Take our museum quiz by Cambridge author who delved into their mysteries
Where can you find a cursed chair? Which painting is the most frequently vandalised in the world? What is on the FBI’s list of stolen art?
A Museum Miscellany, by Cambridge author Claire Cock-Starkey celebrates the intriguing world of galleries and museums, from national institutions such as the Musée du Louvre, the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art to niche collections such as the Lawnmower Museum and the Museum of Barbed Wire.
The book collects together museum-related facts, statistics and lists, covering everything from museum ghosts, minerals that can only be found in museum drawers, and dangerous objects, to cabinets of curiosity and the Museum of London’s fatberg.
Claire said: “I love compiling lists or little potted histories and when I’m reading stuff it’s those strange, curious things that catch my eye.”
To research her Miscellany book series – which also includes A Library Miscellany and The Book Lovers’ Miscellany – she often spends days in the British Museum, surrounded by dusty old volumes.
“Often you can find these sorts of treasures in older books because they used to look at information in a different way. Now I feel like we are much more news-based, but museums used to be more story-based, and those are what I hunt for in old books. I also do a lot of internet research, just reading things, keeping my eyes open. being a magpie and visiting museums and looking for the different stories I can tell.
“I tend to like dark, strange things mostly. For example, when I was writing about the dioramas at the American Natural History Museum, which are made from big stuffed animals, one of the early taxidermists who created them went out to Africa to get animals for the African Hall. And while he was doing it he actually got attacked by a leopard and fought it to the death – the death was the leopard’s, not his. It’s those kinds of stories that I love.”
As she lives on the outskirts of Cambridge, Claire also makes good use of the city’s museums.
“I absolutely love all the Cambridge museums and I take my kids a lot. I think my favourite is probably the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology because I’m a bit of an archaeology fan. And I love Sedgwick because you can open the drawers and see the collection. I also enjoy the Museum of Zoology at Cambridge and taking pictures of the crazy taxidermy, because there’s something so wonderful about a wonky eye,” she laughs. “And the Fitzwilliam is really classy. We are so lucky in Cambridge that there are so many wonderful museums here.”
The Fitzwilliam Museum is mentioned in her book under ‘museum breakages’. This particular breakage happened in 2006 when a visitor tripped over his shoelaces and tumbled down a staircase, smashing into three Chinese Qing dynasty vases, said to be worth around £100,000.
Claire says: “I feel like I’m the kind of person who would fall down some stairs and smash a Qing vase. The horror of someone accidentally smashing artwork... hopefully he has been banned for life from ever visiting a museum again.”
Claire discovered other suitably mortifying disasters including a child who vomited over display at the Tate Modern and a woman who got her skirt caught in a Tracy Emin neon light installation in a Scottish museum and ripped a piece of it.
She also details the story of a man who “was talking about a painting and then inexplicably managed to punch massive hole in it”.
“It’s just a comedy of errors,” she says. “But some people have also damaged exhibits on purpose. The Night Watchman, the famous painting by Rembrandt, has been attacked on three occasions by people who just had a grudge against it – it has been slashed with knives and had stuff thrown at it. So now it is displayed between a massive protective screen. They also have a track beneath it so they can whisk it away if anyone tries to attack it again. It is an iconic panting and it is really huge, so I suppose that’s why it attracted attention, but there is no ideological reason why people would want to attack it. It has just become something that people repeat.”
Some of her favourite stories are about spooky museum items, of which Thomas Busby’s chair is one of the weirdest. In North Yorkshire in 1702, innkeeper Thomas Busby was sentenced to death for the murder of his father-in-law. Before he was taken to the gallows, the story goes, he sat in his favourite chair for a last drink. And afterwards he cursed the chair, which eventually ended up in the Thirsk Museum.
Claire says: “The cursed chair is particularly cool. It was said that if you sat in this chair you would die. People started to believe it and would tell stories of how people sat in it and had soon afterwards died. So they had to hang the chair on the wall of the museum because they were terrified someone would come to the museum, sit on the chair and then something dreadful would happen to them.”
She adds that often an
item in a museum becomes important because of the story attached to it.
“The more the story is told, the more it adds to the fascination of the object, and unless you can tell that story you are just looking at a chair. But if you find out that the chair is cursed and people who sat in it were supposed to have died, it suddenly becomes a fascinating object.”
Another chair that makes it into the book is the actor David Garrick’s chair, which is in the Victoria and Albert Museum and is said to be haunted by the ghost of his wife.
“There is a cushion on it that it says deflates a couple of times a day when she sits on it,” says Claire.
What does she think makes the perfect museum? “A lot of modern ones have been put together so brilliantly to tell a story. I recently took the children to the Museum of London and the way they had laid it out you were literally walking through the story of London,” says Claire. “But at the same time I love museums that are really specific to one place, little local museums with local stories.
“It’s the museums that have barely changed and keep that Victorian aesthetic that I love the most because it gives you a glimpse into what a museum used to be like. I think that’s one of the reasons I love the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford as they have kept it almost exactly how it was when it was created by Augustus Pitt Rivers. It is really eclectic,including a collection of shrunken heads.”
