There is a perception that we know everything about everything that’s in museums. By ‘we’ I mean ‘people who work in museums’ be they curator, conservator, educator or whatever. There’s a very good chance that between the entire workforce of a given museum, you can cover pretty much everything in stores.
Sometimes there’s an unexpected surprise in the stores. A treasure that’s lain dormant for decades (at least) just waiting to be re-discovered by an unsuspecting museum-person whose day-dream of making an Indiana Jones-like find is about to come true.
You don’t need deep dark caves or forgotten temples when you have a museum store room.
Take the wonderfully quirky Grant Museum for example. In 2011 the curators discovered half a dodo skeleton jumbled up with a mass of crocodile bones. “What the?” you might think, but it seems like it was an understandable oversight.
“They do have common characteristics, crocodiles and birds,” Jack Ashby, the museum’s learning access manager, said to The Guardian at the time – by the way, Jack is now the Museum’s manager. It must have been quite a moment when someone realised just what was in the drawer.
The half a dodo is on display, alongside some lovely models of the extinct bird that show you what the complete thing really looked like.
It’s not just bones that can turn up out of the blue like this. There have been several other mysterious objects that have been found that no one even knew were missing to begin with.
Not so long ago, the British Museum made a “staggering discovery” when they found an exquisite Viking brooch that was concealed in a lump of ‘organic material’ – what a euphemism!- and left in stores since 1891. Barry Ager, Vikings specialist and re-discoverer of the organic matter asked the conservation department to X-ray the specimen to find out exactly what it was.
“At that stage, I really didn’t know what was inside,” he said. “It was a staggering find.”
He added: “It turned out, quite remarkably, to be this Celtic disc… It’s extremely exciting… It’s a very rare example of its sort within the collection… shows contact between the British Isles and Norway in the Viking period … objects seized as loot in this country and taken back.” You can read the story here.
After scouring the internet for a few more stories like this, I’ve found two more examples, both from Bristol.
“One of the richest bronze age finds” is how the once-lost artefacts in question, studs from an ornate dagger, are described in the Bristol Post. Someone has even gone so far as to call the golden points “work of the gods.” Naturally, such staggering work was put in an old film canister shortly after they were initially discovered and then promptly forgotten about.
Bristolian academics have also re-discovered some artefacts from Ur which have since joined the British Museum’s collection.
All of these things are pretty big deals.
Dodo bones may look a bit like crocodile ones, but surely someone must have asked “Oi! Where are the dodo bits I was looking at?” OK maybe not that, but words to that effect -unless they had been misidentified to begin with.
The bronze age “work of the gods” sounds like it should have been a very big deal at the time, but we know from antiquarian William Cunnington who worked on the find, that: “When we first discovered these shining points of gold we had no concept of their nature, otherwise we might perhaps have preserved thousands of them. But unfortunately John with his trowel had scattered them in every direction before I had examined them with a glass.”
You would think that the experts always know what they’re looking at at the time, but we all have blind spots.
Sometimes, priceless artefacts can pop up in people’s homes. It’s only when an expert eye is cast over them that their true nature is revealed. That’s what happened with this Babylonian Tablet that came to the attention of the British Museum’s Irving Finkel.
The important thing is that these things were discovered. And then re-discovered.
I wonder how long it’ll be until we see a headline along the lines of “Holy Grail was actually found in 1782” and then we find out that it had been lost in an under-used room since that infamous museum Christmas party after the chief curator had one too many sherries and started wearing it as a hat.