The Secret Museum

There are layers upon layers, worlds behind worlds, multiple lives within dreams and, who knows, universes within universes. Much of what we see and experience is above the surface-based. A fully immersive existence is impossible, some secrets best kept locked and forgotten. However, culturally speaking, the loss is significant. It’s a tragedy.
It is a truth universally known that most collections belonging to museums and galleries remain hidden, to all intents buried from public view. This period of unavoidable incarceration is long, so much so that works of art, historical documents and antiquities are forgotten, lost histories gathering dust.
How can you remember something that you never knew existed? No audience, no perception of reality and therefore, no existence. These objects are caught in a strange place. They only ever come alive rarely, when researchers, academics and aficionados revive them from their Snow White slumber.
One such individual who has been exploring this mystical, mysterious and marvellous world is Molly Oldfield, a writer and researcher for the comedy quiz show QI, which is fronted by the ebullient and informed Stephen Fry.
In her new book The Secret Museum, Ms Oldfield takes us on a behind the scenes tour of this fantasy land. Locked away in all sorts of places – from cabinets to vaults to even aircraft hangers – lies some of the most interesting, beautiful and thought-provoking items and artefacts known to man. They remain in such spaces for a number of reasons, as the author explains in her illustrated tome.
“Sometimes, objects are too precious to exhibit and for their own security need to be kept securely in a vault,” she writes. “Sometimes it is a question of size – there isn’t space in a museum and it’s impossible to effectively display tiny, microscopic specimens.”
It’s also a matter of space, namely the lack of it, she continues: There simply isn’t any room within the confines of a museum or gallery to actually showcase everything in their respective collections.
Take for example natural history institutions. In general, 90 to 99 per cent of their specimens are not on show. They exist behind closed doors, waiting, for the most part, to be breathed back into life by specialists like researchers and climate change experts.
“The seedling of this book was fed and watered with the help of curators and conservators at each museum: keepers of the keys to the hidden realms,” Ms Oldfield explains.
“Each time a door was unlocked and a curator ushered me into the collection they knew so well I found myself in a world of stories, lucky enough to be with the one person on Earth who could best explain the significance of the objects that surrounds us.”
Some of the treasures she discovers are truly amazing. Take the Diamond Sutra at the British Library in London. By virtue of its date – it was printed in AD 868 – the book, which documents a teaching by Buddha to his disciple Subhuti, is the earliest tome of its kind in the world.
It was discovered in a cave in China, along with thousands of other Buddhist paintings, sculptures and texts. Technically a scroll, it is rarely displayed due to its fragile nature. Paper such as the one it was produced on is weak and susceptible to light.
Other delights include fragments of Isaac Newton’s apple tree at The Royal Society in London. The story is famous enough. The famous physicist was sitting under the tree when an apple fell to the ground and voila, an idea has gestated. Why didn’t it fall upwards or sideways? The answer would lead him to the discovery of gravity.
The tree itself was blown over in 1800 but pieces of it were rescued. To look at they may seem like nothing much, a splinter of wood that would be missed in a forest. However, they are much more than their physical selves. They represent a milestone in human thinking, the kind that has helped transform humanity.
Where once such things were out of sight and therefore out of mind, thanks to Ms Oldfield’s book, we now have the luxury to see, feel and experience these enchanting entities. Such things, after all, should not go unknown, though we can certainly appreciate why in some cases they remain safely and securely locked up.
The Secret Museum can be found in all good bookshops … on display.
Cadogan Tate works with museums, galleries and collectors when devising shipping solutions.