Molly Oldfield studied at Oxford before becoming a writer and researcher on the BBC television show QI. She has worked on a string of bestselling QI books, writes the weekly QI column for the Daily Telegraph and is a researcher on a BBC4 radio show, The Museum of Curiosity. She met curators and delved into museum basements for her first book, The Secret Museum, which was published in February 2013. For more information, go here.
1. A Flag from the Battle of Trafalgar - The National Maritime Museum, Greenwich, London
This enormous flag was flying from the back of a Spanish warship, San Ildefonso, as it fought against the British fleet led by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar. Its second big moment came when it was hung from the roof of Saint Paul’s Cathedral during Nelson’s funeral service on January 9, 1806, alongside a French flag also captured at Trafalgar, to symbolize the great victory Nelson had won with his bravery, his superior strategy and, finally, his life.
I went to see it inside its cardboard box in storage at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. It is red and yellow striped, with the arms of Castile and Leon in the middle. The name of the ship is written on the hoist in ink: SAN ILDEFONSO. It has holes in it from where it was shot at during the Battle of Trafalgar, and is frayed on the edges from when it flapped in the winds on the stormy seas.
The museum keeps the flag in storage because it’s very fragile and they simply don’t have the space to hang it. It is 10 metres (32.8 feet) long and 14.5 metres (47.5 feet) high and is the biggest flag in their collection. “It’s a whopper,” said Barbara Tomlinson, curator of antiquities since 1979. "We haven’t ever displayed it officially, but in the 1960s the museum was very naughty and hung it for one day from the front of the Queen’s House," one of main museum buildings. But "it trailed on the floor as it was too big—we wouldn’t get away with that now."
2. Harrison Schmitt’s Spacesuit - The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum Archive, Washington D.C.
In Nepal, people think the dead live on the moon. Visiting Apollo astronauts have been asked, "When you were on the moon, did you happen to see my auntie?" Since my trip to the storage facility of the National Air and Space Museum, when I look at the moon, I see hundreds of spacesuits, lying quietly in the cold, and two knees, thickly coated in moon dust.
The space suit storage facility Is located, rather appropriately, in Suitland, Maryland—a metro ride from central Washington D.C. A conservator and a curator opened a spacey, silver door, walked us into a middle room like an airlock, and then into a room filled with spacesuits in stasis. The room is narrow, and lined with hundreds of headless bodies on metal bunk beds. In total, there are 287 suits in the collection, but only a little more than half of these are in storage at any time. Each one is referred to by the name of the astronaut who wore it, and each is displayed on a mannequin and laid out flat on its back on the metal bunk beds, five to six bunks high. We pulled back a sheet and uncovered a body.
It was the spacesuit of Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt of Apollo 17, the only scientist to walk on the moon (and the man who took one of the most famous photographs of all time, a photograph of our planet called "The Blue Marble," of the whole Earth lit up by the sun). His spacesuit is covered in grey dust, especially the knees because he spent his time on the moon crawling around collecting rocks. It looks like ash, but it is moon dust.
The moon dust is the reason why this suit is not on display. Most of the suits from the Apollo missions were dry cleaned, but Schmitt's wasn't—his was the last mission to the moon, and NASA decided to keep the suits just as they were when the astronauts returned to our planet. There isn’t currently a way to display the suit safely without destroying it and its otherworldly dust.
I also got to see Neil Armstrong’s suit, and the boots he wore to take his "one giant leap for mankind."
3. A Piece of Newton’s Apple Tree - The Royal Society, London
I headed downstairs into the basement of the Royal Society (one of the oldest scientific academies in the world), which is stuffed with a quarter of a million manuscripts made up of the musings, publications, and letters of the greatest scientific minds that have ever lived. Mixed in among the books and writings is a piece of Isaac Newton’s apple tree—the one he was sitting beneath when he first considered the idea of gravity.
Pretty much everyone has heard the story about how Newton first described gravity. He was sitting underneath an apple tree when an apple fell from it and bounced off his head. Newton wondered why. His answer? A thing he called gravity. Anyone who has looked deeper into the tale comes up against people saying it wasn’t true. But Newton knew the value of a good anecdote and told it himself. In the Royal Society library, there is a first-hand account of him describing the event to William Stukeley, author of Memoirs of Sir Isaac Newton’s Life (1752). You can read it here if you like. So the apple tree really did inspire Newton, even if the apple didn’t fall on his head.
Just as Newton had never before considered why it was that apples fall to the ground, I’d never thought about which actual apple tree had inspired him—until I saw several pieces of it behind the scenes at the Royal Society. There are two fragments, as well as two rulers and a prism made from the wood of the tree from his childhood home (it is now dead, but has been re-grafted).
One of the fragments is in a little pink plastic bag, because it had just been on an adventure, up into orbit aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis in 2010 so that it could experience zero gravity. The plan was also to drop a real apple on the space station and film whether it was subject to gravity or not. They weren’t able to do the test because an astronaut who didn’t know what they were up to—she will remain nameless—saw the apple lying around and ate it. They could hardly pop out to the shops, so they used a pear instead.
4. The Diamond Sutra - the British Library
I first heard the words of The Diamond Sutra on Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. Frances Wood, curator of Chinese works at the British Library, was the guest. She chose, as her first disc, a recording of Buddhist monks and nuns singing The Diamond Sutra.
