HarperCollins
HarperCollins

6 Secret Treasures in the World's Most Famous Museums

HarperCollins
HarperCollins

Molly Oldfield studied at Oxford before becoming a writer and researcher on the BBC television show QI. She has worked on a string of bestselling QI books, writes the weekly QI column for the Daily Telegraph and is a researcher on a BBC4 radio show, The Museum of Curiosity. She met curators and delved into museum basements for her first book, The Secret Museum, which was published in February 2013. For more information, go here.

1. A Flag from the Battle of Trafalgar - The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London

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This enormous flag was flying from the back of a Spanish warship, San Ildefonso, as it fought against the British fleet led by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Its second big moment came when it was hung from the roof of Saint Paul’s Cathedral during Nelson’s funeral service on January 9, 1806, alongside a French flag also captured at Trafalgar, to symbolize the great victory Nelson had won with his bravery, his superior strategy and, finally, his life.

I went to see it inside its cardboard box in storage at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is red and yellow striped, with the arms of Castile and Leon in the middle. The name of the ship is written on the hoist in ink: SAN ILDEFONSO. It has holes in it from where it was shot at during the Battle of Trafalgar, and is frayed on the edges from when it flapped in the winds on the stormy seas.

The museum keeps the flag in storage because it’s very fragile and they simply don’t have the space to hang it. It is 10 metres (32.8 feet) long and 14.5 metres (47.5 feet) high and is the biggest flag in their collection. “It’s a whopper,” said Barbara Tomlinson, curator of antiquities since 1979. "We haven’t ever displayed it officially, but in the 1960s the museum was very naughty and hung it for one day from the front of the Queen’s House," one of main museum buildings. But "it trailed on the floor as it was too big—we wouldn’t get away with that now."

2. Harrison Schmitt’s Spacesuit - The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum Archive, Washington D.C.

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In Nepal, people think the dead live on the moon. Visiting Apollo astronauts have been asked, "When you were on the moon, did you happen to see my auntie?" Since my trip to the storage facility of the National Air and Space Museum, when I look at the moon, I see hundreds of spacesuits, lying quietly in the cold, and two knees, thickly coated in moon dust.

The space suit storage facility Is located, rather appropriately, in Suitland, Maryland—a metro ride from central Washington D.C. A conservator and a curator opened a spacey, silver door, walked us into a middle room like an airlock, and then into a room filled with spacesuits in stasis. The room is narrow, and lined with hundreds of headless bodies on metal bunk beds. In total, there are 287 suits in the collection, but only a little more than half of these are in storage at any time. Each one is referred to by the name of the astronaut who wore it, and each is displayed on a mannequin and laid out flat on its back on the metal bunk beds, five to six bunks high. We pulled back a sheet and uncovered a body.

It was the spacesuit of Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt of Apollo 17, the only scientist to walk on the moon (and the man who took one of the most famous photographs of all time, a photograph of our planet called "The Blue Marble," of the whole Earth lit up by the sun). His spacesuit is covered in grey dust, especially the knees because he spent his time on the moon crawling around collecting rocks. It looks like ash, but it is moon dust.

The moon dust is the reason why this suit is not on display. Most of the suits from the Apollo missions were dry cleaned, but Schmitt's wasn't—his was the last mission to the moon, and NASA decided to keep the suits just as they were when the astronauts returned to our planet. There isn’t currently a way to display the suit safely without destroying it and its otherworldly dust.

I also got to see Neil Armstrong’s suit, and the boots he wore to take his "one giant leap for mankind."

3. A Piece of Newton’s Apple Tree - The Royal Society, London

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I headed downstairs into the basement of the Royal Society (one of the oldest scientific academies in the world), which is stuffed with a quarter of a million manuscripts made up of the musings, publications, and letters of the greatest scientific minds that have ever lived. Mixed in among the books and writings is a piece of Isaac Newton’s apple tree—the one he was sitting beneath when he first considered the idea of gravity.

Pretty much everyone has heard the story about how Newton first described gravity. He was sitting underneath an apple tree when an apple fell from it and bounced off his head. Newton wondered why. His answer? A thing he called gravity. Anyone who has looked deeper into the tale comes up against people saying it wasn’t true. But Newton knew the value of a good anecdote and told it himself. In the Royal Society library, there is a first-hand account of him describing the event to William Stukeley, author of Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life (1752). You can read it here if you like. So the apple tree really did inspire Newton, even if the apple didn’t fall on his head.

