First off, I must give a North London Shout Out to my fellow nerd Laura Blower (aka Blow Town – we like to give each other potential rap names, should the need for a swift career change ever arise), who has form for generously giving me nerd-tastic books. For my last birthday Laura bought me the excellent A History of the World in 100 Objects which told the story of humanity through objects from the British Museum, and The Secret Museum, this year’s birthday treat, has a similar story to tell but instead through sixty objects which museums keep hidden from public view due to limitations of space, insurance premiums, or environment.
It is an eclectic feast of knowledge, opening myriad lines of discovery across a wide-range of disciplines: science (Newton’s apple!), art (Van Gogh’s notebooks!) fashion (16th century ‘slap-soled’ shoes!), sport (the original plans for Wimbledon Tennis Courts!), war (a flag from the Battle of Trafalgar!), dance (Margaret Fonteyn’s tutu!) and more. My favourite discoveries were the ocean-floor paintings which artist Zarh Pritchard actually painted underwater (UNDERWATER! It’s enough to Blow Town your mind bruv), the sad tale of the friendship book scribbled in by dear Anne Frank, and the ephemera accidentally discarded by 17th century visitors to the first museum in Britain, The Ark in Lambeth, and discovered under its floorboards during building renovations in 1999. The latter made me want to lift up the floorboards of our Victorian home and find our own pieces of history, but The Jason has forbidden me.
This book is also a tribute to museums themselves: their evolution from being the homes of collectors who wanted to show off their treasures, such as the aforementioned Ark, which became the Ashmolean; their quirky curators, such as the Jesuit Brother Guy who runs the observatory at the Vatican; and their ongoing contribution to the good of mankind through the facilitation of research and the retention of our collective knowledge.
I did have a couple of gripes, though. Molly, if you are given special access to a fascinating artefact which is usually hidden from public view, then give us plebs a decent, full-page photo of it to dribble over! I also grew weary of Molly’s casual references to her ‘well-connectedness’, such as being at a dinner party with an old pal of David Attenborough’s (#standardforadinnerpartyright) and, upon realizing she is the daughter of Mike ‘I am the 80s’ Oldfield, cried ‘Well we all know Tubular Bells pays the bills don’t we?!!’ I then removed the massive working-class chip from my shoulder and accepted I was simply jealous of Molly’s far-flung travels and opportunities to gaze on such treasured objects. It’s a super book. Sorry Molly – and thank you Laura!