Museums are magical places. I learned this at a young age from a book called From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler by E L Konigsburg. First published in 1967, it tells the story of Claudia Kincaid and her brother Jamie who, fed up with life at home and “the sameness of each and every week”, run away to live in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. This they do with some success – pretending to be ordinary visitors – but these are visitors who make use of the antique furniture out of hours. They explore the galleries, find places to hide, dodge security guards, and tag along with unknown school parties. During their stay in the museum, they become fascinated by a statue of an angel which is attracting record-breaking crowds because it might (or might not) be a piece by Michelangelo. The provenance of the angel is inconclusive, so Claudia and Jamie set out to prove whether or not it is the work of Michelangelo.
“They decided to do their research when they had the statue and the museum to themselves. Claudia especially wanted to make herself important to the statue. She would solve its mystery; and it, in turn, would do something important to her, though what it was she didn’t quite know.”
The sheer hard graft, the excitement swiftly followed by disappointment, and the need for lateral thinking by researchers is beautifully conveyed by Claudia and Jamie. Anyone who has ever researched anything or anyone will probably recognise the promise of a museum or archive: the prospect of finding a missing piece of information, that elusive bit of evidence missed by everyone else. The joy of finding what you had hoped for – and the bitter disappointment of the empty, disappointing, or censored file, or of an exhibit removed for conservation.
If I’m looking up something specific, I plan museum and archive visits carefully to make the most of the time I have there. But if I’m just looking for inspiration, I love very unstructured visits, just wondering through and stopping at things that catch my eye. The unstructured wander means finding things by accident – and who can tell where that will eventually lead?
A couple of months ago I was in the Victoria and Albert Museum in South Kensington – my best place in London for a wander when looking for quilting inspiration. I’m particularly fond of a satin doublet dating from 1630-40, which is quilted with a breathtaking level of detail. I go and stare at this item every so often and usually end up peering beadily through the glass case, muttering about the skill of the stitching. After my last visit I even went and bought some satin with a view to attempting some very tight quilting – and found it terribly slippery to work with.
Once I’d admired the doublet for quite some time, I visited the Medieval Galleries – not part of the museum with which I am very familiar. And there I stumbled across one of the most extraordinary things I have ever seen – the Tristan Quilt.
This Italian bed covering dates from about 1360-1400 and was made in Florence, from linen and cotton, embroidered with linen. It shows fourteen episodes from the life of Tristan, one of the heroes of medieval literature and is simply extraordinary in its ambition and the level of skilled work involved. The narrative structure seems to have been disrupted as a result of restoration work, but the overall impact is stunning.
Of course seeing this quilt whetted my appetite for a new research project. What were the techniques used? How has the quilt been restored? How much is already known about it and what else can be discovered? And there’s a sewing project there – why aren’t I making a wholecloth-telling-a-story quilt? Sadly these questions will have to wait. I’ve got too much else on at the moment (I intend to finish my Maurice Elvey thesis in 2017) so I can’t afford to get distracted by all the many intriguing things that catch my eye in museums and archives at the moment. But they are still there – waiting.
And what of Claudia and Jamie? Did they ever answer the mystery of the angel? Was it sculpted by Michelangelo? I couldn’t possibly spoil the story. You will just have to read From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs Basil E Frankweiler to find out.