11 Delightful Books Set in Museums That Take you Behind the Scenes

11 Delightful Books Set in Museums That Take you Behind the Scenes

Tuesday, 26 July, 2022

Museum gipsoteca antonio canova, via canova, possagno, province of treviso, italy

Whether an airy atrium filled with carefully placed statuary — like The Museo Antonio Canova above — or display shelves packed all higgledy-piggledy with curious objects, museums are a source of delight and wonder, education and inspiration.

As you can see from the photo of Antonio Canova’s Neoclassical marble statues, the museum that bears his name is pretty epic. But we here to state the obvious: All museums are pretty epic.

Here are 11 books set in museums that took us behind-the-scenes of institutions, both grand and playful. These stories filled us with a desperate desire to be locked in a museum overnight like Claudia and Jamie in the children’s classic From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler.

Our list includes recommendations for every type of reader: historical fiction, lush coffee table books, breezy how-to guides, and novels with just the right touch of fantasy. To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Museums: Museums: A Gathering of Muses, A Clutch of Curators.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Museums: A Gathering of Muses, A Clutch of Curators.

The Cabinets of Barnaby Mayne - Elsa Hart

In all of London, no one has a cabinet of curiosities as grand as that of Sir Barnaby Mayne, a fact of which he’s all-too-eager to remind his colleagues and competitors. Despite his prickly exterior, his house/museum has become a place of study for the curious and scholarly. But one day, his hubris catches up with him, and he’s stabbed to death among his treasures.

Enter Cecily Kay. She’s detail-oriented, observant, and tenacious — with a blooming expertise in plants and an insatiable curiosity that she’s not afraid to follow into dire circumstances. She becomes convinced the humble fellow who confessed to the murder is not guilty. And soon, she’s both hunter and hunted in her quest to solve the mystery.

This is a solidly rendered murder mystery made delightfully charming thanks to our intrepid heroine and the floor-to-ceiling wonders of the cabinet of curiosities. Every surface of the Mayne residence is festooned with stones, bones, books, pelts, jewels, gewgaws, and artifacts that dazzle the eye and the intellect. And spending time with Cecily is a treat: a heroine thirsty for knowledge with the integrity to do the right thing, no matter the personal cost.

The emerald had grown in a vein of quartz fed by the liquid heart of the earth. In the three thousand years between the day it was pried from its rocky setting and the day it became part of the Mayne collection, it had been given to kings and wrested from them. It had been embedded in one of the eye sockets of a sculpted god. It had glittered on the hilt of a sword wielded in sunlit battle. It had adorned the throat of a doomed bride. It had also acquired etchings: on one side the lion-headed Chnoubis, on the other a ring of Greek letters that spelled a long-forgotten name. The label written in Sir Barnaby’s hand claimed that it had belonged for a time to the historian Tacitus, who had found it on the shores of the Baltic Sea. — Elsa Hart

Little - Edward Carey

This is the (mostly) true story of a tiny girl who grew up to be the diminutive but fierce Madame Tussaud, she of wax museum fame. Her story begins in a Swiss village and takes us to the Monkey House in Paris, the Palace of Versailles, and a prison during the French Revolution — all in the company of uncanny figures made of wax.

After her parents’ deaths, Marie, a.k.a., Little, is apprenticed to a wax sculptor in Paris. The streets are muddy. The house creeks and is always cold. And her adopted ‘family’ is dominated by a tyrannical widow determined to exclude Little from all human comforts and affection.

As Little and her guardian, the real-life physician and wax sculptor Dr. Philippe Curtius, gain notoriety for their waxworks, she finds herself among famous Parisians, including the author Louis-Sébastien Mercier and Princess Elizabeth, the sister of Louis XVI. For a brief, glowing moment, Little is on her way to being the toast of the town. But fortunes change quickly when one is associated with a royal court.

This grim and grimy fairy tale of Little’s life is an inspiring one that shows what happens when a miniature person embodies a big talent and an outsized dose of grit.

For this is true: Curtius, in his great hall, has abolished privilege! Curtius has dismissed all laws of etiquette. Curtius has done away with class. Where else in the world might a pauper approach a king? Might the mediocre touch genius? Might ugliness draw close — without shame — to beauty? The Cabinet is the only place. — Edward Carey

Cabinets of Curiosities - Patrick Mauriès

Curl up in a window seat — literally or figuratively — and lose yourself in this lush carnival ride through the history of Cabinets of Curiosities.

