As a child, one of the treats of the year was members’ night at the Field Museum. We’d get to go to the top floor of the museum where the researchers worked and see the stuff that wasn’t on display, that was being actively used in research. More than anything else, what remains in my mind was cabinets filled with drawer upon drawer of beetles on pins from around the world. The idea of beetles inches long with monstrous horns was such a bizarre and wonderful thing, it’s a wonder that I never became an entomologist. This was the first hint I had that a museum is much more than the objects in the glass display cases in the public areas of the building.
Molly Oldfield sets out to write about some of the artifacts at assorted museums (mostly in England, but a handful in Brazil, the United States, Canada and continental Europe) that are not on display. The cover promises “some treasures are too precious to display…” but that’s not always the case of the items she discusses here. Some are just too big to display (a flag from the Battle of Trafalgar, a whale skeleton), in some cases, the items will be on display as soon as the museum reopens or the rubble of a statue is reassembled from its World War II damage.
The library’s copy was previously read by someone who seemed to have an ever-growing distaste for Oldfield, starting out by pointing out apparent contradictions with the anonymous reader’s apex of disgust reached with the pencilled note, “It’s all about you, all the time, isn’t it Molly?” Some of the apparent contradictions this reader found are, in fact, not contradictions at all (for example, that the field at Wimbledon could be seen from every seat yet a hundred seats had partially obstructed views). Still, it became a challenge to read this book without the sense of the previous reader looking over my shoulder, one of the curious effects of reading a public library copy of a book.
I would have liked there to be more of a narrative constructed from the disparate items in the book. At times, Oldfield refers back to other objects she had seen in her research, but it feels as if there could have been even more of this done, creating the sense that one discovery inspired the journey to make the next, something which could have made this a more compelling read rather than an anthology of short pieces on the parts of the museum’s collection that aren’t on display.