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The Astounding Art and Artifacts Museums Didn’t Know They Had

by Allison Meier on January 9, 2014

Tlingit Helmet discovered last year in the archives of the Springfield Science Museum (courtesy Springfield Science Museum)

Tlingit Helmet discovered last year in the archives of the Springfield Science Museum (courtesy Springfield Science Museum)

Sometimes museums and archives don’t know the treasures they already have, collecting dust on some forlorn shelf or hidden away in a forgotten box. Through mislabeling or earlier disorganization, great works of art and history are sometimes lost for years before being “discovered” right inside the museum walls.

How does this happen? Sadly, museums and archives can be disorganized, as a result of inadequate storage or an incomplete catalogue (many institutions did not begin cataloguing their collections at inception). For example, even the Smithsonian Institution — arguably the greatest archive of American art and culture — has faced recent criticism for its inadequate 1950s storage sheds that suffered a roof collapse in 2010, and last year the Washington Post reported that 10 percent of a sample of items at the National Museum of American History could not be traced, alongside similar inventory issues at its other institutions. However, that doesn’t mean all is lost forever, as a spate of recent discoveries prove.

Just this month, a rare Celtic brooch stolen by Vikings was unearthed in the storerooms of the British Museum. As the Guardian reported, the ornate gilded disc had “been concealed in a lump of organic material excavated from a Viking burial site at Lilleberge in Norway by a British archaeologist in the 1880s and acquired by the British Museum in 1891.” But since then, no one had bothered to examine it closely, until Curator Barry Ager noticed the bit of metal gleaming from the grime and it was x-rayed. Now it’s planned to go on view March 27 in the museum.

Stone Age engraved reindeer antler "discovered" last year (via Natural History Museum)

Stone Age engraved reindeer antler “discovered” last year (via Natural History Museum)

The 19th century into the early 20th century was not exactly a stellar time for many museums in terms of organization. Last December the Springfield Science Museum in Massachusetts announced that a rare Alaskan Tlingit war helmet had been misidentified in their storage for over a century. As the Alaska Dispatch reported, museum spokesman Matt Longhi said it arrived in a “haphazard way, as [artifacts] did in those ways back in 1900,” and somehow got labeled as an Aleutian hat. To put its rarity in perspective, there are only four of the helmets known to still be in Alaska. Luckily, renewed interest in the oversights in anthropological collections is also revealing objects like an engraved reindeer antler in the storage of London’s Natural History Museum. While found in the 19th century, the museum stated last March that the 14,000-year-old engraving may be “the first piece of early human art ever found.”

Photograph by Cecil Beaton of a sailor on the HMS Alcantara in 1942 (courtesy Imperial War Museums)

Photograph by Cecil Beaton of a sailor on the HMS Alcantara in 1942 (courtesy Imperial War Museums)

The Tlingit mislabeling isn’t quite as grievous as the 2012 revelation that a Picasso at the Evansville Museum in Indiana had been just noted as “inspired” by the great artist. The artist it was supposedly done by — Gemmaux — turned out to just be the plural of “gemmail,” or the process of fire-burned glass used by Picasso on the work. It seems incredible that a work by such a significant artist could suddenly become almost anonymous, but in 2012 some 120 photographs by influential photographer Cecil Beaton of World War II were finally attributed at the Imperial War Museum.

Last year, the Smithsonian Natural History Museum also had a student with the University of Maryland happen upon what might be a fossil of the oldest flowering plant found in North America — although it had previously been considered an ordinary fern. Not infrequently it is these student researchers or interns rooting around the less-visited corners of storage that make such discoveries. Recently, an incredibly significant Revolutionary War-era letter filed away with some Colonial-era doctor receipts was found by an intern in an attic drawer of Manhattan’s Morris-Jumel Mansion. It is soon going on sale at Keno Auctions, where it’s estimated to fetch between $100,000 and $400,000, the New York Times reported. And the internet sleuths have even had some digital discoveries, such this month’s report that previously unknown letters by Frankenstein author Mary Shelley were found in the Essex Record Office when Anglia Ruskin University professor Nora Crook saw an online listing for “Letter from Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley.”

Of course, it’s not all haphazard, as the Asahi Shimbun reported this month that around 20,000 rare Japanese “wahon” books — including those illustrated by Katsushika Hokusai of “Great Wave” fame — were revealed at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston by a group of scholars led by Takatoshi Matsubara of Kyushu University. According to the report, the reason such massive holdings — in this case books that had been in wooden storage boxes for a century — can slip under the radar is that there “are few experts who can decipher an anomalous Japanese cursive syllabary and the sosho style of writing.”

It’s encouraging that so many of these discoveries are recently coming to light after languishing for years in the limbo of museum storage, although still a shame that they were able to slip into obscurity in the institutions dedicated to their preservation. Hopefully this has other museums taking a look at the more unassuming parts of the collections, as you never know what might be revealed there.

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  • Toranosuke

    There is indeed something wonderful about discovering objects in collections. It feels like it counterbalances all the stories we hear now and then of objects being lost or destroyed, and in a sense, it’s truly like discovering works for the first time, with the wonderful bonus of that (in most cases) they’ve been well-preserved by virtue of being in a museum’s storage, even if they didn’t know it was there.

    A related recent story, if I may share, though it doesn’t pertain directly to museum collections, was the re-discovery recently of a “Hell Courtesan” ukiyo-e painting by prominent Japanese artist Kawanabe Kyôsai, which had not been seen since 1942. It went up for auction at Christie’s London a few months ago, along with a whole bunch of other objects previously owned by Josiah Conder (architect designer of many of the earliest & most significant Western-style buildings in Japan) and by pottery expert Bernard Leach.

  • Matt Longhi

    Great article Allison. As you point out, all is not lost forever, as our recent
    discovery makes plain. Luckily for us and for history, there was nothing
    “haphazard” in the care that the helmet received from our curatorial staff over
    the past 100 years, a fact underscored by the artifact’s remarkable condition
    (no collapsing sheds here!). Over the course of our 150-year history, we have
    received national and international recognition for the objects in our two art
    museums, our science museum, and our history museum, and the Tlingit helmet
    serves as an excellent example of the quality of those collections.

    As always, scholarship and research is ongoing at institutions like ours, and we
    await the next exciting revelation!

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