Back in the days of Shakespeare, men with means collected objects from around the world and displayed them in rooms that came to be known as a Kunstkammer (chamber of art) or Wunderkammer (chamber of marvels). In English, we call them cabinets of curiosities. The contents of these cabinets were eclectic and represented whatever caught the collector’s fancy.

As this passion for hoarding — and the quest for knowledge — spread across Europe, collectors developed a belief that books and objects together would create understanding. Soon sparkly geodes and hunks of coral were displayed alongside narwhal horns and oil paintings, all tucked into cabinets and drawers surrounded by bookshelves. It was au courant to suspend a stuffed crocodile or alligator from the ceiling and to tuck an oversized globe into a corner.

Every page of this showstopper book delivers a delight: a color photo of an unusual objet d’art, a vintage illustration from centuries ago, paintings of the big personalities of the day, and captions that read like Renaissance-era gossip.

Ulisse Aldrovandi was a man with an irresistible passion for accumulating and recording information. When he went to Rome as a young man, he made a list of all the ancient statues in the city and where they were. When he returned to take up a university post in Bologna, he applied the same energy to the natural world. ‘Nothing is sweeter than to know all things,’ he said… at the time of his death, he had amassed nearly 8000 panels bearing representations in tempera of exotic or rare objects from nature… in addition to 11,000 beasts, plants, and minerals in this collection, and the 7000 pressed plants that he amassed and glued into 15 volumes. — Patrick Mauriès

A Parisian Cabinet of Curiosities: Deyrolle - Prince Louis Albert de Broglie

This beautifully rendered hardback (with a slipcover!) has a satisfying heft — like something a Victorian might have passed down through the generations. Through gorgeous color photos and conversational text, it tells the history of Deyrolle, a definition-defying hybrid of natural history museum and boutique found in Paris since 1881.

Deyrolle was founded in 1831 by Emile Deyrolle, the fifth naturalist in his family. They published educational charts and books for other researchers and schools. Emile thought it was essential to engage kids’ curiosity while educating them, so all of the Deyrolle output came from a place of enthusiasm, a desire to inspire wonder.

Every page of this book is filled with that wonder.

Geometric compositions made from butterflies and insects look like images shot through a kaleidoscope. There’s a stuffed ostrich wearing aviator goggles and a full-sized unicorn with wings. On another page, a fuzzy monkey contemplates the skull he holds in his tiny hands. Another two-page spread features an assembled menagerie in a room painted spring green, a gilded chandelier overhead with floor-to-ceiling windows that look out over the Paris street.

Providing captions and context for the images is the Deyrolle story — from its inception as an education company through the devastating 2008 fire that destroyed its collection and its subsequent restoration, thanks to the love and support of artists. There are also charming details about the institution’s relationship throughout the decades with filmmakers and artists, including Salvador Dali and Wes Anderson.

Deyrolle is a cabinet of curiosities where each open drawer is a manifestation of the world. Curiosity does not clamor for fortune but demands something called wonder, which is much more precious. And in this one-of-a-kind boutique where everything coexists without excessive aesthetics and overstatement, it is not uncommon for a customer to cross boundaries, with a question leading them behind the counter, or even usurping the place of the employee who is never ruffled by interruptions. — Prince Louis Albert de Broglie

Metropolitan Stories - Christine Coulson

If you ever fantasized about getting locked in a museum overnight — or imagined that when a portrait’s eyes seem to be following you, it really is watching — this is the novel for you.

Author Christine Coulson worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York for more than 25 years — with this charming, moving novel, we get to go there, too. The story unfolds in a series of interconnected vignettes that celebrate the art and the workaday parts of the institution: the storerooms, the corridors, the cafeteria.

The Met’s collection includes more than 2 million objects: paintings by Picasso and Pollack and Titian. Mary Cassatt. Vermeer. Sculptures, musical instruments, costumes, and weapons. Period Rooms that recreate different types of rooms through time and place with furniture, knick-knacks, and lighting. There’s an enormous gallery with a reflecting pool and the ancient Temple of Dendur built around 15 BCE.

It’s an awe-inspiring place, and each object has a story to tell. The tone is set from the start, when the book begins with a confessional piece from an 18th-century armchair that once tenderly cradled the derrière of Louise-Élisabeth of Parma. The chair poignantly describes life in the family home, the heartbreak of being kept in a storage closet, and the near-joy it feels when a toddler almost makes it past the velvet rope to climb onto its pink velvet seat.

