March 25, 2015

Some of the world’s museum secrets revealed in #museumweek

Linking Horn, Metal History


European museum

Before I wanted to sit at home and write novels, I wanted to be an archaeologist. I imagined my time divided between shifting aside sand with a paintbrush to reveal gleaming artefacts underneath, and sitting in the dusty corner of a museum storage room, pulling out box after box of pottery sherds and faience beads and trying to piece them back together with tweezers. Archaeology was what I studied in university and, even though I had to turn to writing after it became apparent no one wanted to hire a blind archaeologist, the love of history – and museums – has never left me. I’ve worked in four museums and galleries here in New Zealand, and one day I may yet return to those gleaming display cases and dusty storage rooms to uncover more of the secrets of the past.

When I travel, the first place I usually look when I arrive in a town is the Atlas Obscura and any list of local museums and galleries. I’m fascinated not just with the collections themselves, but with how they’re displayed and the stories curators are trying to tell. I find the history of museums themselves fascinating, and I love nothing more than booking myself onto all the behind-the-scenes tours or contacting curators directly to get a glimpse at the world behind the public displays.

So, for the last few days I’ve been watching the #museumweek hashtags on Twitter with interest. #MuseumWeek is an international celebration of all things museum and learning, and it’s just the kind of hashtag I can get behind. There’s a different theme for every day of the week, with one of the themes centred around the hashtag #secretsmw. Here, curators share hidden treasures, strange tales and behind-the-scenes glimpses into the past and present of some of the world’s greatest museums.

Here are a few of the more interesting entries:

From The Getty Museum:

The Morgan Library reveals a secret bookshelf … behind a bookshelf. Allegedly, this was where Pierpont Morgan kept some of his more “private” reading materials. Nudge nudge, wink wink, say no more. The Grant Museum want to know what’s behind this tiny door, but they’ve never found the key. Personally, I’d be breaking that sucker down, as I can’t handle not knowing. (Some friends of mine once lived in a house that had a room with no doors and no windows. When I stayed over there, we used to sleep in the room next to it. My friend Linley and I spent hours one night pressing against the wall trying to find a way in. I found a panel I’m sure was the place but no way to open it. Sadly, the house was burnt down by an arsonist, and the mystery was never solved. But how do you own a house with a room like that and NOT open it up?) Some museums, like the High Museum, give you a glimpse into behind-the-scenes of running an exhibition: 

I also loved this diagram from an old Guggenheim director, Hilla Rebay, on constructing a harmonized exhibition.

In 1933, a trained dog protected the Museum of Modern Art from burglers.

The National Museum of American History prove that that academics know how to party, when they reveal their staff once put on a faux-scholarly conference about corn. Yes, they are all dressed in giant corn costumes.

corn conference atlanta museum

The corn “conference”

The National Portrait Gallery in London keeps beehives on its roof, and they sell the honey to local shops. How cool is that?


Image from the Brooklyn Museum


The Brooklyn Museum posted this archival image of an old exhibition of plaster reproductions of famous European sculptures. Before it became commercially viable to fly actual works of art around the world on exhibition circuits, creating reproductions of famous works was a common way to share collections in the Americas. When displaying reproductions fell out of favour, the curator reports that these plaster statues “mysteriously disappeared. Rumour has it they were put to rest beneath our parking lot.”

abraham lincoln profile

If you have a keen eye, look closely at this painting of the Founding Fathers from the US National Archives, and see if you can spot Lincoln’s profile.

The Royal Academy shared a grisly tale of three artists who wanted to prove that traditional depictions of Christ’s crucifixion were anatomically incorrect. So, they had this body crucified, flayed and then cast to serve as a model of how the muscles and skin looked during crucifixion.

An archival drawing from the St. Pauls Collections showed Christopher Wren had no idea how he was going to build the dome until rather late in the piece.

From the Smithsonian, the truth about crystal skulls. A fascinating read about the history of fakes and what they tell a curator about ourselves. Also from the Smithsonian, the story of Grover Kranz, who donated his body to science, one the condition that his dogs be kept with him. If anyone has ever seen a pic of the swimsuit I own, Grover & his dog are the skeletons adorning it.

Interns at AM History Museum make deodorant from a 1930 recipe.

There are tons and tons more, if you follow #museumweek and #secretsmw on Twitter.

The Sunken, my dark fantasy novel, is now available on Amazon.

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