Write me a museum

Barsali Bhattacharyya | Updated on May 28, 2020

Untold Joyce: A map at the Museum of Literature in Dublin that introduces the city to visitors through James Joyce’s works, letters and life   -  IMAGES: BARSALI BHATTACHARYYA

With museums out of bounds due to the lockdown, a writer falls back on the last ones she visited — in Dublin and Edinburgh — for comfort

* Dublin’s new Museum of Literature is also known as MoLi, inspired by the name of Molly Bloom in James Joyce’s Ulysses

* MoLi’s exhibition Dear, Dirty Dublin (a phrase borrowed from Joyce), is an ode to the city that served as an inspiration for most of his works

* Edinburgh’s Writers’ Museum celebrates three Scottish authors — RL Stevenson, Walter Scott and Robert Burns

Museums, with their decorated walls and crowded corridors, are a huge part of the attraction of visiting a new city. I like my travels to be steeped in sepia and stories, and take joy in discovering literary museums. But travel is near-taboo in the time of Covid-19, and museums, which bank on a steady stream of tourists, are facing an existential crisis. Some, I fear, may not be in business any more.

I wonder when I will be able to set foot inside a museum again. I hear that some museums in Europe are preparing to reopen with strict social-distancing measures, including online bookings and limited entries, but will visiting a museum ever be the same again? Will I muster the courage to throw on a Georgian-era gown and bonnet to pose for a photo at the Jane Austen museum in Bath or share bench space with strangers in Louvre’s salles rouges (red rooms)? Or wear the headphones to listen to audio recordings at the Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam?

Faced with the prospect of losing many such experiences forever, I look for comfort in the two unique literary museums I had last explored. The first visit dates back to a cold and windy afternoon in Dublin in early November last year. The Museum of Literature (MoLI — yes, it’s pronounced Molly, and is inspired by Molly Bloom of James Joyce’s Ulysses), a collaboration between the National Library of Ireland and University College, Dublin, was barely two months old at the time. The name of the museum leaves little to the imagination: It is a unique capsule of Ireland’s rich and nuanced literary history.

I began the museum tour with an interactive audio-video installation titled Riverrun of Languages, which allows you to read and hear the words of Irish authors and poets such as Oscar Wilde, Seamus Heaney and Eavan Boland.

Another exhibition, known as Dear, Dirty Dublin (a phrase borrowed from Joyce), is an ode to the city that served as an inspiration for most of his works — Dubliners, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man and Ulysses. It maps the city through Joyce’s works, letters and life, pointing visitors to places such as St Stephen’s Greens, the city’s best-known park, which Stephen Dedalus refers to as “my green” in A Portrait, or the Bull Wall on the Dublin Bay, where Dedalus becomes aware of his calling as an artist. A truly memorable introduction to a new city for a literary lover!

The Georgian-era Newman House, the site of the museum, is also a part of this history. Joyce studied here, as did his fictional alter ego Dedalus. Some notable artefacts include the first copy of Ulysses, Joyce’s handwritten notes as well as a letter to Irish poet WB Yeats.

The good word: The press that printed Walter Scott’s novels is on display at the Writers’ Museum, Edinburgh


The second museum I’m reminiscing about is nearly 500km from Dublin — the Writers’ Museum in Edinburgh, the capital of Scotland. This one celebrates three Scottish authors — RL Stevenson (Treasure Island and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde), Walter Scott (Ivanhoe) and Robert Burns, also known as Scotland’s national poet. On a cold afternoon in January 2020, a walk down the Royal Mile, a beautiful and bustling road that runs through the old town, takes me towards Lady Stair’s Close, one of the many closes (alleys) around. The alleyway opens into Makars’ Court, a courtyard that cites quotations from Scottish writers on its paved stones. There’s a stone dedicated to Scott. Several contemporary authors such as James Allan Ford, Nigel Tranter and Muriel Spark find place, too.

A narrow, 17th-century town house across the courtyard functions as the Writers’ Museum. On the ground floor are the busts of the three authors, who may never have been to this house or known Lady Stair, but most certainly would have passed through the alley while travelling between the old and new parts of the city. On the upper and lower floors is a range of objects, including portraits and statues, from the life and times of the writers. On the first-floor balcony, a tapestry featuring the three literary figures grabs my eye. A printing press that was used to publish Scott’s novel Waverley is among the exhibits. As is a plaster cast of Burns’s skull, his writing desk and Stevenson’s boots, and first editions of two novels — Waverley and Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses.

Even though I always knew it, until my trip to these two museums I had never quite realised that so many of the English-language authors I had read and enjoyed were of Irish or Scottish origin. I also had no way of knowing how much the world would change in the next immediate months and that the two literary museums would be the last I would see in a long, long time.

Barsali Bhattacharyya is a writer based in Delhi

Published on May 28, 2020

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