Just as Newton had never before considered why it was that apples fall to the ground, I’d never thought about which actual apple tree had inspired him—until I saw several pieces of it behind the scenes at the Royal Society. There are two fragments, as well as two rulers and a prism made from the wood of the tree from his childhood home (it is now dead, but has been re-grafted).

One of the fragments is in a little pink plastic bag, because it had just been on an adventure, up into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2010 so that it could experience zero gravity. The plan was also to drop a real apple on the space station and film whether it was subject to gravity or not. They weren’t able to do the test because an astronaut who didn’t know what they were up to—she will remain nameless—saw the apple lying around and ate it. They could hardly pop out to the shops, so they used a pear instead.

4. The Diamond Sutra - the British Library

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I first heard the words of The Diamond Sutra on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Frances Wood, curator of Chinese works at the British Library, was the guest. She chose, as her first disc, a recording of Buddhist monks and nuns singing The Diamond Sutra.

I had the radio on in the background, but when I heard the enchanting sound of clanging bells and soulful song, I stopped to listen carefully. Before long, the show’s presenter, Kirsty Young, piped up: "That was a recording of Buddhist Monks and nuns of the Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan singing The Diamond Sutra … You said, Frances Wood, that we accrued merit just by playing this?" Frances confirmed, "We did indeed."

Frances went on to talk about the British Library’s copy of The Diamond Sutra. It has the date it was printed marked on the last page—868. This date makes it a world treasure, because it is the earliest dated printed book in the world.

The Diamond Sutra is a teaching given by the Buddha to his disciple, Subhuti. Sutra is the Sanskrit word for "teaching" and the Buddha asked Subhuti to name the lesson "The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom." He said the words of the sutra will cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to teach those who read or chant it what is real and everlasting.

In the teaching, the Buddha explains that chanting it creates merit, or good fortune. Buddhists all over the world chant The Diamond Sutra today, in the same way as it has been chanted for over a millennium. They do this to create merit.

Usually this precious work is kept in a vault in the British Library. It might go on display occasionally, but it’s not likely to stay out for long. Paper is a delicate material and doesn’t react well to light, so it is best if it’s kept inside its wooden box in a special vault—where gas rather than water is sprayed in the event of a fire—with the other most precious books in the British Library.

5. Alicia (1965–67), a mural by Joan Miró and Josep Lloréns Artigas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City

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Inside the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, there is a piece of art that every visitor has passed. But very few people know it is there, and even fewer have ever seen it. It’s a mural, called Alicia, created by the Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miró with the help of his lifelong friend, the ceramicist Josep Lloréns Artigas, and his son. They made it out of 190 ceramic tiles, which they hand painted. It is fairly large—taller than you, and far wider: over 8 feet high and 19 feet wide. It lives behind a white wall, where the curators of the museum keep an eye on it through a secret window to make sure that it's okay.

Harry F. Guggenheim, who was in charge of the museum at the time, commissioned it in 1963 in honour of his wife Alicia Patterson Guggenheim who died that year. In 1967, a party was thrown to celebrate its unveiling on the wall, just inside the entrance to the famous museum, at the foot of the spiral ramp. For many years, the mural was the first thing visitors to the museum would see.

Anyone who knew that Alicia was a tribute to Alicia Patterson Guggenheim may have wondered why Miró poetically wove the name Alice into his abstract creation of shapes and colours, rather than Alicia. Well, Miró was quite mysterious about this; he knew he had been asked to make a tribute to Alicia, but didn’t give any reason for writing Alice instead.

In 1969, it was covered over temporarily during an exhibition, as the curator of the show felt that it disturbed the aesthetics of the space. Because the red, black, blue and grey mural with spirited motifs is such an impressive, timeless piece, it is difficult to exhibit it without it taking over. This is especially true because it hangs on the first wall any visitor to the museum will see. That curator was obviously onto something because, since then, the mural has rarely been on display. Most curators want a blank canvas of white wall for their exhibitions, and usually hang the first artwork of each exhibition on the temporary wall that covers the precious mural.

If you go to an exhibition at the fabulous museum, imagine it there, twinkling behind the wall as you ascend the Guggenheim spiral.

