Guest post: Jenny Walklate describes the experience of a museum at night

This is the second in a series of guest posts on the Museums at Night blog.

A black and white photo inside a white building with a glass roof

Inside the British Museum at Night. Flickr photo by Caro Wallis, licensed under Creative Commons.

‘Dark space…touches me directly, envelopes me, embraces me, even penetrates me, completely, passes through me.’ – Eugène Minkowski

There is no doubt that the world at night is a very different place.

Buried deep within us, on some level which is older than we can even imagine, is a wariness of this ‘night world’, this other place of shades, of limited vision and tangible absence of light. Waking in the night, I see my room as distant, objects and their locations as unclear and shifting. That which by the clear light of day is normal, even mundane, becomes bizarre and threatening, or vanishes without a trace.

Wakefulness in the night-world is somehow covert. We are not where, or when, we are meant to be. We have stayed awake beyond our alloted time, we are illicit presences, naughty children after lights out. And we may get in trouble for it.

In the daytime, then, when we enter a museum, we anticipate finding something to marvel at. We want to see magical and strange objects, to hear tales from different worlds and different times. We already enter into a place of wonders, which shifts into a stranger landscape yet when the lights go off, and night falls. Who has not, as a child, imagined their toys coming to life when they themselves are sleeping? Who has not walked past a darkened window and wondered what lay behind it and what it did when there was no-one there? Who could pass a museum at night without imagining the objects that lie within, in slow slumber or hurried and secret activity?

A photo looking up at a dinosaur skeleton in the dark

Carnivore. Flickr photo by Voxphoto, licensed under Creative Commons.

Imagine, then, if you will, the thrill of being let into this secret world, into the unseen nocturnal hours of a treasure house. Imagine yourself seated by firelight in an Iron Age roundhouse, rapt by a storyteller spinning yarns from pasts beyond memory. Imagine being able to gaze up at the gaping jaws of Tyrannosaurus Rex and watching his shadow on the wall, half-hoping that he begins to move. Imagine the Egyptian mummy, illuminated only by torchlight, following you into your dreams when you are safely tucked up in bed.

Imagine, then. I’ll let you. All that secret world open to you. Soon it will be. All you need to do is to stay awake.

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Jenny Walklate is a research student in the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, and is particularly interested in the material culture generated by museums and their processes, the temporal nature of the museum and its elements, digital heritage and museum display. She contributes to The Attic museum studies blog, and can be contacted at jaw50@le.ac.uk.

If you’re inspired to write a guest post for us, please email Rosie on rosie@culture24.org.uk.

2 responses to “Guest post: Jenny Walklate describes the experience of a museum at night

  1. I love the way you have captured what is so enticing about being in these ‘treasure houses’ at night.

  2. Thank you very much! I do love night spaces…and treasure houses, of course!