I had the radio on in the background, but when I heard the enchanting sound of clanging bells and soulful song, I stopped to listen carefully. Before long, the show’s presenter, Kirsty Young, piped up: "That was a recording of Buddhist Monks and nuns of the Fo Guang Shan temple in Taiwan singing The Diamond Sutra … You said, Frances Wood, that we accrued merit just by playing this?" Frances confirmed, "We did indeed."
Frances went on to talk about the British Library’s copy of The Diamond Sutra. It has the date it was printed marked on the last page—868. This date makes it a world treasure, because it is the earliest dated printed book in the world.
The Diamond Sutra is a teaching given by the Buddha to his disciple, Subhuti. Sutra is the Sanskrit word for "teaching" and the Buddha asked Subhuti to name the lesson "The Diamond of Transcendent Wisdom." He said the words of the sutra will cut like a diamond blade through worldly illusion to teach those who read or chant it what is real and everlasting.
In the teaching, the Buddha explains that chanting it creates merit, or good fortune. Buddhists all over the world chant The Diamond Sutra today, in the same way as it has been chanted for over a millennium. They do this to create merit.
Usually this precious work is kept in a vault in the British Library. It might go on display occasionally, but it’s not likely to stay out for long. Paper is a delicate material and doesn’t react well to light, so it is best if it’s kept inside its wooden box in a special vault—where gas rather than water is sprayed in the event of a fire—with the other most precious books in the British Library.
5. Alicia (1965–67), a mural by Joan Miró and Josep Lloréns Artigas - The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York City
Inside the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York, there is a piece of art that every visitor has passed. But very few people know it is there, and even fewer have ever seen it. It’s a mural, called Alicia, created by the Spanish surrealist artist Joan Miró with the help of his lifelong friend, the ceramicist Josep Lloréns Artigas, and his son. They made it out of 190 ceramic tiles, which they hand painted. It is fairly large—taller than you, and far wider: over 8 feet high and 19 feet wide. It lives behind a white wall, where the curators of the museum keep an eye on it through a secret window to make sure that it's okay.
Harry F. Guggenheim, who was in charge of the museum at the time, commissioned it in 1963 in honour of his wife Alicia Patterson Guggenheim who died that year. In 1967, a party was thrown to celebrate its unveiling on the wall, just inside the entrance to the famous museum, at the foot of the spiral ramp. For many years, the mural was the first thing visitors to the museum would see.
Anyone who knew that Alicia was a tribute to Alicia Patterson Guggenheim may have wondered why Miró poetically wove the name Alice into his abstract creation of shapes and colours, rather than Alicia. Well, Miró was quite mysterious about this; he knew he had been asked to make a tribute to Alicia, but didn’t give any reason for writing Alice instead.
In 1969, it was covered over temporarily during an exhibition, as the curator of the show felt that it disturbed the aesthetics of the space. Because the red, black, blue and grey mural with spirited motifs is such an impressive, timeless piece, it is difficult to exhibit it without it taking over. This is especially true because it hangs on the first wall any visitor to the museum will see. That curator was obviously onto something because, since then, the mural has rarely been on display. Most curators want a blank canvas of white wall for their exhibitions, and usually hang the first artwork of each exhibition on the temporary wall that covers the precious mural.
If you go to an exhibition at the fabulous museum, imagine it there, twinkling behind the wall as you ascend the Guggenheim spiral.
6. Original Draft of "Auld Lang Syne," Robert Burns (1759–96) - The Mitchell Library, Glasgow
All over the world, on New Year’s Eve, we sing "Auld Lang Syne"—which is a bit strange, considering how few of us know what auld lang syne means ("old times’ sake"), or why we cross our arms and hold hands with our neighbour while singing. Still, it is a fun thing to do, and makes everyone glow with bittersweet hope and nostalgia.
The tradition all came about thanks to a piece of paper that is two centuries old and now lives in a black, combination lock briefcase in a secret location within the Mitchell Library in Glasgow. Scotland’s national poet, Robert Burns, took this piece of paper, laid it out on his writing desk and wrote the words to "Auld Lang Syne" upon it in brown ink, using a sharpened feather. It’s best that the paper is kept out of the light, because it is already yellowed, and so fragile it looks as if it might turn into a puff of smoke if you were to blow on it. I couldn’t look at it without singing the words silently in my head.
The song spread across the world as the Scottish people did; they took their traditional song with them, and it caught on. The curators of the library told me that, in Scotland, the song is sung at the end of all kinds of events and celebrations, not just at New Year.
"Auld Lang Syne" really only became the global New Year’s anthem in 1929 because of Canadian singer Guy Lombardo. From 1929 to 1959, Lombardo performed a live radio broadcast from the Roosevelt Hotel in New York City on New Year’s Eve. Each year, his orchestra, the Royal Canadians, would play "Auld Lang Syne" as part of the celebration. It was thanks to radio that the song became a real tradition. Next New Year’s Eve, when you begin singing, "Should auld acquaintance be forgot…" perhaps you will remember the piece of paper that lives quietly, inside a briefcase, in the library in Glasgow. I know I will.
The Secret Museum by Molly Oldfield (HarperCollins) is available now for ipad, £12.99. You can buy it here.