Claire, who came to write the Miscellany series after working with Ben Schott on the Schott’s Miscellany Almanacks, has compiled a quiz for readers to test their knowledge on some quirky museum facts.
1. Which museum consistently tops the list of the most visited museum or gallery in the world?
a) National Museum of China
b) The Louvre
c) Metropolitan Museum of Art
d) The British Museum
2. The Whipple Museum in Cambridge has a huge collection of scientific instruments including over 400 microscopes. One of their star objects is a microscope belonging to which celebrated scientist?
a) Charles Darwin
b) Isaac Newton
c) Stephen Hawking
d) Galileo Galilei
3. True or false: The Night Watch by Rembrandt depicts a night scene?
4. The world’s smallest museum is housed inside what?
a) A tea-chest
b) A canoe
c) A telephone box
d) A shipping container
5. In 1816 Viscount Fitzwilliam bequeathed his collection to the University of Cambridge for the foundation of a museum in his name, but how many years did it take until the museum opened?
6. How many stuffed elephants feature in the American Museum of Natural History’s famous Hall of African Mammals diorama?
7. Which Cambridge museum holds a number of ichthyosaur specimens collected by trail-blazing palaeontologist Mary Anning?
a) The Scott Polar Museum
b) The Museum of Zoology
c) The Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
d) The Sedgwick Museum
8. The largest single property theft took place in 1990 when thieves made off with artworks worth over $500 million from Boston’s Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, but how did the thieves disguise themselves?
a) As clowns
b) As museum guards
c) As police officers
d) As cleaners
9. How long did it take Picasso to paint his huge mural painting Guernica?
a) 3 weeks
b) 3 months
c) 3 days
d) 3 years
10. Put these Cambridge museums in the order that they were first opened:
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology
The Sedgwick Museum
11. What part of Sir John Heydon is preserved at Norwich Castle Museum? Bonus points if you know how the body part became separated from its owner.
12. The Museum of Zoology in Cambridge has the skeleton of a Fin Whale suspended from the roof of the foyer, but how big is it?
a) 12 metres long
b) 122 metres long
c) 7 metres long
d) 21 metres long
13. Since 2018 the Museum of London have displayed a sample of the largest fatberg ever discovered – but just how big was it?
a) 27 metres long
b) 127 metres long
c) 526 metres long
d) 250 metres long
14. The Louvre is the largest art museum in the world. If you spent just 30 seconds looking at each object in the museum, how many days would it take you to see the whole collection?
a) 100 days
b) 10 days
c) 1,000 days
d) 57 days
15. It has long been tradition for incoming US presidents to request the loan of some artworks from America’s museums. Which artwork did Donald Trump request (and was refused)?
a) Whaam! by Roy Lichtenstein
b) Dogs Playing Poker by Cassius Marcellus Coolidge
c) Landscape with Snow by Van Gogh
d) Water Lillies by Monet
1.b) The Louvre has held the top spot of most visited museums for a number of years with a peak of 9.3 million visitors in 2015.
2. Charles Darwin. The museum holds Darwin’s achromatic microscope which was made by James Smith in 1846. Darwin used the microscope for his work on barnacles and plants.
3. False. The Night Watch does not in fact depict a night scene, it is just the layers and layers of varnish applied to the work over the years which have caused it to appear as if the scene is set at night. The painting completed in 1642 is actually entitled ‘Officers and Other Civic Guardsmen of District II Amsterdam’ but became popularly known as The Night Watch from the 18th century.
4. The World’s smallest museum is the Warley Museum in West Yorkshire whose collection is housed inside an old red telephone box.
5. 32. The museum opened in 1848 for members of the university and was open to the public 3 days a week.
6. 8 elephants appear in the diorama, one of which was shot and killed by Theodore Roosevelt.
7. d) The Sedgwick Museum
8. c) As police officers. The thieves arrived before the museum opened for the day pretending that they were responding to a disturbance. Once inside they tied up the museum guards and made off with 13 paintings by artists such as Degas, Vermeer and Manet. To date the works have yet to be recovered.
9. a) 3 weeks
Fitzwilliam opened in 1848
Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology opened in 1884
The Sedgwick Museum opened in 1904
Kettles Yard opened in 1966
11. Sir John Heydon’s hand was severed in a duel in 1620 and today resides in an ornate box at Norwich Castle Museum.
12. d) 21 metres long. When the whale was alive it would have weighed a hefty 80 tonnes – equivalent to 8 double decker buses.
13. The fatberg was 250 metres long and weighed in at 130 tonnes. It was largely comprised of grease, congealed oil and wet wipes.
14. a) It has been calculated that it would take 100 days to view every item in the museum’s collection.
15. c) Landscape with Snow by Van Gogh. The Guggenheim refused Trump’s request and instead offered America by Maurizio Cattelan – a fully-functioning gold toilet