12.Feb.2013 David Macaulay – Motel of the Mysteries


Macaulay is probably best known for his The Way Things Work, an illustrated guide to how everyday tools and machines work that came out in the late 1980s and then was remade as a CDROM (remember them?!). Big in North America, I hadn’t come across his books until Michael Edson brought a copy of Pyramid for my kids on a speaking trip to Sydney. Apparently it was Michael’s favourite book as a kid – and was a big influence on why he ended up working in museums. Pyramid is a wonderful exploration of how the pyramids were made, their secret rooms, and architecture. Macauley’s detailed line illustrations are what makes the book, along with quirky text.

But in fact the one that has, so far, resonated most with my kids has been Motel of the Mysteries.

Written in 1979 it parodies the type of pop-archaeological narratives of that period- the ones that also resulted in the success of the Indiana Jones films.

Set in the distant future of 4022, archaeologist Howard Carson uncovers an ancient tomb in USA – a cheap motel room from 1985 when a great accident occurred. Of course, knowing little of this strange civilisation, Carson ‘interprets’ these found objects in amusing ways – a toilet seat becomes a ceremonial collar, the bowl is the urn, naturally.

”The most holy of relics was discovered in the Inner Chamber. It was carved froma singe piece of porcelain and then highly polished. The Urn was the focal point of the burial ceremony. The ranking celebrant, kneeling before the Urn, would chant into it while water from the sacred spring flowed in to mix with sheets of sacred parchment.”

An exhibition ensues and the latter part of the book is the ‘exhibition catalogue’.

Its a great read – and a useful reminder of our inevitable misinterpretations of the past. My kids love the notion that we could get it so wrong in the future. The pen and ink drawings are, naturally, amazing. And if you work in or around museums, then there is that extra layer of resonance.

Beware one of Macaulay’s other books, Underground, which takes the reader beneath a ‘typical city block’ and explores how buildings stand up and all the pipes and tunnels beneath the metropolis that supply crucial services. It is likely to make you children want to become urban explorers . . .

Either way, you need Macaulay’s prolific work in your children’s lives.

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