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INTERVIEW: Molly Oldfield on being Quite Interesting and writing The Secret Museum

Molly Oldfield is the real-life identity of one of QI's infamous elves- she also writes a weekly QI column in the Daily Telegraph and researches QI's sister Radio 4 programme, The Museum of Curiosity. On top of all this, she's managed to find time to travel the world, exploring the hidden secrets of museums and including them in her book, The Secret Museum- a unique treasure trove of intriguing artefacts, hidden away in museum archives across the UK and around the globe.

We quizzed Molly on the discoveries she made, her dream museum and the perils of research experiments for QI..

KA: I actually studied classical civilisations and archaeology at university after which I interned at a few museums where, like you, I saw some of the amazing stuff that's not on display. Can you explain to readers not familiar with the industry how and why museums end up with so much stuff they can't showcase?

MO: Some of my friends studied archaeology at university and went off on digs - it looked like fun to me. Well, every museum is different, but generally they try to collect artefacts relevant to their area of specialisation and then care for it for the future. This means that as the public spaces of a museum are obviously limited in size, a huge amount is kept in storage. It’s not ‘hidden’ but few people know it’s there because it doesn’t go on show. The British Museum only displays 1% of its collection – they’re not hiding things, they’re conserving them, but there isn’t space to show everything. There are of course some artefacts which are the star treasures of a collection, but they are too precious to display – this happens a lot with paper drawings, textiles and costumes – they would get damaged by the light if they’re kept on show for too long. In The Secret Museum I included Van Gogh’s pocket sketchbooks – they’re so fragile they can never been shown - a spacesuit covered in moon dust that can’t be displayed as the moon dust is too sensitive to earth air; a flag from the Battle of Trafalgar that is just too big to hang anywhere at the National Maritime Museum so is kept in a box in storage. I didn’t include anything microscopic, but of course Natural History Museums around the world are filled with specimens on slides that are no use in the public galleries, as you can’t see them, but curators dedicate their lives to studying them and they’re hugely helpful for conservation, or for scientists studying global warming. I could go on but this is a long paragraph already!

KA: What was your best discovery whilst writing the book?

MO: I loved everything I included! I saw heaps and heaps of other museum archives, and it was really hard to choose the final objects, a lot didn’t make it in – such as the pubic lice collection of a curator in the Netherlands. If I could only have written about one object it would probably be seeing the spacesuits covered in moon dust…. Or the piece of Isaac Newton’s apple tree… or maybe reading the Gutenberg Bible in the stunning Morgan library in New York… or maybe the storeroom filled with priceless work by Jackson Pollock and Dali at the Peggy Guggenheim Collection on the glittering canal in Venice! Perhaps my best discovery was that it is possible to create a job out of doing what I love – writing, traveling, meeting people and exploring things.

KA: What's your favourite museum in the world? And in London?

MO: I think perhaps going into the Peggy Guggenheim Collection’s bunker was my favourite trip of the book, as it was in May, in Venice, it was sunny, I was shown around by a lovely Italian man, and then came out into Peggy Guggenheim’s stunning house and beautiful collection. I looked out over the canal, in the sunshine and had one of those moments where I thought - I’m SO lucky to be doing this. I think I may have shed a tear, which was really funny – for me – but a bit disconcerting for the curator who’d left me to go and find a biography of Peggy for me to take away, and came back to find me in tears. I couldn't explain why.

In London? Probably the British Museum – they have really great exhibitions – I really liked their one with Grayson Perry where he picked things from the archives and then made pots inspired by it all, I was about three quarters of the way through writing my book when I went to see that and it made me think maybe my book wasn’t quite so crazy after all – I think after my 100th trip into a museum basement, at that point I was starting to wonder what I was doing!

KA: If you were to open a museum, what would be in it?

MO: I’d most like to open a Museum of Curiosity, in the sense of the BBC radio show I work on – a museum filled with things, some of which are objects, others are intangible ideas or concepts. It would definitely have a lovely café, lots of fun people there who knew everything about the exhibits and would be happy to chat to you all about them, a place to go swimming, a space to paint and create art, and make things, and a massive beautiful garden to flop in as I find museums usually make me really sleepy.

