Every now and then I tell myself that I won’t buy any more books until… I get rid of some/ I have brought this week’s food/ it is next April/ crocodiles walk the streets of Dunedin… yeah, nah… it never works. On Sunday, I just read the next new member of the family: The Secret Museum (Collins) by Molly Oldfield, I was only about a quarter of the way in and I realised that yes, money would be being spent to acquire my own copy.
It is just great: fascinating, startling and personal. Oldfield is a question writer and researcher for the very popular TV quiz show QI, where she has (luckily for us) spent her time honing her ability to bring the most interesting and entertaining fragments of information to light. She also writes a weekly QI column in the Saturday Telegraph and researches QI‘s sister Radio 4 programme, The Museum of Curiosity.
Most of a museum’s collection never gets seen. It sits in the quiet dark of an archive waiting for a treasure hunter or obsessive researcher to root out its very existence. Actually, as this book makes clear, and as I discovered on a Rare Book Tour at Dunedin Public Library, anyone can ask to see most museum’s hidden collections and then, pretty much almost anyone can see them. The curators really like it when people want to see what they are looking after. These are not secrets being jealously guarded from the hoi polloi (although some are unusual and valuable enough for Dan Brown to weave a pretty tale around), but objects often too fragile to be on display or which, along with many other millions of items held by museums, have slipped into the limbo of storage.
Oldfield goes to all sorts of museums all over the world, sometimes on the lookout for a particular artifact, sometimes just asking the curators what they have, that they think is really interesting. One of the best things about the book is Oldfield’s warm and spontaneous writing style, which captures her own sense of delight, surprise and wonder – it is like you are walking through the shelves and boxes with her and suddenly she grabs your arm, saying “ooh, look at this…” and you are off on a looping tangent before returning to the original treasure. Photos of the objects are small and there are very pleasing watercolour illustrations, which seems counter-intuitive in a book about objects, but as with Neil MacGregor’s fabulous A History of the World in 100 Objects (Penguin), the lack of high-res image is simply not an issue. The object is interesting but the meaning of it, the response to it, its importance in the story of how humans inhabit, describe and understand the world, tells us just as much.
The tokens left by mothers leaving their babies at London’s Foundling Hospital (broken/cut in half, so when the token bearer returned the halves could be matched and the right baby be returned to the right mother) are so sad, as are the optimistic, forward-looking words Anne Frank wrote in a friend’s autograph book. The 16th century scroll-history of an under threat Mixtec culture held at the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, the sculptures taken from the 6100 to 5400 BCE Tell Halaf site in Syria, then bombed to bits (and since pieced together) in Berlin, and the Haida shaman’s puffin-beak rattle in a medical museum in London, indicate the long, and strange journeys objects take from their beginnings.
I liked the tale Oldfield tells of going to see one of the few extant feathered Hawai’ian headdresses, tucked up securely in the dark: I remember going to what was the Dominion Museum as a child in Wellington, one of the displays was all dark – you pressed a button and a dim light illuminated, for a pre-set time, one of the feathered helmets presented to Captain Cook. I suspect it too is now stashed away, sleeping safely. Like Margot Fonteyn’s delicate ballet tutus at the Royal Opera House Historical Costumes Store in Kent, England; the hats doffed by Stanley and Livingstone at their historic meeting in Africa (pith helmet and flat cap respectively) held by the Royal Geographical Society; the spacesuits (complete with moon dust) each astronaut once wore lying on 5-level bunks at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Travel Storage Facility in Suitland (I kid you not), Massachusetts…
You see, like Oldfield, once you start you cannot stop just exploding with all the new things you have learnt. Good thing I’m going to buy the book…