What are museums hiding in their pasts and inside their collection storage vaults? Some of those secrets (or just lesser-known facts) are being shared by institutions around the world this Museum Week through the hashtag #secretsmw. The social media collaboration is one of seven themed days for Museum Week, which is organized by Twitter and the French Ministry of Culture and Communication. Sure, it’s another handy way to leverage all that museum social media time into some visitor engagement, but many of the museums are sharing some tantalizing tidbits, from secret passageways to hidden art. Here are some highlights.
The Brooklyn Museum shared the beautiful archive image above on Tumblr and Instagram, showing casts of European sculptures, once a popular exhibition practice for American museums, a pre-internet way of sharing global collections, if you will. However, as Jessica Palmieri in the office of the chief curator explains, the casts later fell out of favor: “Rumor has it, they were put to rest beneath our parking lot.”
The National Museum of American History also revealed some of its more curious past with a photograph of staff members in colorful corn costumes for “a faux scholarly conference on corn.” The Smithsonian may be undervalued for its corn resources; check out this pre-Photoshop exaggeration of some cobs from an Iowa county fair in the 1910s in the museum’s collection.
Several museums disclosed their secret passageways or hidden compartments, such as the Grant Museum in London, which highlighted this tiny door to which they’ve never had the key, or the Morgan Library in New York, which revealed a secret bookshelf hidden behind another bookshelf, stating that it’s allegedly where Pierpont Morgan “kept some of his *most private* reading materials.” Below are a couple more hidden doors from the Royal Institution and British Museum in London.
Other museums divulged some unobserved architectural features. The National Portrait Gallery in London has beehives on its roof and even sells the honey in its shops. And visitors to the Imperial War Museum in London may have noticed these concrete covered circles on its steps, which were actually used to deliver coal when the building was the old Bedlam Asylum. In an off-limits space you can still see the metalwork from below.
The Guggenheim Museum in New York has a far more distinguished feature, also obscured by concrete. The great rotunda wall holds behind it a large ceramic tile mural titled “Alicia” (1965-67) by Joan Miró and Josep Llorens Artigas.
The best of these museum facts are details that prompt you to look closer, such as the American Museum of Natural History in New York pointing out that in the Okapi diorama is a North American impostor, placed there in the foreground as a prank by artist George Frederick Mason. The Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, DC, on the other hand, asked viewers to be active in environmental awareness by noting that its North Atlantic Right Whale model is based on a real whale named Phoenix, which has been tracked in the oceans since 1987.
Other museums unveiled some of their darker corners, like the Royal Academy of Arts in London, which shared that one of the flayed corpse casts used by its students was made by three artists who wanted to prove the usual way of depicting the crucifixion of Jesus was anatomically wrong. The Walker Art Center in Minneapolis revealed that it has human remains buried on its grounds: a skeleton gifted to Kiki Smith by David Wojnarowicz, interred by artist Kris Martin in 2009. Meanwhile, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London revealed this about its garden:
On a brighter note, the Walker Art Center also shared this great Vine chronicling some of the emblems that have adorned its shipping crates for every traveling exhibition since 1993. There’s an explanation of some on the museum’s blog, including one that reads “Crates are easy” for 1993’s In the Spirit of Fluxus, referencing artist Ben Vautier’s “Art is easy.”