In other chapters, we meet security guards and the men responsible for changing the gallery lightbulbs; at the Met, the maintenance team is essential to the art, too. There’s a comical scene in which an administrator desperately searches for the right muse to be at his side during an important meeting with a fashion designer. He interviews all the muses from various artistic eras and genres of art — it’s a fun poke at the politics of museum life and a primer on art history at the same time.

Tender and elegant and funny, this is the kind of book you press into your friend’s hand so they can experience the magic, too.

‘Do you ever get cold near the Washington Crossing the Delaware painting? Or feel a breeze near that eighteenth-century Indian watercolor of the huge bat in the Islamic Galleries, like it’s flapping its wings?’ Radish smoothed his pants, knowing that he wasn’t getting any traction with Maira.

‘No, Henry, I don’t,’ she smirked, ‘And you sound like a lunatic.’

Radish didn’t mention that he could also hear the complaints of the boys in Washington’s boat as they crossed the Delaware: This was a crap idea, the soldiers grumbled as Radish shivered.

‘Right. Of course. It’s just, well, they are great paintings, I suppose. Powerful stuff…’ Radish stammered. He stood up and tucked his shirt into his pants for the third time since they’d sat down. ‘We should probably go,’ he said to end the conversation. — Christine Coulson

A Pure Heart - Rajia Hassib

This is a story about sisters. And if you know anything about sisters, that means it’s a story of deep love and discord, loyalty and letdowns. The stakes are even higher for these sisters — Rose and Gameela — because their story takes place in 2016, when the dust of Egypt’s revolution was still swirling in the air.

Rose is an Egyptologist, married to an American reporter and transplanted to New York City to work at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Gameela, whose teenage rebellion involved embracing devout Muslim practices, stayed in Cairo. Angry at Rose. And, it turns out, living a secret life. When Gameela is killed in a suicide bombing, Rose makes it her mission to find out what her sister was keeping from the family.

In a detective novel, this would be the beginning of a suspenseful inquiry into Gameela’s death. But this is a family story, so her investigation feels more like atonement as she unearths secrets and plumbs the depths of her own marriage.

Author Rajia Hassib tackles tough material with great care and no judgment, revealing the secrets Gameela felt she had to keep and helping us see how a tender young man can be moved to radicalism. Her prose is descriptive without being precious, weaving fascinating behind-the-scenes details and bits of Egyptian mythology into her modern story. Her words are a bit of sorcery, making us feel empathy for the terrorist and transporting us the clamor of Cairo and a sun-kissed farm in the country.

‘I fell in love with the Pharaohs at a very young age, during a visit to the Egyptian Museum. I had never been that close to relics before, and I remember looking up at King Tut’s mask and wondering what the writing on the back said. I became quite obsessed with it; had to learn to read hieroglyphs. Nagged my father until he got me a book on the subject. I started then and I never stopped.’ She did not tell him about The Curse of the Pharaohs, the book she had read weeks before that visit, the nights she spent dreaming of the sordid fates and sudden deaths of many of those present at the opening of King Tut’s tomb (all nonsense, she would learn much later, all medically explicable, much to her disappointment). She had wanted to decipher the hieroglyphs to see if they spelled any curses, if the Pharaohs had engraved words of protection and wrath on the young king’s death mask. For weeks, she lay on the floor in her bedroom, a book opened before her, and copied the old hieroglyphs: the f a snake, the a an arm, two feathers for a y, the r shaped like parted lips, a dangling rope with a tie for a w or ou sound, a knotted rope for an s or a z. She wrote her name in hieroglyphs: Fayrouz. Rose, as she insisted people call her shortly afterward. — Rajia Hassib

How to Enjoy Art: A Guide for Everyone - Ben Street

In this lively, entertaining book, art historian Ben Street invites you to come with him to look at art. He arms you with ideas to help you understand and enjoy the works — no background in art production or history required.

When you hear a song on the radio, it either moves you or it doesn’t, but you probably don’t think, ‘If I knew more music theory, maybe that song would be better for me.’ Street argues your relationship with a piece of art and how it hits you, should be the same.