KA: Is there anywhere you'd like to have visited for the book but didn't manage to gain access to?

MO: The only people who said no were the Louvre and the Queen (the Royal Collection), although to be fair to the Queen I doubt anyone asked her, and it was quite a busy year for her, the Jubilee and wedding and all.

KA: Are you worried about the effects funding cuts will have on museums and galleries? What can people do to support them?

MO: I don’t really feel qualified to say what effect the cuts will have. I know some community museums have had to close, or reduce their opening hours, which is a terrible shame – they attract visitors to small towns and villages, and are part of the cultural fabric of a place. From what I’ve read, jobs have had to be cut as well. I think museums need all the support they can get to make sure collections are properly cared for, that’s difficult if they can’t afford to employ the right number of staff. Having seen behind the public galleries I know what a lot of work goes on in museums, and how qualified the curators are – their expertise is invaluable and takes decades to amass. They’re doing vital work - not just preserving history – Natural History Museums are a great resource for climate change scientists. I remember speaking to a lady named Mary at the Natural History Museum – she has spent around 20 years working on marine creatures called Bryozoa (about 0.55mm wide). If a scientist looks at specimens of them collected and preserved over the decades they can use them to work out whether the oceans are becoming more acidic. My guess as to what people can do to help is visit museums, organise events there, buy gifts and books in museum shops, take their godchildren, kids and cousins, go to an exhibition with friends rather than meet for a drink – just go to whatever takes your fancy. I love it when friends from other countries come to stay, they’re always blown away by the galleries and museums we have in the UK; by the quality of the spaces, the artwork, artefacts and in so many cases, they’re free – what a brilliant gift to give - just think of all the inspiration museums are passing on to the people who pass through their doors.

KA: You're also one of the infamous QI elves. QI has become a sort of cultural benchmark that people cite as infallible - I'm always hearing people saying 'I heard it on QI'! How rigorous a process do you adopt in order to make sure your facts are reliable? I'm guessing you don't just rely on Wikipedia.

MO: We usually make sure that the information we’re using has been published, in a journal or book, or that it comes from a reliable person, or blog, which we feel is a credible source of information. We once had an elf turn up with a copy of Easyjet magazine but we ignored the questions he came up with in that research meeting and it has gone down in QI elf history as a comedy meeting moment. On the other end of the scale my fellow elf tested out the idea that your hair starts to wash itself after a few weeks by not washing his hair for months. I can tell you, shampoo works better than your own hair when it comes to cleanliness. I had to sit next to him!

KA: Do you have an exceptional memory? Do you think there's anything you can do to improve your memory? I get very worried about mine when I watch an episode of QI that I've seen before and I STILL get the answer wrong, but I like to comfort myself that with QI questions, we've often had the myth or the false answer embedded in our brains since childhood?

MO: I remember what people said, or what I ate when I was in Italy, having a picnic in August, or the feel of things, more easily than facts, but yes, I guess my brain is filled with a lot of Quite Interesting stuff, as well as what’s in the archives and basements of museums around the world. I’m never that sure about what exactly I know but if someone says the word armadillos – then I’m off, the facts come tumbling out. Or space elevators. Or the Amazon. I have a lot of obscure facts.

KA: Any tips on improving your memory?

MO: Apparently eating fish is good for your brains. I’d probably better research whether that is true though!

KA: Are there any guests you'd particularly like to see on QI? The panels are often a bit short of womenfolk.

MO: We’re always asking this question in meetings! We had had an all womenfolk panel last series (except for Alan of course) made up of Jo Brand, Sue Perkins and Liza Tarbuck and it was such fun- we’re doing the same thing again this series, I think it will be Liza Tarbuck, Sandi Toksvig and Susan Calman. We love women, obviously and really would love to have more come on QI. We’ve asked Dawn French and Jennifer Saunders but they haven’t said yes yet. I’d love Eddie Izzard to come on again – he was in the pilot, and was amazing, and one episode in series H but hasn’t had the time to come back since. 

The Secret Museum is published by HarperCollins, you can buy it here or buy the digital version here.

Find out more about the book here.

You can be in the audience for the filming of the new series of QI by booking your place here.