Lost museums, even those abandoned for millennia, have power. That’s one moral of perhaps the most striking lost museum, the the one portrayed in H. G. Well’s Time Machine. Well’s time traveller spots what he calls The Palace of Green Porcelain, a place different from any other building in that distant future. He visits, taking a long and difficult trek to find it, “seeking a refuge” from fear there, as well as weapons, and fire.
He arrives, enters: “At the first glance I was reminded of a museum. The tiled floor was thick with dust, and a remarkable array of miscellaneous objects was shrouded in the same grey covering.” He sees skeletons of extinct animals, skulls, bones, a splendid array of fossils. “A few shrivelled and blackened vestiges of what had once been stuffed animals, desiccated mummies in jars that had once held spirit, a brown dust of departed plants: that was all!” in “the old familiar glass cases of our own time.” In the mechanical section: “the huge bulks of big machines, all greatly corroded and many broken down.”
All of the assembled wonders of the past – “gallery after gallery, dusty, silent, often ruinous, the exhibits sometimes mere heaps of rust and lignite” – no longer speak to civilization’s triumphs, but rather, to its decline. They have lost their value, at least the value for which the curators collected them.
But they have gained a new value. Two values, actually. One is practical: The time traveller breaks a piece of steel off of some old machine, for a mace, and from “what may once have been a gallery of technical chemistry” he takes a book of matches, and some camphor. Old collections can make good weapons!
The other new value is more symbolic. The time traveller leaves the Palace of Green Porcelain not only armed with a weapon and fire, but also, with his “growing knowledge.” Refreshed and untroubled, he is ready to do battle with the Morlocks. The museum, for all its ruin, has reminded him of civilization, and made him confident in his ability to fight evil.
And what more might we ask from a museum, even today?