11/13/2013 08:03 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

8 Treasures That Are Too Precious To Display In Museums (PHOTOS)

I'm a writer on QI (Quite Interesting) the BBC quiz show hosted by Stephen Fry. The question I get asked most by fans of the show is how I come up with the script questions? We like to ask unusual questions like: "Why don't pigeons like going to the movies?" (They have three times our visual processing speed and would be able to see every frame in each second of film -- a bit like watching a slideshow) and "What color is the Universe?" (Beige). I like to go to museums for inspiration and I've spent many an afternoon soaking up new information in beautiful museum spaces.

That was, until three years ago, the fish curators at the Natural History Museum (NHM) in London -- yes really, curators of fish! -- asked whether I would like to go behind the scenes at the museum and see their secret fish. Of course I leapt at the chance and set off into the realm where all the magic happens.

I spent hours in the Natural History Museum storage collection of around 70,000 fish -- preserved in glass specimen bottles, and in tanks and drawers. I saw fish collected by Darwin on the Beagle, put my head in a shark's jaws, played with swordfish swords, peered into the eye of a Giant Squid and saw freakish specimens donated to the museum by Damien Hirst. I realized that there is far more below the surface in every museum than there is out on show. I had unwittingly tripped into the rabbit hole that leads through the worlds of museum archives and their stories and secret treasures.

If you will forgive the fish-based analogy, I was hooked. I walked out of the Natural History Museum wondering whether all museums were like that? The NHM has 95% of its 70 million specimens behind the scenes. I began to wonder, what was in the archive of the Smithsonian museums? How about the New York Public Library? Or the Guggenheim in NYC -- was anything hidden out of sight there? What was lurking in museums in Brazil? I decided to find out.

I traveled the globe to the world's most interesting museums, bypassing the main galleries in favor of the things you can't usually see. The things I found were astounding; in the basement of the Royal Society in London, I put my eye to Newton's telescope, just as he did centuries ago in his lab in the Tower of London; in Edinburgh I pored over the original draft of Auld Lang Syne, now sung all over the world at New Year; at the New York Public Library I held a letter opener which belonged to Dickens -- the handle was made the paw of his beloved cat Bob; and in the Vatican observatory in the countryside outside Rome, I marveled at pieces of Mars.

Two years of adventures later I had written the stories of sixty objects, their hidden location and the curators who care for them. These tales of hidden treasures make up The Secret Museum. It's impossible to pick a favorite because I love them all, but here's a taster to get you started. Hopefully you'll dip into your own copy and find personal favorite treasures to enjoy.

