“A foggy day in London town
Had me low, and had me down
I view the morning with alarm
The British Museum has lost its charm…”
–––– From “A Foggy Day” recorded by Sun Ra (with the Nu Sounds), 1954
It must have been a night in February of 2017, Francis Gooding and I were at Cafe Oto, and The Sun Ra Arkestra was about to play. Sun Ra of course passed on in 1993 but his mobile commune of musicians has continued undeterred.
Anyway, a friend of Francis’ licenses music for Saturn – Sun Ra’s estate. He was present that night and knowing that we were working on Ghost Stories of the British Museum, he offered to introduce us to a woman whom he described as a curator at the British Museum. He had recently helped her license some “Egyptian” music for an exhibition she was working on in Cairo. Ever curious to speak to anyone with working experience at the British Museum, we said we’d love to meet her.
She turned out not to be a curator, but a worker of another sort (we’ll leave that aside for now, it matters little for the purposes of the story at hand). No matter. She was friendly to start with, told us she’d just returned from Cairo and had licensed music from our friend for the exhibition, because “you know, we’ve got lots of mummies and things.” I confess to having had a drink already and feeling relaxed in the company of friends. I leaned in:
“Yeah, we know all about that. Francis and I are collecting ghost stories of the British Museum from former and current staff, so we’ve heard all about the mummies…”
She took a step back, her posture all of a sudden signifying that perhaps she shouldn’t be speaking with us at all.
“Is the project official or is it unofficial?”
“Oh it’s unofficial” I smiled.
“Oh than we really must bring you into the fold. We can’t have the employees concerned about whether or not it’s safe to talk to you… Unless you want to make a scandal, in which case we’ll have to manage it.”
I leaned in to the circle that framed our conversation again, hoping to be heard over the cacophony of pre-gig background voices now mounting as the performance nears.
“See that’s the thing – we don’t want you to manage it.”
The musicians began to take their places. She handed us her business card and insisted we get in touch, perhaps we could do a podcast. We nodded and thanked her, shifting our collective attention, making space for the music to begin.
Now, for the unfamilar, Sun Ra was many things – among them an Egyptologist, in a modality that encompassed both the Black nationalisms of his time and the occult world as it was practiced in and around the British Museum at the turn of the century. Not only is he a masterful musician but equally an important theologian. His band carries on today not as re-enactment but as if he was still watching and playing alongside.
The Arkestra might typically begin with Ellington’s “Take the A train”, dancing their way on stage, trombones jutting, trumpets swinging and blaring. Or they may begin with a dawn chorus of bells and warbler-like tones of flutes and hushed synth notes, easing us in. Tonight was different –they were ferocious. From nearly the first note every instrument screeched, howled, or did its equivalent. Every sound broke in the first minute or so of the performance. There would be no easing in this evening. About two minutes into the performance, our new friend from the British Museum was no longer to be seen. I glanced over as she was making her way out. She rushed for the exit, seemingly unprepared for what she heard.
Francis and I glanced at each other moments later, in each other’s ears over the music that had now eased, noting in real time the symbolic dimensions of the exchange. Almost anywhere else we would have been on uneven ground meeting someone from the museum, but at the Sun Ra show she was out of her element. She appeared almost like an emanation of the museum’s authority, a ghost in the service of the museum’s agenda. She seemed to want to compromise what the project might say about the Egyptian galleries, and was promptly sent out of the room by Sun Ra’s band. The message was clear enough: Do not make a deal with the museum. Work from the outside.
Months later we would follow up with the woman we met that night. This produced a series of meetings and ultimately a contract drafted by the museum’s lawyers which all came to naught, reinforcing our initial impression that night. Perhaps I will write about that another day.
Noah Angell @each_night was born in the United States and lives and works in London. “For the good wind”, a recent sound commission, is currently on exhibition at the Polar Museum in Tromsø, Norway.
The Ghost Stories of the British Museum is an ongoing oral history project and an upcoming book, to inquire about the project, to contribute stories or join a walking tour of the British Museum led by Angell please write to email@example.com.