Wednesday, May 14, 2008

The Museum Book

I like to think that I'm a pretty with-it gal, but I never made the connection that the origin of the word museum is the word muse. Duh. There, I've admitted it for all to see. This is just one of the little gems I learned in The Museum Book by Jan Mark, illustrated by Richard Holland. (Subtitle: A Guide to Strange and Wonderful Collections.) If you've ever been in my house, you'll know that I'm a bit of a pack-rat myself and rather fond of strange and wonderful collections. My own "collections" (a word which might be a tad rich for my ephemera) have no particular purpose other than being things that please me for one reason or another (and, of course, don't cost too much), so this book--explaining the origin and purpose of museums--is right up my alley.

Before you move on, thinking this is all rather dull, take a moment to see how Mark writes this gem. This is from Chapter 4: "By Aldrovandi's time, every collector wanted the most curious cabinet of curiosities, the most wonderful chamber of wonders, the biggest collection. A century later, things were really getting out of hand. The collections grew too large for boxes, too large for rooms. It was all very well for kings and rich men, as they had plenty of space, but not all collectors were kings and rich men.

Perhaps one day the collector's wife looked at her house, overflowing with fossils and dried toads and corals and plants and books and dragons' teeth, the stuffed crocodile and the nasty shriveled thing under the stairs that gave her the creeps, and said, "Either all that goes or I do!" The collector would think about this for a while and then find someone to take the collection off his hands."

I love how she speaks directly to the reader, as if they are truly in the know, on her side. It's a kind of nudge-nudge, wink-wink style that is very appealing and fun (to me at least!). I've never heard of Jan Mark before, but she was prolific in her day. (She died in 2006.) Here's a site maintained by her Flemish fans. I'll have to check out Thunder and Lightnings and Handles, which both won the Carnegie Medal.

The art by Richard Holland is a wonderful mixed-media collage style--perfectly eclectic for a book about museums, the most eclectic of things. Here's a peek at the first spread.

Here's what a reviewer at The Observer had to say:

There could not be a more marvellous memorial of Jan Mark, who died last year, than The Museum Book, illustrated with bright elegance by Richard Holland. This is an argument she must have wanted to make. There is nothing dustily didactic about it. It is a passionate, unpatronising, offbeat paean to museums and multiplicity.

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