To show how that can be done, this breezy book is divided into chapters on color, scale, process, placement, and content. At each step, he writes about what those things can mean with plenty of examples to interrogate your feelings: How does it affect you that this portrait is tiny and part of a brooch? What does it mean that the Statue of Liberty is enormous, and how different it would be if it could sit comfortably on a table? What does it say about the work when it’s put in a museum? How would it be different if it was sitting in a Renaissance-era church?

This tidy volume is a delight. Fair warning: You will be eager to visit a museum as soon as possible. To look at art. To ask questions. To think about the artist. To find the works that hit you like your favorite song.

You’re standing in a fairly crowded museum, looking at a work of art you’ve never seen before. It could be anything: a fragment of ancient pottery; a video projection composed of footage found on the internet; a still-life painting of rotting fruit; a porcelain sculpture of a flirtatious couple; a quilt stitched with an abstract pattern; a photograph of a baby’s foot. Any one of these objects might form the center of a lifetime’s worth of research and analysis. Equally, any one of them might be glanced at for a couple of seconds, passed by and instantly forgotten. These two extreme possibilities reflect the simple choice anyone has when encountering a work of art. In any art experience, you have a decision to make: Should you stay or should you go? The only decision that really matters is that one. Either give your time to the experience, or move along; there is no middle ground. Not that it’s an easy decision to make. — Ben Street

A Little History of Art - Charlotte Mullins

Buckle up, buttercup. You’re about to take a romp through about 100,000 years of art, and it’s a thrilling ride. You’ll travel the world — Peru, Australia, the Niger Valley, and beyond — and meet well-known artists like Pablo Picasso and Frida Kahlo, along with forgotten creators with comparable impact.

Your guide through this visual world is Charlotte Mullins, art critic, writer, and broadcaster. She’s very good at translating all of her knowledge into engaging prose for a general audience in a voice that’s simultaneously authoritative and warm. Imagine the engaging, unconventional history teacher you wish you’d had, and you’ll come close. She makes art and history exciting, accessible, and — most effectively — relevant to life right now.

The story of art unfolds through forty short chapters, each beginning with a vignette of what was happening in the world at the time. Context is everything, and Mullins vividly describes artists making art in their time. This supports two crucial ideas: artists are making art everywhere (right now!), and art is about people. Sure, it’s maybe made from paint or paper, stone or wood, etched into a wall or splashed onto a canvas, but really, it’s about people: sorrow, joy, family, foes, events of the day.

The end of life at Bonampak must have been swift. The paintings are dated 791 CE but a quarter of the hieroglyphs remain unfinished, suggesting work suddenly halted. It seems as if the next war didn’t go their way and the site was abandoned, covered by rainforest for over one thousand years until it was rediscovered in 1946. — Charlotte Mullins

The Illustrated Guide to the Egyptian Museum in Cairo - Allessandro Bongioanni

This 600+ book does a remarkable job of bringing the Egyptian Museum in Cairo into your home. There are photos of antiquities on nearly every page, along with illustrations, floor plans, and engaging text that are like a private tour of this show-stopping museum.

Among the artifacts in the museum are two statues of King Tutankhamun — made of cedarwood and covered with gold — funeral figurines that belonged to the Nubian kings, and sarcophagi as far as the eye can see. The collection also includes larger-than-life statues and tiny bits of everyday life: coins, a piece of cloth, miniature figurines, scraps of notes written in ancient Greek and Latin, colorful hieroglyphics from Arabic and Egyptian scribes, gold jewelry. A bronze statue of a falcon with gold inlays and an elaborate hat is delightful and poignant.

Each item is photographed in full color and accompanied with text that’s charming and soothing. Regarding the falcon: ‘This splendid item made from gold and silver attracts the attention of the museum visitor. The status seems imbued with the mystery of the god-falcon, who is represented with a large sun disk on his head, a proud gaze, and talons solidly set. The difference in color of the metals used for the body and feet gives the creature elegance and lightness. The body is split in two so that it can contain the mummified body of a real falcon.’

Soon this book will be an artifact itself. The Egyptian Museum in Cairo is about to close and will be replaced by The Grand Egyptian Museum. So, for now and for always, this book will be the closest you can get to the treasures and somewhat dusty dignity of the Egyptian Museum in Cairo.

Heads up: You can read this book in its entirety online in the Internet Archive.

