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From Nelson’s Flag to Astronaut Moon Dust: Revealing the Hidden Objects of Museums

article-imageFlag from the Battle of Trafalgar at the National Maritime Museum in London (all images courtesy Harper Collins)

What’s on display in museums is just a fraction of the fascinating objects held in their collections. For reasons of size, delicacy, lack of space, or lack of historical context, these objects remain invisible. In The Secret Museum, a new book by Molly Oldfield, 60 of these objects are revealed, from Van Gogh’s sketchbooks, to a space suit covered in moon dust, to Queen Victoria’s dental tools, to Dr. Livingstone and Henry Morton Stanley’s hats from their famous meeting in Africa. Oldfield answered some of our questions about her book of invisible curiosities below:

Did any artifact act as your sort of rabbit hole into the world of secret museums?

Yes! A pair of Anglerfish — a big female and a tiny male that I think of as the world’s worst boyfriend — tripped me into the rabbit hole that led through the worlds of museum archives and their stories and secret treasures. 

How the whole book began was the fish curators at the Natural History Museum in South Kensington, London, invited me to look behind the scenes at their secret fish. 

I saw fish collected by Darwin on the Beagle, put my head in a shark’s jaws, played with swordfish swords, peered into the eye of a Giant Squid, saw freakish specimens donated to the museum by Damien Hirst, and above all realized that there is far more below the surface in every museum than there is out on show. I had no idea this was the case before I saw the Anglerfish and their fishy friends, and so began my adventure.

article-imageStatue of Exu (a god in the religion Candomble) in the Museu Afro-Brasileiro, Brazil

You have 60 objects scattered around the five continents. How has this research changed your ideas on our world’s museums?

I actually only included Europe and the Americas in terms of museums – I pretty much went wherever I had a friend whom I could crash with whilst I was there, so as to keep the budget down. Otherwise, if I had oodles of money I would have kept going, to Asia, Africa, Australasia…   I also really wanted to go to the West Coast of America — maybe I will do for a sequel. However, yes, the objects come from all the continents, that’s the beauty of museums — you can travel across the globe through the gems in museum collections. 

What I found really interesting was that the flavor of each museum archive was so different in each country. In England, there were lots of eccentric curators, stories and artifacts from all over the world. In America, the Smithsonian was like – “Let me get this straight, you want to see our more iconic objects that are NOT on display?” – they were quite surprised by my request! In Germany, lots of their museum collections were related to war (things had been stolen, other things burned or destroyed by fire or by the bombing).  However in Brazil it was the total opposite of Germany — it was vibrant and fun and I ended up drinking fresh coconuts on the beach with Graca, curator of the Afro-Brazilian museum in Salvador. In Monaco I made notes on the balcony of the curator’s office, which overlooked the sparkling ocean. 

article-image.Gutenberg Bible of Vellum at the Morgan Library, NYC

You must have had a much greater list of objects than there was room for. How did you choose what to include?

There were a lot of objects on the long list that didn’t make it in, but the book sorted itself out easily really as I wrote about the things I loved the most. In some cases I put things in for my Grandfather. He loved Anthony Trollope and had read every one of his novels bar one he started but didn’t enjoy – so I put in the chapter about the first post-box, which Trollope invented. I like it a lot because every time I post a letter I think of Trollope, and of course my wonderful Grandfather. He is also the reason for the sketches of Churchill, and the flag from the Battle of Trafalgar and the story about Nelson. 

article-imagePerparatory sketch of Churchill, from a painting by Graham Sutherland that was mysteriously set on fire.

Do you connect what you’re doing to what someone like Fred Wilson does with his art installations, in going into collections and finding what’s overlooked in order to say something about the museum and its history at large?

No not really. I chose instinctively really, picking things I loved as objects, and for their stories, things I felt like writing about. I think the two exhibitions I found quite inspiring whilst I was writing the book were Grayson Perry’s show at the British Museum, which I saw when I was quite near the end of writing my book, and it gave me a boost to get it finished, and also The Museum of Everything (I really enjoyed their show of outsider art in Primrose Hill, which I saw right at the beginning). I had a good chat about my book in its very early stages there with friends in their lovely cafe. I was definitely interested in the different reasons why something might not be on display — and that’s reflected in the book — but above all I wanted to bring objects that are rarely seen, hidden treasures of each collection, out into the light to tell their stories in The Secret Museum.  

article-imageHarrison Schmitt’s space suit covered in moon dust in the Smithsonian space suit storage facility.

Could you give some examples of your favorite objects in the book?

The space suit covered in moon dust in the space suit storage at the Smithsonian is a firm favorite — how brilliant to get so close to the moon without leaving earth. I loved reading the Gutenberg Bible in the Morgan Library in New York, because it was the very same bible that Gutenberg himself made and touched as he was creating a way of making books, back in his workshop in Mainz. The day I went into the bunker of the Peggy Guggenheim collection in Venice was sublime — I was bathed in beauty and sunshine all day and then got to eat incredible food and go out in Venice. 

Nelson’s flag — which was flown at the Battle of Trafalgar from a Spanish warship and then at his funeral — is a one of a kind, enormous object and one I often think about. That has never been exhibited as there is simply no space, but now it has features in my book, several newspaper/magazine articles, and blogs. The shaman’s rattle made of puffin beaks was great because I chatted with people of the Haida tribe and found out more of their story directly from them. New Year’s Eve will never be the same since I saw Rabbie Burn’s handwritten lyrics to “Auld Lang Syne” in the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. 

article-imageTwo Golden Bees and a Camari from the Glass Palace in Burma (now in the Victoria & Albert museum storage collection.

I loved hearing “Song 21” and reading all about the tribe in the Canadian Arctic who sung it. I had a fantastic time with Irving Finkel, curator of cuneiform languages, and really liked the story of the Assyrian king — the last Arabian night style king — and his clay tablet exercise book he wrote on when he was learning to read. The golden bees that once adorned a throne in the Glass Palace in Burma really appealed to me as I had read about the Burmese Royal family who were sent into exile in India, and the bees enriched my understanding of their story. I love them all really – I’d pretty much need to recite the entire contents of The Secret Museum to answer the question fully! I’ll spare you though as hopefully you’ll dip in and find your own favourite treasures to enjoy.   

The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield is available from Harper Collins. You can visit her website at mollyoldfield.com and and find her on Twitter at @mollyoldfield.