6. Original Draft of "Auld Lang Syne," Robert Burns (1759–96) - The Mitchell Library, Glasgow


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All over the world, on New Year’s Eve, we sing "Auld Lang Syne"—which is a bit strange, considering how few of us know what auld lang syne means ("old times’ sake"), or why we cross our arms and hold hands with our neighbour while singing. Still, it is a fun thing to do, and makes everyone glow with bittersweet hope and nostalgia.

The tradition all came about thanks to a piece of paper that is two centuries old and now lives in a black, combination lock briefcase in a secret location within the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, took this piece of paper, laid it out on his writing desk and wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne" upon it in brown ink, using a sharpened feather. It’s best that the paper is kept out of the light, because it is already yellowed, and so fragile it looks as if it might turn into a puff of smoke if you were to blow on it. I couldn’t look at it without singing the words silently in my head.

The song spread across the world as the Scottish people did; they took their traditional song with them, and it caught on. The curators of the library told me that, in Scotland, the song is sung at the end of all kinds of events and celebrations, not just at New Year.

"Auld Lang Syne" really only became the global New Year’s anthem in 1929 because of Canadian singer Guy Lombardo. From 1929 to 1959, Lombardo performed a live radio broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on New Year’s Eve. Each year, his orchestra, the Royal Canadians, would play "Auld Lang Syne" as part of the celebration. It was thanks to radio that the song became a real tradition. Next New Year’s Eve, when you begin singing, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot…" perhaps you will remember the piece of paper that lives quietly, inside a briefcase, in the library in Glasgow. I know I will.

The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield (HarperCollins) is available now for ipad, £12.99. You can buy it here.

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Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
The Covers of Jack Kerouac's Classic Titles Are Getting a Makeover
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press
Tom Etherington, Penguin Press

Readers have been enjoying classic Jack Kerouac books like The Dharma Bums and On the Road for decades, but starting this August the novels will have a new look. Several abstract covers have been unveiled as part of Penguin’s "Great Kerouac" series, according to design website It’s Nice That.

The vibrant covers, designed by Tom Etherington of Penguin Press, feature the works of abstract expressionist painter Franz Kline. The artwork is intended to capture “the experience of reading Kerouac” rather than illustrating a particular scene or character, Etherington told It’s Nice That. Indeed, abstract styles of artwork seem a fitting match for Kerouac’s “spontaneous prose”—a writing style that was influenced by improvisational jazz music.

This year marks the 60th anniversary of The Dharma Bums, which was published just one year after On the Road. The Great Kerouac series will be available for purchase on August 2.

[h/t It's Nice That]

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Hulton Archive, Getty Images
15 Things You Might Not Know About Jules Verne
Hulton Archive, Getty Images
Hulton Archive, Getty Images

Jules Verne, widely regarded as one of the fathers of science fiction, wrote some of literature's most famous adventure novels, including seminal works like Journey to the Center of the Earth, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea, and Around the World in 80 Days. In addition to helping pioneer a new genre of writing, the French author also sailed the world, had a career as a stockbroker, fell in love with his cousin, and was shot by his nephew. Here are 15 facts you probably didn't know about him.

1. HE GREW UP SURROUNDED BY SHIPS.

On February 8, 1828, Pierre and Sophie Verne welcomed their first child, Jules Gabriel, at Sophie's mother's home in Nantes, a city in western France. Verne's birthplace had a profound impact on his writing. In the 19th century, Nantes was a busy port city that served as a major hub for French shipbuilders and traders, and Verne's family lived on Ile Feydeau, a small, man-made island in a tributary of the Loire River. Verne spent his childhood watching ships sail down the Loire and imagining what it would be like to climb aboard them [PDF]. He would later work these early memories of maritime life into his writing.

2. HE FELL IN LOVE WITH HIS COUSIN.

Verne began writing poetry at just 12 years old. As a teenager, he used poetry as an outlet for his burgeoning romantic feelings. Verne fell in love with his cousin, Caroline Tronson, who was a year and a half older than him. He wrote and dedicated poems to Tronson, gave her presents, and attended dances with her. Unfortunately, Tronson didn't reciprocate her younger cousin's feelings. In 1847, when Verne was 19 and Tronson was 20, she married a man two decades her senior. Verne was heartbroken.

3. HIS FATHER PRESSURED HIM TO BE A LAWYER.

While Verne had been passionate about writing since his early teens, his father strongly encouraged young Jules to follow in his footsteps and enter the legal profession. Soon after Tronson's marriage, Verne's father capitalized on his son's depression, convincing him to move to Paris to study law.

