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Sunday 11 August 2013

Museum Secrets

The third season of the Canadian documentary series Museum Secrets started airing a couple of weeks ago on the Yesterday channel here in the UK. It’s a series I particularly enjoy because it’s about unusual things in easily accessible locations. About half the museums featured I’ve already been to, and most of the rest are in cities that are relatively easy to get to. The programme’s format also suits my limited attention span – each episode consists of six short segments centred around various items in the featured museum. The series is unusual in that it doesn’t have a regular team in front of the camera – the only continuity is provided by the voiceover, and the people you see on screen are all local experts in the relevant fields. On one occasion, one of the experts was someone I once worked with – a former RAF pilot who was featured in the episode about the Imperial War Museum.

Here’s just one interesting fact I learned from each of the 14 episodes in the first two seasons:

Episode 1.1: The Vatican (Rome). During the renaissance period there was a lot nudity on display in the Vatican, in paintings and sculptures. Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel ceiling, completed in 1512, is a good example. But by the 1530s a wave of Puritanism was sweeping over Europe, and things started to get covered up with fig leaves and drapery. When Michelangelo tried to put dozens of naked people in his Last Judgment (begun in 1536), he encountered opposition from various quarters – not least a man named Cesena. Michelangelo’s response was to paint Cesena into the bottom right hand corner of the painting (detail reproduced here). It’s a rather unflattering portrait, with long pointed ears like a donkey, but Michelangelo was respectful enough to conceal Cesena’s genitalia... with a snake!

Episode 1.2: The Louvre (Paris). When the popular French King Henri IV was stabbed to death in a Paris street in 1610, the official view was that the assassin – like Lee Harvey Oswald – acted alone. But that didn’t stop the conspiracy theorists, many of them pointing the finger at Henri’s ambitious and politically well-connected widow, Marie de’ Medici.

Episode 1.3: Royal Ontario Museum (Toronto). In the museum’s collection is a 19th century Sioux headdress that has no established provenance... but it may have belonged to none other than Sitting Bull himself, who took refuge in Canada after the Battle of the Little Bighorn.

Episode 1.4: The Egyptian Museum (Cairo). Over the centuries, the ancient Egyptians produced literally millions of animal mummies – especially of creatures like baboons and falcons that were powerful religious symbols. People used to buy the animal mummies to use as offerings to the gods. But mummies were time-consuming to make, and baboons and falcons aren’t the easiest creatures to come by... so most of the mummies were fakes!

Episode 1.5: Natural History Museum (London). One of the less well-known objects in the museum sounds like something out of a Victorian adventure novel. The “Cursed Amethyst” was stolen from the Temple of Indra during the Indian Mutiny of 1857... and ever since then dire misfortune is said to befall anyone who dares hold the jewel in their grasp!

Episode 1.6: The Metropolitan Museum (New York). When the Antioch Chalice was first displayed in New York early in the 20th century, it was popularly touted as the Holy Grail. Even academics believed it was a drinking cup from the time of Christ. But subsequent research has identified it as a humble lamp base from a 6th century church.

Episode 2.1: The Hermitage (Saint Petersburg). The story of the murder of the “mad monk” Rasputin in 1916 has been told many times, but the possible involvement of the British Secret Service is rarely mentioned. Yet the fatal bullet appears to have been an unjacketed round from a Webley revolver, and the only person on the scene with such a weapon was a British Secret Service agent. Rasputin’s death was very much in British interests, since he was pushing for the Russians to withdraw their support for the allies in the war against Germany.

Episode 2.2: American Museum of Natural History (New York). Despite its vast size and sophistication, the Inca civilization left behind no written records. What it did leave behind were countless knotted strings called quipu. Most of these were subsequently destroyed as being worthless... until it was realized that their variety and complexity meant that the knots must hold gigabytes of information. In fact it’s probable that the quipu are the Inca equivalent of written records – but no-one knows how to read them.

Episode 2.3: National Archaeological Museum (Athens). Many ancient Greeks, including philosophers like Pythagoras and Plato, took part in secret rituals known as the Eleusinian mysteries. Little is known about the rituals, except that they involved the consumption of a beverage known as Kykeon, and that they culminated in a revelatory state of consciousness. So it’s reasonable to suppose that Kykeon contained some kind of psychoactive drug!

Episode 2.4: Imperial War Museum (London). Now that it’s been released under the Freedom of Information Act, it’s interesting to contrast Britain’s top secret Civil Defence Plan, dating from the 1950s, with the cheerful public information films of the same period. The former stressed (for the benefit of the few people with security clearance to read it) that only those who got into underground shelters fast enough would survive a nuclear attack, while the latter assured the masses that they would be perfectly safe as long as they stayed in their homes for a day or two until the radiation had passed over.

Episode 2.5: National Museum of Anthropology (Mexico City). I was surprised to learn that some of the notorious “crystal skulls” are genuine pre-Columbian artifacts – I thought they were all modern fakes. But the real ones weren’t as special as their New Age devotees make out. Apparently it was quite common to use rock crystal to make ritual objects, and these took many other forms besides skulls. And ritual skull carvings are found in many other materials besides rock crystal – the skull being the symbol of the god of death.

Episode 2.6: Museum Island (Berlin). Although the Vikings boasted that their swords were indestructible, most Viking swords that are found have been shattered. Many of these shattered swords are stamped with the word Ulfberht, which was the name of an ancient steel foundry. In fact it was the greatest foundry in early mediaeval Europe. So did the Ulfberht foundry make swords that shattered the first time you used them? No – because the broken swords were all cheap fakes. As far as I know, this is the earliest example of poor quality goods being passed off with designer labels!

Episode 2.7: Kunsthistoriches Museum (Vienna). Everyone knows that alchemists claimed to be able to transform base metals into gold, but this is generally assumed to be charlatanism. Yet the Vienna museum has a gold medallion that, apparently, started out as a silver medallion. It was transformed into gold by a 17th century alchemist, who immersed it in a chemical solution in front of witnesses that included the Holy Roman Emperor Leopold I. However, it all appears to have been a clever conjuring trick. The medallion was probably made from gold to start with, and only coated in silver. The chemical may have been Nitric Acid (called aqua fortis by the alchemists), which would have dissolved the silver while leaving the gold untouched.

Episode 2.8: Topkapi Palace (Istanbul). “The Book of Ingenious Devices” is a lavishly illustrated manuscript by an Arab scholar named al-Jazari. It’s filled with drawings of sophisticated mechanical devices which al-Jazari claimed to have made for the amusement of the Sultan (a couple of examples are shown below). The book looks a bit like something Leonardo da Vinci might have produced... except that it’s dated 1206, two and a half centuries before Leonardo was born.

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