Books & Literature

Book Review: Treasure Palaces, edited by Maggie Fergusson

A treasury of guided tours from great literary writers of their favourite museums all around the world, including Tim Winton, Margaret Drabble and Roddy Doyle.

Maggie Ferguson is the Literary Director for the Royal Society of Literature, editor of The Economist’s lifestyle magazine Intelligent Life and an award-winning biographer. She has collected a treasury of guided tours of favourite museums all around the world, from great writers such as Tim Winton, Margaret Drabble and Roddy Doyle.

I found the chapter Cool Under Fire, on the National Museum of Afghanistan by Rory Stewart, very moving. Stewart, a soldier, diplomat and then British MP, writes of the cycles of destruction by conquerors, over centuries, and the often crude repairs to museum exhibits which still show the tool marks. And yet he tells us the museum is not a depressing place, particularly the new display from recent excavations at Mes Aynak, a 2,000 year old Buddhist religious site which is sadly destined to disappear into a Chinese-financed copper mine.

Through these essays the reader gains an insight not only into each writer’s favourite museum but also into the important role and place of museums in cultural life more broadly and how we can all be educated, inspired and engaged by them. I am certainly inspired to visit the Lower East Side Tenement Museum, New York on my next trip to America.

In There’s Life in These Walls, Roddy Doyle notes the contrast between the Tenement Museum and what he sees in his home town of Dublin, which is full of plaques on buildings where famous people lived:

That is why the Tenement Museum is so special and why I’m here for the third time in 15 years. No famous people lived here. But people did. (Page 2)

We are introduced to the Gumpertz family, or rather the family minus Mr Gumpertz. The apartment is as it would have been when he left for his job as a shoemaker in October 1874 and never returned. The visitor can see a recreation of the parlour where Mrs Gumpertz ran a dressmaking business to support her four children. The museum is a slice of history as the last tenants left in 1935 and the place was boarded up and unoccupied for 53 years.

Readers may find the chapters on museums they have visited of particular interest as the writer may well notice something you have missed on your previous visits. Tim Winton writes about lying on the floor gazing up at the stained glass ceiling of the National Gallery of Victoria when he was a child. As my first visit was as an adult I’ve never done this but have promised myself I will next time I’m in Melbourne, now I’m old enough not to care what other people think.

Not only is the reader introduced to some of the world’s great museums but also great writers whose work we may not yet have encountered. As well as providing an inspiration to add the museums to our ‘must-see’ bucket list, Fergusson includes notes on the authors so we may well add some newly discovered writers to our ever-expanding ‘must-read’ list (if you are like me).

Reviewed by: Jan Kershaw

Rating out of 10:  9

Released by: Allen & Unwin
Release Date: December 2016
RRP: $29.99

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