There was an interesting article in The Atlantic several months ago, written by Ed Yong, about the remains of as-yet undiscovered new species hiding away in the collections of natural history museums.
Those species are, Yong suggests, just some of “the many secrets that are still locked within their drawers and dioramas,” secrets that will only be revealed and studied if we increase our attention on museum archives and stockrooms not as known quantities, but as potential resources of the altogether new and undocumented.
I was reminded of this by a short piece in the New York Times last week, about the skull of “a previously unknown species of extinct dolphin” found “sitting in a drawer at the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.” It is from a descendent of a South Asian river dolphin, and was found in Alaska in 1951.
“One of the great things about the Smithsonian,” researcher Alexandra T. Boersma explained to the New York Times, as if taking a cue from Yong’s article, “is that the collections are so vast. We were just walking around to see if anything was interesting. And then, wow!”
Briefly, recall the instigating event in A.S. Byatt’s novel Possession. There, a researcher uncovers previously unknown letters written by a Victorian poet, folded up and stashed inside a book that “had been undisturbed for a very long time,” we read, “perhaps even since it had been laid to rest.”
Never before published—perhaps never before read by anyone other than their original author—these handwritten notes set off a long sequence of investigations and discoveries and, in the novel’s fictional world, help to partially rewrite British literary history.
Byatt’s archival fantasy—of unknown but magnificent things lying hidden in museums and libraries, in the very places that promised tidiness and knowledge, coherence and totality—is at least equally stimulating when applied to collections of all sorts, from Yong’s and Boersma’s natural history cabinets stuffed full of potential new species, even evidence of forgotten ecosystems, to collections of minerals, antiquities, architectural fragments, or street photographs.
Just one insufficiently described historic artifact, one misattributed drawing, one unpolished gemstone accidentally dropped into the wrong drawer, and off you go, struck by the fever of weaving the threads of the world back together again, one loose detail forcing the entire structure of everything you know to rearrange.