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Spurious Museums

Well, despite my time in Scotland being a writing trip I did manage to find time for distractions and diversions.  On the first day I left the Elephant cafe wandering up towards Edinburgh castle.  As I moved towards the entrance I finally realized that the giant sports-stadium style scaffolding projecting out from the hillside is designed to allow tourists in their thousands to flock to see the Military Tattoo in the courtyard, which is completely dwarfed by the metal and plastic construction towering above it.  I was later told that it gets put up every year around Festival time; it’s not a permanent feature, which mitigated my dislike somewhat.  At any rate there was scaffolding and gates all over the place because the seating was still under construction, herding tourists in straggly, inescapable lines towards the castle.  I don’t enjoy crowds very much–I prefer the solitary contemplation of the found treasure, the unexpected jewel, the untrammeled field.  But don’t we all?

I made a swift reversal, thinking in the beautiful sunshine that today was not a day to be unpleasantly herded along cramped stone corridors, unable to see anything at leisure and breathing everybody else’s air.  I then saw a sign for the Tartan Weaving Mill, which boasted an exhibition, so I decided to take a look.

As I moved through what was very definitely a shop and not a museum a sinking feeling overtook me.  My suspicions were soon confirmed when I realized that this was just like all those spurious ‘Carpet Museums’ I used to see in Egypt.  But then, as I walked through the displays of Scottish tat in the breezeblock interior of the working mill (I could see looms in the basement below metal gangways hung with wares), I was reminded of another good-humored but absolutely terrible ‘museum’: the Salem Witch museum in Salem, Massachusetts, not far from where I grew up.

Now, it’s many years since I went in the Witch Museum (and I mean the official one in the big old crenellated Gothic revival former church, not one of the many Witch Walks and Dungeon Tours in the vicinity), but when I was last there the experience was comically disappointing.  Dilapidated department store mannequins dressed in frayed period costume and coated in layers of dust, paint on their faces and hands peeling, were arrayed in nooks around a central area.  These nooks would light up in series, each depicting some anecdote of the witch trials, while a voice-over narrative played in the background.  The mannequins did not move, there were no actors or anything, just a sequence of lit-up booths displaying dire scenes.  These were arranged somehow so that no matter where you stood in the room you didn’t have a clear view of any of them.  I believe it’s in ‘Notes from a Big Country’ where Bill Bryson talks about the inherent charm of underwhelming roadside displays and tiny, spurious museums all over America; the Salem Witch Museum in my youth fell firmly in this category.

As I wandered through the Tartan Mill in Edinburgh, past displays of clan-crest coasters and discounted crystal goblets, past salespeople measuring lengths of cloth and sitting beside computers, ready to trace your family history and frame it, past people folding sweaters and finally, at last, past the ‘Tartan Dress Through the Ages” exhibition (six or eight mannequins, distant cousins of those in the Salem Witch Museum), I began to smile.  No matter where you go, you can always count on a spurious museum.

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