  • Flag from the Battle of Trafalgar
    This is a Spanish ensign flag that flew from the back of a warship called the San Ildefonso during the Battle of Trafalgar. It was then brought back with Nelson’s body after his death during the battle, and it was hung at his funeral at St. Paul’s Cathedral alongside a similar French flag to symbolize the great victory over both countries, won at the cost of his own life. Today the flag is kept inside a cardboard box, wrapped in tissue in the archives of the National Maritime Museum. Due to its size, there simply isn’t a big enough space, even in the rather epic museum, to hang it. The museum hung it once in the 1960s and it trailed all over the floor –- they couldn’t get away with that now –- and more recently they took it out of its box for a day to photograph it. Here is the result –- see how small the curators are compared to the flags?
  • Schmitt's suit
    The curators of the Smithsonian National Air and Space museum in Washington led me through spacey silver doors into a room filled with scores of headless "bodies" -- astronauts' spacesuits being preserved for the generations of the future. The rarest spacesuit – -which has never been on display -- belonged to Harrison H. "Jack" Schmitt of Apollo 17, the only scientist to walk on the moon. It is covered in grey moon dust. Schmitt was a geologist, so on the moon he spent his time collecting rocks. In the process his suit got filthy. The other suits were dry-cleaned when they got back to Earth, but NASA decided to preserve his -- and the precious lunar dust embedded in its fibers. As I peered closely at its knees I got the closest I’ll ever get to the moon. Other than staff from the museum and from NASA, few people have seen the space suit storage. The astronauts occasionally pop by to see their suits, maybe to show them to their grandchildren.
  • A Piece of Isaac Newton’s Apple Tree
    This is a piece of the tree Isaac Newton was sitting underneath, having tea, when he wondered why an apple falls downwards (rather than sideways or upwards), "inventing" gravity (or at least recognizing it). Many believe the story to be an urban myth, but Newton told the story himself in a biography I read in the Royal Society library. The curator who showed me around had lent this piece of tree to some astronauts who were going to the International Space Station and wanted it to experience zero gravity. To complete the Newton experience they also took a real apple with them, but an astronaut –- she will remain nameless -– didn’t realize they were doing experiments and ate it. So they used a pear instead.
  • Livingstone & Stanley’s Hats
    At The Royal Geographical Society in London, curator Alastair Macleod let me hold the hat that Stanley doffed as he uttered the immortal words: "Dr Livingstone, I presume?" And the hat Livingstone doffed back. Interestingly one was made by a tailor called Gieves and the other by a rival named Hawkes, before they joined forces becoming Gieves & Hawkes. They took up residence in 1 Saville Row, once the Royal Geographical Society’s headquarters.
  • Livingstone & Stanley’s Hats
  • Van Gogh’s Sketchbooks
    These are four of Van Gogh’s sketchbooks –- each one was carried in the artist’s pocket at different stages of his life. They need to be kept in the darkness of the archive because like all works on paper they’re very sensitive to the light. The first sketchbook is full of the sights of his hometown in Nuenen and of the people who lived there –-Van Gogh sketched these images when he first decided to become an artist, rather than follow his father into the church. He sketched in another later whilst he was living in Paris in 1886; this pocket book is full of drawings of museum sculptures, female nudes and the windmill at Montmartre, as well as more prosaic things –- one page is taken up with his brother's laundry list. It was sublime to see his sketches of sunflowers on a table in his home in Arles;they mirror the famous paintings precisely. Van Gogh would never have imagined his work would be some of the most famous, priceless paintings in the world.
  • Nabokov’s Butterfly Genitalia Cabinet
    Inside this wooden cabinet are boxes full of small glass vials. Inside each one is a single butterfly penis, collected by the butterfly curator and prolific novelist Vladimir Nabokov, whilst he was a curator at Harvard’s museum. You can also see the index cards he used to catalogue his specimens, and scribble down parts of his novels. Nabokov’s twin passions in life were butterflies and writing; when at Harvard he and his wife Vera would take weekends off to drive into the countryside to collect butterflies –- she at the wheel as he never learned to drive. In the evenings he would write novels on the index cards, and Vera would type them up. Also in the butterfly stores is a Paradise Birdwing butterfly collected in Papua New Guinea; the collector was eaten by cannibals, which goes to show the lengths some go to for their specimens.
  • The First Giraffe In France
    This is a portrait of the first giraffe in France created by Nicolas Huet, a world famous artist in his day. The drawing has never been on show, as it was created for scientific study at the time. Now it is too rare and fragile to exhibit. It is kept in a red leather book in the library of a museum. When the curator showed it to me she drew the blinds before opening the book. The giraffe was a gift to King Charles X of France, from the ruler of Egypt. She came over from Africa to Europe in a boat, with a hole cut out of the top of the boat for her head to poke out of. Three cows were taken along too to feed her milk on the way. When she arrived in Marseille in 1827 she then walked across France to Paris with her keeper, a young boy from Sudan. The whole of France came out to see this strange creature and she sparked off a fashion – people wore their hair "a la giraffe," a bit like Marge Simpson, and her image was plastered all over ceramics. When she arrived in Paris, she was installed in the Jardin de Plantes, which is still a zoo. She lived there for 20 years with her keeper. He slept alongside her each night on a mezzanine, when he got back from nights out partying in Paris. From there, he could scratch her pretty head.

Used with permission from The Secret Museum: Some Treasures are Too Precious to Display by Molly Oldfield, Firefly Books 2013, $35.00 hardcover, available in bookstores everywhere and from online booksellers.