Sunday, June 9, 2013


I rarely do full book reviews here...which is odd, given the amount I read and the fact I am a Librarian.

But I read the most remarkable book yesterday that I have to share.

It is called The Secret Museum and is by Molly Oldfield.

Molly is a researcher for QI, amongst other things. The book is a lovely small sized coffee table book about hidden treasures in museums of the world.

Many museums, galleries and libraries do not have all of their collection on show, in fact usually it is a very small percentage that one can see. The items are moved around to make the most of the collection, but most have some items that they NEVER show. This is usually because they are too large to place on display, or too small to showcase properly, they are rare, light may effect their wellbeing or other odd reasons.

Molly goes to many museums and gets to see some of these amazing items. The book was full of fascinating information of these items, and the history behind them. I was transfixed.

So here are a few that tickled my fancy, but are only a small amount of those mentioned.

The Gutenberg Bible - Morgan Library, New York
Below the amazing Morgan Library are three floors of vaulted materials, all underground. I think I was amazed by that more than what might be in these vaults. Amongst the treasures is one of the first Gutenberg Bibles...which is the first known book.

Spacesuits - Smithsonian Storage Facility, Maryland
First off, I had no idea this facility even existed, Maryland is outside of Washington where the main Smithsonian Museums are. The facility has a range of spacesuits, all worn by various people who have made that trip up into space. They are housed specially as some of them have moon dust on them...moon dust!!!! They are working on the most special one of all, have been for some time, trying to restore it, but being careful with the moon dust...that suit belongs to Neil Armstrong of course!

3 pieces of Mars - Vatican Observatory
Just outside of Rome is the Vatican Observatory and YES they have three pieces of Mars. The book details how they came to be distinguished as pieces of Mars. And then when the Mars Rover went up they could validate their theory. Amazing stuff. Apparently other scientific and space labs have pieces too. They fall to Earth quite regularly!

Vladimir Nabokov's Butterfly Genitalia Cabinet - Museum of Contemporary Zoology, Harvard University
Yes, it takes a while to get your head around this one. When Nabokov was not writing books, he was a foremost Butterfly expert and worked out of Harvard, being appointed curator in 1942!! He collected and identified many new species of Butterflies, 20 of which are named in his honour. His room is much as it was, just someone new in his spot, and some computers now. But this curiosity is not as racy as it may seem, though it is Nabokov we are talking about. The genitalia (YES, Butterfly penises to be exact!!!) are how one can distinguish between some species. They are collected and stored in a small cabinet and kept under wraps as they are incredibly fragile.

Dickens's Letter opener - New York Public Library
This will fascinate some, but why so has the paw of his cat, Bob, on the end of it!! Bob the cat, loved to go through Dickens's mail and help him, so when the cat passed on, he had the paw fixed to a letter opener. Also with the collection are his collection of prompts. This fascinated me, as I had never heard of them. Dickens loved to perform his own material, so he took the best or favourite scenes from his novels and placed them in a separate book of 'prompts' for him to read from whilst performing. These are one off books and housed at the New York Public Library too, how wonderful!

Archives - Roald Dahl Museum, Buckinghamshire, England
Now, I did not know such a museum existed, got to stick that on my travel list. Amongst other things, the museum houses his archives, which is fairly standard except for one piece. This piece is remarkable, it is the first thing Dahl kept or archived. It is a letter from C.S. Forester's agent stating quite simply that Dahl should be a writer. Basically it is the piece of correspondence that changed his life and without it, we may have never been entertained by his stunning array of work!! Forester had interviewed Dahl for war stories, he had heard about Dahl's experiences during the war and felt he could get some great stories for his own books. They met and chatted and Forester was so transfixed he took no notes. He asked Dahl to write them down for him, but was so overcome with how well they were written, he sent them to his agent, who in turn wrote this letter. What a turn of events!!

Animals - Museum National d'Historie Naturelle, Paris
Underneath this natural history museum there are 3 floors of animals, stuffed, taxidermied or in jars. The thought of a complete zoo or Ark underground in Paris is rather fascinating.

Livingstone and Stanley's hats - Royal Geographic Society, London
Keep under wraps behind the scene, but side by side.

The hidden Miro mural - Guggenheim, New York
This is quite the story. Inside the entrance to the Guggenheim is a large white wall, this is a false wall hiding a Miro Mural! The mural was commissioned as a memorial for Harry F Guggenheim's wife, Alicia. It was displayed for some time, but it was felt the piece overwhelmed everything else on display and the false wall was built to hide it. Occasionally it is knocked down to reveal the hidden mural, but mostly it stays unnoticed.

An unopened book - Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston
I know this museum well, and would love to visit it one day. I read a fabulous book about a large heist that was pulled there back in 1990, the items still lost. Isabella began collecting in the late 1800s after her son died at age 2, and with an inheritance from her father. Distraught from her sons death, she took to travel. She loved art and especially Venice. After her husband died in 1898, she began to build a museum/house in a Venetian style (in Boston)to house her works. It remains today, her collection is the largest private collection in the world amassed by one person, and a woman too! There are many books within the collection, but one that is rarely seen by others, so much so, only a handful of people know what is in it. The author was lucky to arrange a visit on one of the special invitation only evenings where a few pages of the book were to be shown. It was quite the experience and the book is one of 11 volumes from Naples (the rest remain in Italy) and is an illuminated manuscript of Gregorian chants. The book includes the actual music, with notations very different to what we know today.

Friendship book - Anne Frank's House, Amsterdam
I left this very special piece until last and will admit it had me in tears. The friendship book belonged to Juultje, a school friend of Anne Frank. It is kept locked up due to it's fragility. Like Anne, Juultje didn't make it out of the concentration camp. Friendship books were little books where friends wrote words of encouragement to the owner of the book. It was given to Juultje on her 11th birthday and Anne was 10 when she wrote this beautiful poem:

Dear Juultje,
What shall I write here?
Wait, Dear Juul, I have an idea;
Good health and all the best!
Be good and full of zest,
and whatever fate may be divining.
Remember, every cloud has a silver lining.
In memory of your friend,
Anne Frank.

Ten. Years. Old. 

Wise beyond her years, intelligent, a way with words, so chilling and sad.

There is many more items within this amazing book, lots of drawings and such, but the disappointing thing, no pictures of these items. I guess they are hidden for a reason, but knowing they exist made me smile.


Simon said...

Thank you for sharing that book, it sounds fascinating. Will keep an eye open for it. The author must have had a real adventure doing the research!

Cathy said...

I had no idea what it was when I ordered it, but what a gem! Imagine flying around the world to research behind the scenes at museums! My dream job! So much more than what I wrote, worth having a look at.