Verne graduated with a law degree in 1851. But he kept writing fiction during this period, and continued to clash with his father over his career path. In 1852, Verne's father arranged for him to practice law in Nantes, but Verne decided to pursue life as a writer instead.

4. HE LIVED IN PARIS DURING A TUMULTUOUS TIME.

Verne's time in Paris coincided with a period of intense political instability. The French Revolution of 1848 broke out soon after Verne moved to the city to study law. Though he didn't participate, he was strikingly close to the conflict and its turbulent aftermath, including the coup d'état that ended France's Second Republic. "On Thursday the fighting was intense; at the end of my street, houses were knocked down by cannon fire," he wrote to his mother during the fighting that followed the coup in December 1851. Verne managed to stay out of the political upheaval during those years, but his writing later explored themes of governmental strife. In his 1864 novella The Count of Chanteleine: A Tale of the French Revolution, Verne wrote about the struggles of ordinary and noble French people during the French Revolutionary Wars, while his novel The Flight to France recounted the wartime adventures of an army captain in 1792.

5. HE BECAME A STOCKBROKER TO PAY THE BILLS.

In May 1856, Verne was the best man at his best friend's wedding in Amiens, a city in northern France. During the wedding festivities, Verne lodged with the bride's family and met Honorine de Viane Morel, the bride's sister. He developed a crush on Morel, a 26-year-old widow with two kids, and in January 1857, with the permission of her family, the two married.

There was one big problem. Verne had been writing plays for Paris theaters, but being a playwright didn't pay the bills. Verne needed a respectable income to support Morel and her daughters. Morel's brother offered Verne a job at a brokerage, and he accepted, quitting his theater job to become a stockbroker at the Paris Bourse. Writing was never too far from Verne's mind, though. He woke up early each day to write and research for several hours before heading to his day job.

6. HIS ADVENTURE NOVELS WERE PART OF A SERIES …

A caricature of Jules Verne on the sea floor with fantastic sea creatures on the cover of a magazine.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Modern readers probably think of Verne's most famous books as distinct entities, but his adventure novels were actually part of a series. In the early 1860s, Verne met Pierre-Jules Hetzel, an established publisher and magazine editor who helped Verne publish his first novel, Five Weeks in a Balloon. This novel served as the beginning of Voyages Extraordinaires, a series of dozens of books written by Verne and published by Hetzel. Most of these novels—including famous titles like Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—appeared in installments in Hetzel's magazine before being published in book form.

7. … THAT PROVIDED HIM WITH A STEADY STREAM OF INCOME.

Starting in 1863, Verne agreed to write two volumes per year for Hetzel, a contract that provided him with a steady source of income for decades. Between 1863 and 1905, Verne published 54 novels about travel, adventure, history, science, and technology for the Voyages Extraordinaires series. He worked closely with Hetzel on characters, structure, and plot until the publisher's death in 1886. Verne's writing wasn't limited to this series, however; in total, he wrote 65 novels over the course of his life, though some would not be published until long after his death.

8. HE DREW INSPIRATION FROM HIS OWN SAILING ADVENTURES.

During the 1860s, Verne's career was taking off, and he was making good money. So in 1867, he bought a small yacht, which he named the Saint Michel, after his son, Michel. When he wasn't living in Amiens, he spent time sailing around Europe to the Channel Islands, along the English Coast, and across the Bay of Biscay. Besides enjoying the peace and quiet at sea, he also worked during these sailing trips, writing most of the manuscripts for Around the World in Eighty Days and Twenty Thousand Leagues Under The Sea on his yacht. As he earned more money, he replaced the Saint Michel with a larger boat that he called the Saint Michel II. A few years later, he bought a third vessel, the Saint Michel III, a steam yacht that he hired a crew of 10 to man on long voyages to Scotland and through the Mediterranean.

9. HE'S ONE OF THE MOST TRANSLATED AUTHORS IN THE WORLD …

Verne wrote in French, but his works have always had an international appeal. Since the 1850s, his writing has been translated into approximately 150 languages—making him the second most translated author ever. He has appeared in translation even more often than William Shakespeare. He is second only to Agatha Christie, who holds the world record.

