I can’t imagine many people have linked bestselling business writer and verbal identity expert John Simmons with a Disney cartoon character before, but that’s what I feel compelled to do after the launch of the 26 Treasures book at the V&A last week. As John and invited speakers explained the project, and read aloud their work, to the assembled writers and guests who had come to celebrate the culmination of this two-and-a-half year writing adventure, one thing above all came across loud and clear – 26 Treasures was about bringing objects to life with words.
What started as a collaborative exhibition between writers’ organisation 26 and the V&A, launched during London Design Festival in 2010, has grown to involve 104 writers paired with 104 objects in four national museums across the UK. The task was simple; each writer was asked to write a response to the object they’d been paired with. But instead of the factual kind of description you’d normally expect to find with an artefact in a museum, the writers were asked to be creative, to look anew at their objects and harness the power of words to bring the objects alive. And to help in this creative task, writers had to write their response in exactly 62 words – no more, no less – guided by one of 26’s principals that “constraints release creativity.”
As the project progressed at the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Scotland, each country took the idea off in a slightly different, but equally inspired, direction. I was lucky enough to be chosen as one of the 26 writers to work on the Welsh part of the project, and not only have the pleasure of being introduced to my treasure (a book of very early photographs of Native Americans) at the wonderful National Library of Wales in Aberystwyth, but also seeing my words translated into Welsh by Siôn Aled Owen.
Eventually, after several serendipitous meetings (as often seems to be the way with 26 projects which are entirely powered by volunteers), the idea came about that the sestudes (a term 26 coined for the 62-word pieces) produced should live on after the exhibitions and be immortalised in a book. With the help of new, crowd-funding publisher Unbound, and the many subscribers who pledged their money to see the book take shape, the idea became a reality. Not only is the 26 Treasures book a record of the project’s wonderful creativity and collaboration, it’s also a beautiful object in its own right (designed by Sam Gray, Fabric). It’s as far from a plain catalogue of objects as could have been hoped, with stories spilling from every page.
And if you look at p23 of the book, you’ll see what I mean about John Simmons bringing to mind a Disney character. When you read John’s words, written in the first person present tense from the point of view of a Rococo candlestick holder, does the object not seem to sprout arms and legs, eyes and a mouth, and begin to speak to you? What a fabulous trick to conjure in just 62 words. The book is full of just such magic.
After I left the launch event, I wandered through the V&A with a few minutes to spare before closing time. What had formerly been silent objects, settled and still in glass boxes or on cold, lifeless plinths were now alive and shouting their stories as I passed. And as I visited the V&A book shop I found the handy portable package that some of those stories had been captured in, ready to take away with me.