refik Anadol / Innocence Foundation

The Museum of Innocence, Istanbul

The Turkish novelist Orhan Pamuk opened this museum in 2012. For years Pamuk collected objects that linked to his novel of the same name. The novel and the objects were conceived of at the same time but can now live entirely independently.The objects, from cigarette butts to postcards to old toys, have their own history and dignity in this space. It’s a museum to everyday objects and their lives. It feels both nostalgic and profoundly moving, a museum to time and to creation. A museum to finding stories everywhere, in the most everyday of things. That every object might have its own story.

 

Edward Gorey House, Cape Cod

No one else could have lived here. Even though they’ve cleared so much of the stuff out of the house it still feels entirely Gorey, filled from top to bottom with Goreyness. Everything here Gorey chose for himself and fits his artwork perfectly. A cat or two still lope about the place. There are drawings everywhere and this small house in beautiful Yarmouth Port is a hermit’s haven, a place of peace and inspiration, a temple to the great Gorey.

 

Elisabet Ney Museum, Austin

Ney packed up her bags and moved from Austria to Austin, Texas, which was a bold move to say the least. She built her eccentric studio that resembles a smallish castle in what was then scrubland. The museum is filled with her sculptures. There are busts of Jacob Grimm and Schopenhauer, Bismark, Garibaldi and Jesus. Her bronze figures of Sam Houston and Stephen F. Austin stand in the Texas Capital building, but here in her home you feel her ghost busy at work. You can see the drag of her fingers she made in clay on her sculpture of Prometheus when she suffered a fatal heart attack.

If at all possible, Soane’s museum should be visited on a sunny day, then you see columns of light pour through the building.”

Sir John Soane’s Museum, London

Is this the greatest house that one person ever made? Soane’s home, filled with all the pieces he collected, so beautifully crowded and so wonderfully curated by Soane himself, is a wonder of collecting and curiosity. His own architectural models are here, like the best toys ever made. There are buildings beneath bell jars. And his collection of paintings was so numerous you have to file through them, they are stacked in hinges affixed to the walls – but what paintings he had too: the whole of William Hogarth’s Rake’s Progress, for example. If at all possible, Soane’s museum should be visited on a sunny day, then you see columns of light pour through the building and all his wonderful objects seem to breathe.

 

Écorché of a horse and its rider by Honoré Fragonard (detail), 1766–71. Musée Fragonard / Wikimedia Commons

Musée Fragonard, Maisons-Alfort

Honoré Fragonard was trained as a veterinarian and liked to skin animals and preserve the bodies so they may be studied. In time, under the patronage of Louis XV, Fragonard would come to do the same with the human body. His colleagues made models of human anatomy out of wax, but Fragonard wanted the real thing. He preceded Gunther von Hagens’ Body Worlds by over two hundred years. The most celebrated figure in the museum is a Dürer-inspired depiction of a horseman of the Apocalypse, showing a flayed man on a flayed horse. He is often called Fragonard the Obscure in reference to his much more famous cousin the painter Jean-Honoré Fragonard (who perhaps might then be named Fragonard the Obvious). The museum is the site of the school outside Paris where Fragonard taught and prepared his exhibits. He was expelled from the school in 1771 on the grounds that he was mad. Nevertheless he continued to work.

 

Parco dei Mostri, Bomarzo

Pier Francisco Orsini was a sixteenth-century aristocrat and a soldier. His best friend died in battle, he was held for ransom, and when at last he returned home his wife died. The man was clearly overwhelmed by grief, but to explain and to vent this sorrow he employed the architect and designer Pirro Ligorio to make for him a park of monsters. You can stroll around the park moving from giants to sphinxes, dragons to giant turtles, many of which are silently screaming. You can visit the Leaning House, which, as it sounds, is a house that tilts towards the ground. Being inside it is very disconcerting. Most spectacular of all is the giant Orcus mouth. You can walk inside the mouth, the ogre’s tongue is a picnic bench. It is the strangest way I know of describing the whole business of grief, and feels so many centuries later both accurate, bizarre and strangely blessed. The park is also called the Sacro Bosco (‘Sacred Grove’), which is absolutely right.

 

Edward_Carey_290Edward Carey is a novelist, visual artist and playwright. His debut novel Observatory Mansions is sold in 14 countries and was described by John Fowles as “proving the potential brilliance of the novel form”. He is also the author of Alva and Irva: the Twins Who Saved a City, and the YA Iremonger Trilogy. Born in England, he teaches at the University of Austin, Texas. Little, featuring illustrations by the author, is published in the UK in hardback, trade paperback and eBook by Gallic Books, and in the US by Riverhead Books.
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