Last Saturday I took part in the final event of the 26 Treasures Scotland project, chairing a panel discussion at the Winter Words book festival in the Pitlochry Festival Theatre.
February 4 is a date which, since university days, I have thought of as the absolute nadir of the year. True to form, it was a filthy afternoon, sleety and freezing. We were also up against the Calcutta Cup kick-off at Murrayfield, half-an-hour after we started. But still we got an audience of about 40 people in the main auditorium.
The panelists were historical novelist Sara Sheridan, who has been the driving force behind the project, Linda Cracknell, writer of short stories and radio plays, and Alison Weir, expert on the Tudors and one of the UK’s most successful writers of historical biographies and novels. Sara, Linda and I had all contributed to the project. Alison had not, but she was in Pitlochry anyway doing her own event and the organisers thought her presence would add something to ours. It did.
The three of us talked about the objects we had been allocated and then read our respective 62 words on Queen Mary’s harp, the Coigrich – a talismanic gold casing for the handle of a bishop’s crosier, and the Gown of Repentance. We had also asked Alison to choose an object and she had obligingly come up with 62 words of her own on a large lump of Lewisian Gneiss, at (appropriately) 2.6 billion years old, the most ancient of all the 26 treasures.
We then began a conversation about whether these short pieces of highly personal writing, essentially fictions created in response to the allocated objects, had any place in a museum whose chief purpose is the presentation of fact. To elaborate on the question, I asked Alison if she had ever written a novel about an historical character for whom she had also written a biography. ‘Yes,’ she replied, ‘more than once. It’s all about filling in the gaps, you see.’
And that, it seems to me, is what the whole 26 Treasures project has been about – filling in the gaps. Mostly we stand in front of objects in museums armed only with the factual information provided by curators. We may be intellectually or aesthetically engaged by them, but if our imaginations aren’t kindled we are seldom going to make the more human, more emotional connection with them and their time and place of origin.
26 Treasures encouraged the writers, first, to imagine the stories around these objects, and then to communicate those to the museum’s visitors. The stories don’t alter the facts any more than Alison Weir’s novels alter their underlying historical truths, but they do enhance them. It’s no surprise that so many of the 26 writers came away from the project with a distinctly proprietary feeling about their objects; though the Gown of Repentance, unsurprisingly, stirred no such feelings for me.
But filling in the gaps is something we are naturally inclined to do as imaginative creatures. It’s what I constantly tell business writers. You don’t need to give us the kitchen sink. You can easily get rid of half of what you’ve said and your audience will still get it. We’re hard wired to read between the cracks. We imagine and intuit and do all those unmeasurable things that the business world finds so alarming. If we didn’t we would have been savaged by sabretooths or trampled by mammoths millennia ago.
To see all the 26 Treasures at the National Museum of Scotland click here.