As everyone knows, I love beachcombing. I enjoy finding some strange object – perhaps a fragment of something larger, but itself too small to reveal much, or something so weathered and distorted that identification is a real challenge. Perhaps being a palaeontologist comes from a similar impulse. I remember, though, as an undergraduate, one of my favourite exams was the kind in which you were presented with spot-tests of mystery objects, drawn from the university’s natural-history archive, and you had to do your best to identify the object. It could have been a fossil. A butterfly. Some gnarled thing, whether man or mandrake. If you didn’t know immediately, you had to work out some test of elimination, a kind of twenty-questions, animal-vegetable-mineral, in the hope of tracking the elusive quarry down some blind alley in your mind, and so trapping it.
And if I love beachcombing, I simply adore old-fashioned museum collections that still keep half an eye on the past, when they were still cabinets of curiosities, meant to delight and puzzle as much as educate and inform. My novel By The Sea was written very much as a homage to that kind of old-fashioned museum-going experience.
The very first museum I visited as a child was just like that – a jumbled-up cave of the weird, the wonderful, and the grotesque. It was, and still is, the Horniman Museum in South London. Imagine my delight when at a conference last year I met Paolo Viscardi, the current natural-history curator at that venerable instution. Paolo’s personal blog, Zygoma, shows that he, like me, shares a taste for the wondrous and the exotic. And, joy of joys, each Friday Paolo offers up a mystery museum object for his readers to identify. We all have a stab at it, and Paolo offers teasing clues throughout the day, finally revealing all the following week. This week’s example is particularly challenging. And probably rather gruesome, too. But that’s the way we like it. Why don’t you drop by and take a look for yourself? Go on – you know you want to.