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Frankenstein at the National Art Library

25 April 2018 Alice Ahearn

If you’re a regular visitor to museums, you’ll be no stranger to the oddly intimate experience of looking through someone’s personal possessions, laid out, articulated and labelled for your perusal. The insights can be endearing, fascinating, sometimes shocking. It can be like looking into a mirror of your own life, or startlingly, incomprehensibly different. The experiences you share and those you’ve never imagined chime together down the centuries, closing the distance between you and a long-dead stranger as you gaze through glass at their belongings, or even hold them in your hands.

But even if you’re familiar with all this, you’ve probably never before experienced it with a fictional character.

That’s the premise of Pure Expression’s ‘Frankenstein in the National Art Library’ production at the V&A. Admitting an audience of just one at a time, it invites the viewer to don a pair of headphones and undertake an immersive journey around the library desks. While listening to a powerful soundtrack and a narrative by Victor Frankenstein himself, you are free to open and examine box after box of artefacts from the Frankenstein family archive: photographs, letters, personal effects. As a result, Mary Shelley’s hubristic scientist is, like his monster, brought chillingly to life.

It’s an unsettling and absorbing experience that manages to create a sense of being at once immersed in and distanced from the events of the novel. Yes, you’re hearing Frankenstein tell his own story, and holding objects that make him suddenly tangible and real, more than just words on a page. Yet those same objects, including several from his final days, show the true timescale. It’s a voice of the dead.

National Art Library, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

The sense is enhanced by the library setting: silent, studious, lined with Gothic bookcases and with book cradles on every desk, you really do feel like an academic with special access to a historic archive. Far more vividly than any conventional museum exhibition, you are faced with the haunting duality of the objects you examine. They are both the means of bringing their owners back to life and, at the same time, a reminder that nothing living now remains.

And that’s without even considering the actual material of the novel. Frankenstein’s descent into despair as his life is destroyed by his own actions forms the centrepiece of the production, and you have no choice but to share his horror as each new disaster unfolds. You’re never allowed to forget that the characters whose possessions you hold all met their deaths in the course of the story Frankenstein is telling. With every box, the apprehension grows as to what it might contain. More than once, your unease proves justified.

Only one aspect of the outside world occasionally breaks through into that of Frankenstein. It is very strange to be wandering an exhibition in the same space that others are working. While the library setting undoubtedly enhances the atmosphere no end, the problem is that, when moving around or examining some of the artefacts, you might find yourself drawn out of your own immersive experience by the self-conscious worry of disturbing others.

Nevertheless, this is a production that still resonates after leaving the hallowed silence of the library and re-entering the hustle and bustle of the main museum. It might not be often that you find yourself so completely invested in the life of someone whose entire existence is confined to an object in your hand or words on a page. But when the two are brought together as they are here, phrases like ‘it’s only a story’ are suddenly neither relevant nor reassuring. In fact, they more or less cease altogether to apply.

Frankenstein by Pure Expression is at the National Art Library, Victoria & Albert Museum from 24–28 April, 1–5.30pm.
 
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