10. … BUT NOT ALL OF THOSE TRANSLATIONS ARE ACCURATE.

Although Verne wrote primarily for adults, many English-language publishers considered his science fiction writing to be juvenile and marketed his books to children. Translators dumbed down his work, simplifying stories, cutting heavily researched passages, summarizing dialogue, and in some cases, nixing anything that might be construed as a critique of the British Empire. Many translations even contain outright errors, such as measurements converted incorrectly.

Some literary historians now bemoan the shoddy translations of many of Verne's works, arguing that almost all of these early English translations feature significant changes to both plot and tone. Even today, these poor translations make up much of Verne's available work in English. But anglophone readers hoping to read more authentic versions of his stories are in luck. Thanks to scholarly interest, there has been a recent surge in new Verne translations that aim to be more faithful to the original texts.

11. HE HAD MAJOR HEALTH PROBLEMS.

Starting in his twenties, Verne began experiencing sudden bouts of extreme stomach pain. He wrote about his agonizing stomach cramps in letters to family members, but he failed to get a proper diagnosis from doctors. To try to ease his pain, he experimented with different diets, including one in which he ate only eggs and dairy. Historians believe that Verne may have had colitis or a related digestion disorder.

Even more unsettling than the stomach pain, Verne suffered from five episodes of facial paralysis over the course of his life. During these painful episodes, one side of his face suddenly became immobile. After the first attack, doctors treated his facial nerve with electric stimulation, but he had another attack five years later, and several more after that. Recently, researchers have concluded that he had Bell's palsy, a temporary form of one-sided facial paralysis caused by damage to the facial nerve. Doctors have hypothesized that it was the result of ear infections or inflammation, but no one knows for sure why he experienced this.

Verne developed type-2 diabetes in his fifties, and his health declined significantly in the last decade of his life. He suffered from high blood pressure, chronic dizziness, tinnitus, and other maladies, and eventually went partially blind.

12. HIS MENTALLY ILL NEPHEW SHOT HIM IN THE LEG …

In March 1886, a traumatic incident left the 58-year-old Verne disabled for the rest of his life. Verne's nephew Gaston, who was then in his twenties and suffering from mental illness, suddenly became violent, to Verne's detriment. The writer was arriving home one day when, out of the blue, Gaston shot him twice with a pistol. Thankfully, Verne survived, but the second bullet that Gaston fired struck the author's left leg.

13. … LEAVING HIM WITH A PERMANENT LIMP.

After the incident, Gaston was sent to a mental asylum. He wasn't diagnosed with a specific disorder, but most historians believe he suffered from paranoia or schizophrenia.

Verne never fully recovered from the attack. The bullet damaged his left leg badly, and his diabetes complicated the healing process. A secondary infection left him with a noticeable limp that persisted until his death in 1905.

14. HIS WORK CONTRIBUTED TO THE RISE OF STEAMPUNK.

Verne's body of work heavily influenced steampunk, the science fiction subgenre that takes inspiration from 19th century industrial technology. Some of Verne's characters, as well as the fictional machines he wrote about, have appeared in prominent steampunk works. For example, the TV show The Secret Adventures of Jules Verne explored the idea that Verne actually experienced the fantastic things he wrote about, and Captain Nemo from Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea appeared as a character in the comic book series The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.

15. MANY OF HIS PREDICTIONS WERE SURPRISINGLY SPOT-ON.

Some of the technology Verne imagined in his fiction later became reality. One of the machines that Verne dreamed up, Nautilus—the electric submarine in Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea—came to life years after he first wrote about it. The first installment of the serialized Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea was published in 1869, and the first battery-powered submarines were launched in the 1880s. (Similar submarine designs are still in use today.)

In addition, Verne's Paris In The Twentieth Century contains several surprisingly accurate technological predictions. Written in 1863, the dystopian novel imagines a tech-obsessed Parisian society in 1960. Verne wrote about skyscrapers, elevators, cars with internal combustion engines, trains, electric city lights, and suburbs. He was massively ahead of his time. He even wrote about a group of mechanical calculators (as in, computers) that could communicate with one another over a network (like the Internet). Pretty impressive for a guy born in 1828.

But Verne's influence goes beyond science fiction, steampunk, or real-world technology. His writing has inspired countless authors in genres ranging from poetry to travel to adventure. As Ray Bradbury wrote, "We are all, in one way or another, the children of Jules Verne."

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