10 questions with Claire Cock-Starkey

Sponsored by BYU Studies—Author Claire Cock-Starkey has written about book lovers, libraries, and even some of history’s most famous last words. She turns her attention to museums in A Museum Miscellany (Bodleian Library, University of Oxford, 2019).

Who is Claire Cock-Starkey?

Claire Cock Starkey: I consider myself something of a magpie. I love collecting and curating interesting facts, histories and anecdotes. This has inspired the types of books I like to write—books which make the reader take a breath and go, ‘Huh, I did not know that!’

A Museum Miscellany is the third in a series with The Book Lovers’ Miscellany and A Library Miscellany. These books have been an excuse for me to collect together all the most fascinating bits of information I have uncovered about my favourite subjects and places in the world—books, libraries and museums!

For me this is where culture lives and sharing my passion and wonder for books, writers, libraries and museums has been a total joy.

Where did you come up with the idea for A Museum Miscellany?

Claire Cock-Starkey: Having already written about books and libraries, museums seemed the obvious next book. The vast number of incredible museums and galleries in the world with their many and varied treasures provided ample material.

It also allowed me to consider the people behind museum collections—the ethnographers, collectors and curators who contributed to some of our most famous institutions. For example I included a potted history of the dioramas at the American Museum of Natural History and was awe-struck to discover one of the taxidermists traveled to Africa to source the animals himself and ended up having a fight to the death (which he fortunately won) with a leopard.

Are there any parts of A Museum Miscellany that were hard to cut for the final draft?

Claire Cock-Starkey: The worst part of writing a book like this is that the possibilities are endless. I could not possibly cover every museum in the world, every interesting story about the objects within and all the fascinating curators who made our museums and galleries what they are today.

This was a book I could have written twice over but the way in which I work means that I largely write to my word count, so although there’s plenty more I would have liked to write about I didn’t actually have to cut anything good.

Where is the world’s smallest museum?

Claire Cock-Starkey: There are a number of tiny museums vying for the title but I think the Warley Museum in West Yorkshire in England probably takes the crown. It is a museum of local objects based in an old red telephone box. Only one person can fit in the museum at a time.

The Warley Museum near Halifax, Yorkshire.. Credit: Wakefield Museums & Castles.

What are some notable artefacts or pieces of art that have been damaged by museums?

Claire Cock-Starkey: Quite a few pieces have been damaged by clumsy, sickly or malicious visitors.

In what I think is every museum visitor’s worst nightmare one woman got her skirt caught in the barbed wire aspect of Tracey Emin’s Self-Portrait: Bath at a Scottish gallery. As she tried to disentangle herself a neon light snapped causing thousands of pounds worth of damage.

But the artwork which has suffered the most damage is Rembrandt’s The Night Watch. On three separate occasions it has been attacked by vandals but fortunately each time it has been restored to its former glory, ensuring visitors can still enjoy this incredible painting.

What are some unsolved museum heists that pique your curiosity?

Claire Cock-Starkey: I think the big one has to be the robbery of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston which took place in 1990. 13 artworks by renowned artists such as Degas, Manet and Vermeer were stolen by men disguised as police officers.

It was such an audacious heist and it is mind-boggling to think that these world-renowned artworks, worth a combined $500 million have yet to be recovered.

What are some of your favorite lost museums?

Claire Cock-Starkey: All the lost museums featured in the book hold some fascination for me. I would love to travel back in time and see those early collections to experience how they were put together and which items were considered worthy of display.

If I were to pick just one though it would be Scudders American Museum. This was a collection which veered into the fantastic, with exhibits such as an 18-foot snake and the supposed bedsheets of Mary, Queen of Scots. Museums such as this just don’t exist anymore and as the contents burned down in 1865 it is a museum which can sadly never be recreated.

What are some of the oldest objects found in museums?

Claire Cock-Starkey: There are some really mind-blowing ancient objects in museums! The Olduvai stone chopping tool is the oldest human-made object in the collection of the British Museum in London at 1.8 million years old.

Olduvai stone chopping tool, made from basalt, from Olduvai Gorge, Tanzania, 1.8-2 million years old. British Museum. Credit: BabelStone.

It was sourced from a Stone Age site at Olduvai Gorge in Tanzania where evidence of the earliest known humans have been uncovered.

But that is sort of blown out of the water by the piece of moon rock held by the National Air and Space Museum in Washington DC which is an incredible 3.8 billion years old!

Give us a sample of the unusual museum items you identify.

Claire Cock-Starkey: In Germany there is a museum dedicated to bread which has over 16,000 artefacts relating to the production of bread but no actual bread.

The barbed wire museum in Kansas includes over 2,400 varieties of barbed wire (who knew there were so many?), and the lawnmower museum in Southport, UK, includes a section on ‘lawnmowers of the rich and famous’.

What are some items museums have loaned to US presidents?

Claire Cock-Starkey: When the new first family moves into the White House they have traditionally been allowed to request the loan of a number of paintings from leading American galleries.

Jackie Kennedy requested The Smoker by Eugene Delacroix (which usually resides in the Smithsonian) to hang in the Red Room.

President Clinton borrowed Scott Burton’s sculpture Granite Settee from the Dallas Museum of Art, and President Obama requested Thomas Hill’s View of Yosemite Valley for his inaugural luncheon.

I like to think about what I would borrow if I were president (which let’s face it is unlikely as I’m British) and I think I’d pick Ophelia by John Everett Millais.

What is the mystery of the spinning statuette at the Manchester Museum?

Claire Cock-Starkey: Well, I’m not going to reveal the solution to the mystery because you’ll have to read the book to find that out. However I will whet your appetite by telling you that this ancient Egyptian statuette, just ten inches high, was discovered to be rotating slowly in its glass case.

The curators could not fathom the cause and some visitors began to suspect ancient magic was at play so to settle the question time-lapse cameras and motion sensors were set to capture the spinning statuette . . .

If you could go back in time and visit any museum, where would you most want to visit?

Claire Cock-Starkey: I would definitely want to go back and wander around one of the cabinets of curiosities covered in the book.

There is a wonderful illustration of Ole Worm’s cabinet included in the book which shows an incredible collection of exotic stuffed animals and ethnographic samples. The cabinets were the fore-runner of our modern museums and it would be amazing to see the eclectic array of objects displayed and the interpretation given.

Recommended resources:

Learn more about fascinating museum collections:

This interview is made possible thanks to the generous sponsorship of BYU Studies.

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