I found 26 Treasures in the National Gallery New Year sale. The fact it only cost me One English Pound instead of £15.99 was a significant factor in my purchase: it could facilitate the illusion of my intellectualism (essential in masking the reality that a substantial proportion of my time is spent reading the gossip column of Daily Mail Online) and my need to do this cost-effectively in an uncertain post-Brexit financial context (thank you again Daily Mail. You have created so many dilemmas in my life). Even the cashier lady knew I was wining at life as I handed over my pound coin. It was a great moment.
The intriguing concept of this book was also a factor though – the aforementioned gossip column has not completely rotted my brain (yet). The writers’ collective 26 (named after the number of letters in the alphabet) selected 26 objects from each of the four UK museums featured (the V&A, the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum, and the National Museum of Scotland) and randomly paired each one with a writer who then had to write a personal response to it – in poetry or prose – using only 62 words. This constraint – a new literary form called a ‘sestude‘ – is based on what founder director of 26 John Simmons calls ‘the creative liberation that comes from constraints’ and the assertion that ’62 represented 26 in reflection’. The pieces from the National Library of Wales are fittingly also in Welsh, and you get double-bubble from the Ulster Museum as there is both a piece of art as well as a sestude in response to each object.
The result is a great marriage between art/historical objects and words, a demonstration of the breadth of interesting objects in museums across the UK, and a taster of the fascinating stories – both real and imagined – behind them. Highlights for me included a very moving poem by Elisabeth Roberts in response to the Aberfan remembrance book, comprised of eye witness accounts of the tragedy (‘No cry. No echo./Death’s silence’); a rather creepy piece by Fiona Thompson on the mask and wig worn to disguise outlawed 17th century Scottish Covenanting minister Alexander Peden (‘My colours have faded but the minister’s conviction still blazes’); and Owen O’Neill’s take on the very uncomfortable-looking late medieval O’Neill seat (‘This cold Tyrone throne, made for/men on the edge, ready for flight’). The writers’ interpretations add another layer to our understanding of each object – take the following piece written by Miranda Dickinson about a portrait of Sir Thomas More and his family:
Behind Closed Doors
Hidden behind closed doors
We sit, in our best clothes,
Ancestors and living generations together
A noble family tree.
But we are more than this.
We are private jokes, hopeful ambitions,
Veiled resentment and disinterested glances.
We are the learning we love and the issues we ignore,
The excitement of achievement and the boredom of mundanity
Squabbles, silences, shy smiles…
After reading this book, I felt that I could go into a museum and spent hours gazing at just one object, getting under the skin of the facts behind it, and using these facts to imagine stories beyond those facts. Granted, my fast-paced lifestyle (#BromleyNeverSleepsBro), combined with the aforementioned amount of time I spend on gossip columns, does not accommodate such an indulgence. But the point is that those of who race through the houses of our cultural heritage with a speed borne from an irrational desire to get to the museum shop and buy another fridge magnet (another tool in my armour of intellectual pretence – see below) could all do well to slow down a tad. There’s a wealth to be found in each object. Thank you 26!