What is the Museum of Monotropism?
Monotropism describes the way that the autistic brain tends to focus on a restricted range of interests or activities and struggles to shift focus outside of “attention tunnels” - hence our difficulties with task switching and processing information. But the flipside of this inability to multitask is the ability to focus intensely on what *is* within your attention tunnel. It explains the prevalence of ardent hyperfocus in autistic people, and what are described as “special interests” – intense, all-consuming obsessions with particular objects or subjects, often unusual ones. For autism to be diagnosed, these must go beyond ordinary hobbies into the realm of obsession, and for this reason special interests are often pathologized. But they don’t need to be. Many of us also experience our monotropism as a source of pleasure and ‘flow’. Monotropism is the lens through which I see the world. Life is huge and overwhelming. People are sometimes cruel and often confusing. Focusing on a microcosm within a macrocosm makes the world feel smaller, safer; more manageable, more beautiful. When I am overwhelmed, my special interests offer a cocoon of calm and safety.
As a student I became obsessed with the Pitt Rivers Museum, the home of Oxford University’s archaeological and anthropological collection. To reach it, you have to walk through the Natural History Museum, finally emerging into what feels like a gigantic cabinet of curiosities. The myth was that the collection had been left to the university on the condition that the layout was never altered - and though it’s not true, it certainly looks as though it should be. It’s as much a museum of the Victorian brain as anything else. Some cases have hundreds of the same object laid out in rows. Others are stuffed with collections of artefacts that to a modern eye don’t belong together- an Early Modern English witch in a bottle next to a nineteenth century Italian shrine next to a preserved toad from early twentieth century North Africa. But it felt like the inside of my brain, because this is also how I process the world - I hoard objects and information, turn them over and over, and make connections that seem obvious to me, but don’t necessarily make sense to other people.
The Museum of Monotropism takes inspiration from the Pitt Rivers to present a literal museum of my brain, arranging things in a way that make sense to me. It focuses on two of my long-standing ‘special interests’ - folk religion/magic and the natural world - a kind of mirror of the Natural History/Pitt Rivers complex that used to resonate so intensely with me when I was 19.