At mealtimes, the Egyptians for the most part ate bread and drank beer that were both made at home using water and the flour of spelt or barley. The bread was made in different forms that probably corresponded to different tastes. Left-over soured pastry was used as a yeast and sweetmeats were prepared using honey, dates, carobs, and currants. Beer was made by fermenting bread cooked only on the outside, crumbled, and probably mixed with date juice. These basic foodstuffs were accompanied by various types of vegetables, fruits, and, on occasion, meat or fish. Wine, cider, and cow or goat’s milk were also very popular. — Allessandro Bongioanni

The Last Painting of Sara de Vos - Dominic Smith

What do Amsterdam in 1631, New York in 1957, and Sydney in 2000 have in common? The remarkable (fictional) painting ‘At the Edge of the Wood’ by the equally remarkable (fictional) painter Sara de Vos. But fiction has a sneaky way of being truer than real life.

In the world of this novel, our heroine Sara de Vos is the first woman to be admitted as a master painter in the Guild of St. Luke. Defying convention and risking her reputation, she paints a haunting landscape of a young girl standing at the edge of a forest, watching a group of ice skaters on a frozen river.

The painting is not only beautifully arresting, its impact echoes through the ages.

In mid-20th-century New York, it’s passed into the hands of a wealthy lawyer named Marty. During a charity gala he and his wife are hosting at their home, the painting is replaced with a replica. We, as readers, know the forger: It’s Ellie, a struggling art history student.

Decades later, Ellie has left her art restoration and forgery days behind her. She’s a respected, accomplished art historian and curator in Sydney. And then the past comes calling.

Deftly threading elements of a heist story, historical fiction, and workplace drama, this novel is a page-turner packed with fascinating, insider detail, like the unexpected tragedy of the 1637 tulip mania and the draconian regulations of the painters’ guild. Or a behind-the-scenes look at what it’s like to mount an exhibition at a museum: how the galleries are set up, how paintings are transported and by whom, the security and handoff, and what happens at the opening night gala.

Thrilling and moving, this story explores what art can mean to people with a deep understanding that our puny human lives have different seasons. Fortunes change, relationships evolve as we move through time. But art? That’s eternal.

The painting is stolen the same week the Russians put a dog into space. Plucked from the wall right above the marital bd during a charity dinner for orphans. This is how Marty de Groot will tell the story in the years ahead, how he’ll spin it for the partners at the law firm and quip it to comedic life at dinner parties and over drinks at the Racquet Club. We’re dipping shrimp in cocktail sauce, working Rachel’s best china out on the terrace because it’s mild for early November, you understand, while two thugs — middlemen disguised as caterers, let’s say — are swapping out the real painting with a meticulous fake. He’ll be particularly proud of that last phrase — meticulous fake. He’ll use it with friends and insurance agents and the private investigator, because it sets up the rising action of the story, suggests that a prodigy or mastermind has been patiently plotting against him, just as the Russians have been conspiring all these years to colonize the stratosphere. The phrase will also help disguise the fact that Marty didn’t notice the beautiful forgery for months. — Dominic Smith

The Kill Artist - Daniel Silva

Gabriel Allon is a master spy, a reluctant assassin, and the world’s foremost art restorer — his cover and true passion. The work he does for the clandestine Israeli organization known simply as ‘the Office’ is a responsibility, rarely his desire.

Almost against his will, he’s become the spiritual and tactical team leader for a group of often-difficult, but supremely talented, agents who carry their (mostly) heartbreaking backstories with them like broken-in luggage.

In each installment of this 22-book series, Gabriel and his team are on the side of the angels as they undertake complex missions to stop terrorists around the globe.

The Kill Artist is the first novel in the series, and it’s a heart-stopping introduction to Gabriel and his found family of espionage experts. When Israel’s ambassador is murdered in Paris, the team commits to a fraught quest to stop the Palestinian terrorist Tariq al-Hourani. As the investigation reveals secrets, Gabriel is forced to relive the devastating tragedy that destroyed his family.

The action jets to some of the most cosmopolitan cities on the planet — Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, London, Amsterdam, Lisbon, Paris, Montreal, and New York — with plenty of behind-the-scenes details of Gabriel’s restoration work. It’s a big story told on a personal scale through characters that are all too human.

His goal was to make the retouching invisible to the naked eye. The brush strokes, colors, and texture all had to match the original. If the surrounding paint was cracked, Gabriel painted false cracks to hide retouching…. His mission was to come and go without being seen. To leave the painting as he had found it, but restored to its original glory, cleansed of impurity. — Daniel Silva

Top image courtesy of Matteo Maretto/Unsplash.

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