The 26 Treasures project began with an exhibition at the Victoria & Albert Museum in 2010 and then spread to Aberystwyth, Belfast and Edinburgh. In each case, an exhibition of 26 artefacts reflecting national culture was accompanied by a booklet in which 26 writers each had 62 words to write about one of the objects. This autumn the concept is taken up by the Museum of Childhood in Bethnal Green, with writers picking one object for each year of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign. New crowd-sourcing publisher Unbound publish a limited edition anthology of all the contributions shortly, with a regular edition following in September.
Here the co-founder of the project, John Simmons, reveals its origins, coins a new literary term and asks for the treasures from your childhood.
What’s your treasure? It might sound like an idle thought, a question from a conversation over a cup of coffee. Actually that was exactly how it started. I was sitting in the National Gallery café talking to Rob Self-Pierson. We’re both members of 26 www.26.org.uk a writers’ group - and we were wondering, just between ourselves, how we might write about the Gallery’s collection in a different way. We wanted to find a way that would be more personal, taking us (and others) away from that desultory state of mind when you trail around a gallery or museum, not really connecting with the objects you’re supposed to be looking at in a reverent way.
So the idea grew in and out of the conversation. We decided we would write about individual ‘treasures’ in a way that was not scholarly or academic. Just asking: what does this object say to me? We took the idea to Ben Evans at the London Design Festival and he put us in touch with the Victoria & Albert Museum. We refined the idea: we would ask each of 26 writers to write exactly 62 words (26 in reflection). And we would randomly pair writers and objects.
The V&A loved the idea and their curators chose 26 treasures from the British Galleries. ‘Treasures’ came in all shapes and sizes: the Great Bed of Ware (enormous), a locket (tiny). When we paired writers with objects sometimes it was love at first sight, sometimes it wasn’t. I didn’t warm to my 18th century Rococo candle stand that was almost hidden away in a badly-lit display case. But as I got to know it better, and think about its situation, I came to feel sorry for this curiosity fallen on hard times. I wrote 62 words in its rather petulant voice.
We had 26 pieces, each 62 words. I thought we needed a name for this form so I called it a ‘sestude’. The next thought was: can this go national? So we approached the National Library of Wales, the Ulster Museum and the National Museum of Scotland. The museums chose the treasures, we provided 26 writers to write a sestude each, and the museums then put our words alongside the objects.
That would have been it if I hadn’t had lunch with John Mitchinson. John’s an old friend, ex-Waterstone’s, ex-Harvill Press, founder of QI and now founder of Unbound, a new crowd-sourcing approach to publishing. www.unbound.co.uk I explained 26 Treasures to John, said that writers like Andrew Motion, Paul Muldoon, Alexander McCall Smith, Gillian Clarke and Michael Longley had taken part. Actually there were more - more than 100 writers in all. “Sounds like a great book.” It was a good lunch too. We agreed to publish 26 Treasures through Unbound.