Book review | A Museum Miscellany, by Claire Cock-Starkey - Museums Association

Book review | A Museum Miscellany, by Claire Cock-Starkey

This book will probably sell well in museum gift shops, but would have benefited from a less traditional view of the sector
Lucy Moore
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Detail from the front cover of A Museum Miscellany
There’s a certain kind of book that lots of households have. It’s short, punchy and factual; there’s usually one or more of them found in the downstairs toilet, next to the window. They are usually non-fiction, often collections of bits and pieces, and almost certainly something you’ll dip into when you’re otherwise engaged.
A Museum Miscellany makes a good addition to this category of book – it’s full of snippets of information about museums around the world and written in an easily digestible way. Readers will find out something new in it – for me it was the rich history of dioramas in the US.
The publication has missed an opportunity to resist repeating a lot of the “museums are quirky” tropes in its pages. But I was excited to read it because a) I love museums and b) I wanted to read a QI-style interrogation of what the sector gets up to. A fatal flaw in my excitement was that this book isn’t written for museum people – it is a book written for gift shop sales. To be fair, it will probably be pretty successful at it too. I think my frustration lies with the fact that this book would have been a great opportunity to showcase the direction that museums are moving in – working more with people, creating and curating together – but I don’t remember reading the word community in it once. There’s a lot of emphasis on value: what museums paid for things and when, or what private collectors paid for things, or how much the objects that have been stolen are insured for. Money, of course, is a driving factor for any museum, but we resist this kind of monetary valuation and these riches are so uncharacteristic of most museums. The book has a massive bias towards the northern hemisphere, which I found disappointing too. I want to know equally about museums and heritage in the global south (as lots of people probably do) much more than I want to read about the British Museum again. The most worrying section was on “unusual museum exhibits”, which is a list of human remains in different collections, from tattooed skin in the Wellcome Collection to Sir John Heydon’s Hand at Norwich Castle Museum. The remains of these people are described as visceral, a word that divorces them from their humanity. Why not crowdsource a miscellany? Why not do some research that doesn’t centre on the traditional “west”? Why not read some up-to-date articles about museum ethics, apply them to your writing and create a gift book that is still beautifully packaged, but actually reflects our institutions? To sum up, I wanted more tea to be spilt and more challenges to be thrown, but instead digested some writing that proved to be less palatable than I hoped. I did like the bit about dioramas though.
Lucy Moore is the projects curator at Leeds Museums

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