The Secret Museum

Molly Oldfield

In many ways, this is an excellent and intriguing book. Oldfield managed to gain access to sixty museums and was allowed to view objects never seen by the public.  Each entry covers one of these objects.  They range from the sad – Anne Frank’s friendship book, and sketches of missing art looted by the Nazis – to the exceedingly rare and priceless – manuscripts, documents, and even Alfred Noble’s will.  Entries include a monk’s robe that belonged to an abbot who tried assassinating the thirteen Dalai Lama. His monastery was dissolved over the shame and their treasures sold in the Buddhist version of a garage sale.  Other pieces include rare and extinct animals, memorabilia of famous people (such as Stanley’s hat from his African travels) and Van Gogh’s sketchbook.  Each item is rare, unique and fascinating.

However, I do have some major complaints about the book.  Each entry has an entire page devoted to a front-piece of sorts with name and location of the item. Despite taking up an entire page, there is no address (beyond city and country), web address or other information on where the items are.  Many of these cannot ever be viewed by the public, but are still housed in open museums and other locations with excellent collections.

The following page has a third of the page devoted to a large quote.  This text is lifted directly from the rest of the content and adds nothing, merely taking up space. The sides and tops of the pages are illustrated with hand-drawn illustrations.  A few are pretty good, but many are clunky, unnecessary and obnoxiously twee for the content.

The actual images of the items are crammed into the sidebars and are less than 2 inches wide.  These miniscule images are what interest me most.  Why they are relegated to such minor location is beyond me.  Many are not great images, taken in situ in the drawers where they currently reside.  But they are nonetheless immensely interesting. These should be the focal point of each items  section.

Finally, the author writes in a very familiar, conversational tone.  While some commentary on what it is like to visit dark museum basements and hidden back-rooms is interesting, her attempts to drag the topic of every time back to herself is very annoying. It seems highly unprofessional and unnecessary.

Perhaps a future edition will have these design and writing flaws edited out.  I think it would be a much finer book for it.