I was sent Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasures and the Stories They Tellby Nancy Moses back when I was working on a piece about holiday coffee table books for the Philadelphia Inquirer. Even though it’s not a coffee table book, I held onto it anyway because I thought it might be interesting.
And interesting it was. Moses, the former executive director of the Atwater Kent Museum of Philadelphia, looks at museum “stuff” — and not just any stuff. She told the stories behind nine items that are kept in the vast vaults of American museums but rarely seen by the public. And since a majority of the items are Philadelphia connected, I knew at least of the museums if I hadn’t visited them, and could add them to my “to do” list as I have with the Physick House.
It might seem strange that museums wouldn’t display all of their objects, but who has the space. The Philadelphia Museum of Art opened a new building and still doesn’t have enough space to showcase their collection. Plus, launching exhibits costs money, money a lot of museums don’t have.
The most interesting items to read about, at least to me, were the Blaschka Sea Animals, glass recreations of sea invertebrates. I was about ready to hop into a car to Pittsburgh, where they’re held, to see what they looked like.
However, this is not a perfect book. The material, yes, is fascinating, but I almost stopped reading 30 pages in. Why? For the same reasons I liked Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life : the writer’s presence in the book.
Don’t Stop Believin’: How Karaoke Conquered the World and Changed My Life is not just a history of karaoke but the author’s connection to it. In that case, it works. If someone’s writing about singing songs — most likely not in a sober state — in front of strangers, wouldn’t you want to know how the author feels about that? I read part of the book aloud to my class tonight, and they were laughing because it was his experiences, plus the writing, that made it funny.
This book, however, is about museum pieces. I wanted straight reporting of those histories. Sure, a bit about Moses’ role with the Atwater Kent in the introduction was appropriate, but she didn’t leave. Her experiencing traveling through museums didn’t add to the narrative. I wanted to push her out of the text.
Another issue is how she used quotes. Garrett Graff, friend and author of The First Campaign: Globalization, the Web, and the Race for the White House, once told me that quotes should be used as icing — the sweet stuff that shows off the actual cake. That’s not the case here.
Example: In the chapter about Ker-Feal, a house that is part of the Barnes Foundation collection, she writes (the conversation is with Barbara Buckley of the Barnes):
“‘A lot of people are working on this project,’ I said. ‘What do they all do?’
“The registrars took the first step. They inventoried all collections objects: the furniture, ceramics, metalwork, and textiles,’ she said, handing me a red notebook.”
That doesn’t need to be quote. Those are facts, not icing. And I don’t like it that Moses keeps quoting her questions. We should be able to tell the question from the answer and the context.
Compare that to this expert from Benjamin Svetkey’s article in Entertainment Weekly about Robert Downey, Jr.:
“There are enough organic potions and natural remedies on Robert Downey Jr.’s coffee table to stock an aisle at Whole Foods. Shriveled, rooty-looking things in Ziploc bags. Jars filled with herbal pills as big as bullets. He’s sitting cross-legged on the floor next to all of these unusual items in the living room of the London townhouse he’s been renting while shooting his latest movie, an elementary detective story called Sherlock Holmes. It’s 2 o’clock in the afternoon, but with his hair in full bedhead bloom, Downey looks like he could use a pick-me-up. He reaches for a bottle and shakes a dozen gelcaps into his palm, then stuffs them into his mouth. ‘Brain formula,’ he mumbles as he gulps them down.”
Svetkey quotes two words in that whole paragraph. Why? Because that’s the icing. He can show the rest through the narrative. It’s the “brain food” line that’s important, and that’s it. The items in Lost in the Museum: Buried Treasures and the Stories They Tellare no less fascinating than Robert Downey, Jr. In fact, I’d like to know more about them.
Before you start throwing rocks at me, I understand that Moses isn’t a writer by trade, but I have to look at the writing in the review, especially when it almost stopped me from finishing the book. A good edit could have fixed the quotes issue, but it is what it is.
If are interested in museums and all their treasures, I do recommend the book. But don’t beat yourself up if you skim passages.
In other book news, Frank Wilson, my former book review editor at The Philadelphia Inquirer and grand wizard at Books, Inq, is now writing for When Falls the Coliseum. You’ll get a hint from the column name: “That’s what he said.”