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Sunday, 17 February 2013

A memorandum on mystery objects for the Londonist

Ministry sources inform us that the Londonist has been poking around various museum curatorial departments. Do you have any mystery objects, they ask? Oh Londonist, you clearly don’t know museums very well do you. Let us guess, no one has been willing to give you a response? Here's why:

You are probably never going to find the arc of the
covenant in a museum store. Sorry to disappoint.
1) Museums do not want to tell you that they have mystery objects. Why would they? Museums are supposed to be places where we tell the public what stuff is. Why would they ever admit to you that they have no idea 90% of the time? When I mentioned your question to several museum friends of ours, all they could do was laugh at this question. All the objects are mystery objects they said with a rueful mirth. Really museums spend a large proportion of their time researching what they already have, trying to figure out what the bits in this box are, or what this gizmo does, who that shoe belonged to or whether this scroll as any historic significance. In fact, this aspect of museums has it’s own department: research and documentation or often, collections management. Solving the riddle of mystery object is literally a full time job. But museums don’t want you to know that, so they probably said something vague about collecting policies. Are we right or wrong?

We googled mystery object and got this.
About accurate we'd say.
2) The other reason why museums won’t give you an answer to this question is that mystery objects are genuinely not going to be interesting to you. If we do not know what they are, how are they interesting? It is not as if museums are hiding vastly complex pieces of alien technology that we have people in lab coats performing tests on. About 87% of the time, a number drawn from extensive research undertaken by the Ministry, mystery objects are just bits of other things that have fallen off and we don’t know where they go. Mystery objects are nuts and bolts, computer circuits, pieces of leather or broken ceramic, plastic things with point bits, or tangles of ship model rigging. We are very sorry to disappoint you Londonist, but museum store-rooms are not like the warehouse in Indiana Jones. They are not full of gold that we just haven’t found yet. Depending on the museum they are usually full of bones, bits of leather, dusty machinery, or paperwork in boxes. The museums aren’t telling you about their mystery objects because they know you won’t care even if you did know.

We will say as a disclaimer, from time to time museums un-earth beautiful mystery objects. Maybe it’s a piece of equipment that belonged to a famous scientist and we never knew. Maybe it’s a painting not correctly attributed. But we promise you a museum won’t tell you this either because they are already planning an exhibition about it.

We hope that clears some things up for you Londonist. If you want to get a proper answer out of a curatorial department, maybe ask them what their favourite object is that they can’t put on display. Or even better, what object they would steal from a different museum if they could. We are only trying to save you from yourselves, and being flooded with pictures of old gizmos and whirly-gigs that look like something you’d find in your granddads attic. You are welcome. 

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