History, they say, is written by the winners. But when it comes to the history on display in our museums, sometimes what we see has more to do with space, budgeting, legal issues, or the fragility of artifacts than the fact that an artifact survives.
In the introduction to her new book “Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t Or Won’t Show You” (Globe Pequot Press), NPR and MSBC.com travel correspondent, Seattle resident and UW alumna Harriet Baskas begins by apologizing for all the artifacts she had to leave out of the book. For those that didn’t make the cut for their home museum but made the cut for the book, Baskas recounts the interesting route they took to end up in storage. These hidden treasures and the reasons they’re hidden often shed as much light on our current culture as the objects shed on history.
Most historians, writes Baskas, want to preserve history as reality, not just the pleasant parts, but sometimes consideration must be made to those affected by events especially when history is not so ancient. Take for instance the case presented to the Orcas Island Historical Museum when they were offered items belonging to the recently captured Barefoot Bandit—Colton Harris-Moore, the teen convicted in 2010 of a multi-year crime spree breaking into houses, stealing food, boats, and even airplanes from the residents. The museum is wrestling with how to present these fascinating and potentially tourist-drawing items to the public without offending the local residents, some of who were victims of Harris-Moore’s crimes.
Some things, Baskas relays, are not safe to put on display. Whether or not the threat is real, some items may actually keep guests away. Many previously thought-to-be-inert munitions have been removed from exhibits. A smallpox scab enclosed in a letter from 1876 (a common way to inoculate at the time) is held in storage by the Virginia Historical Society. The Penn Museum of Philadelphia has an eighteenth century Chinese Taoist statue symbolizing immortality that also happens to be carved from a natural form of arsenic. Other items are just plain creepy, such as the antique doll named “Jimmy” held in the Kentucky Historical Society’s vault because his unblinking glass eyes scared staff and patrons.
Throughout the book, Baskas (with 20 years experience visiting and writing about museums) exposes hidden treasures in every region of the country. Washington State has many entries that shed light on the history of our area.
Baskas recounts the case of two medals given by President Thomas Jefferson to Lewis and Clark to take on their journey west and present to Native American chiefs as symbols of peace. The medals made their way with the explorers to the Columbia River Gorge where they were presented to area chiefs, later passed down through family, and eventually presented to the Maryhill Museum of Art in Goldendale WA in the 1940’s. However, some hidden treasures aren’t actually “hidden”—they’re stolen. One of the many reasons museums cannot display certain items is security. Not every local historical society can afford motion alarms and pressure sensitive cases. In 1986, the case that held the medals was broken into during museum hours. The medals were stolen and never recovered.
Another more modern bit of Pacific Northwest history appears in the book, but not on a museum display. The Experience Music Project currently displays an exhibit dedicated to the band Nirvana. Several hundred items are on display but one item—a simple knit hat–is not. The hat may have belonged to Kurt Cobain, but without documented proof the museum chose to keep it out of the exhibit. Also held by the EMP but not on display is another piece of Grunge music history—the tour van used by Soundgarden. The EMP previously kept the van off display simply because it couldn’t fit inside. Later wider doors were built, but the museum thought it was too risky to have a working vehicle on display and did not want to alter the van to disable it.
“Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t Or Won’t Show You” is a fascinating read for any history buff or fan of the curious. Included with each entry are pictures of the items, so you don’t need to venture to each museum to pester the staff into letting you back in the archives, but should you wish to see the other items on public display (or perhaps support with a donation) the address of each is included.
Harriet Baskas will discuss and sign copies of Hidden Treasures at University Book Store in the U-District at 7pm on Feb. 12. The book is available for purchase in-store, by phone at 206.634.3400, or at ubookstore.com.
Anna Updegraff has worked for University Book Store for over a decade and is the Author Events Buyer. Her writing also appears on University Book Store’s blog, The Shelf Life.
Southsoundmag.com will be running regular book reviews and recommendations from University Book Store staff. The Tacoma University Book Store is located at 1754 Pacific Ave. Hours and other information, including event details, can be found online or by calling 253.692.4300.