The Museum Book

The Museum Book was published posthumously in 2007 by Walker Books in the UK and its American subsidiary, Candlewick Press, and subsequently in translation. The text begins in a uniquely Jan-like way, both authoritative and entreating …

‘Suppose you went into a museum and you didn’t know what it was. Imagine: it is raining, there’s a large building nearby with an open door and you don’t have to pay to go in. It looks like an Ancient Greek temple. Temples are places of worship. You had better go in quietly.’

Books for Keeps said of the book: ‘[Mark] takes you on a tour of a virtual museum, making you see it with fresh eyes, musing on the source of the word ‘museum’, home of the Muses. She explains why people first began to collect things, from Peter the Great to Elias Ashmole, and how they learned to classify objects. She makes us think about objects taken from their place of origin, whether Elgin Marbles or Egyptian mummies, and the reasons for preserving the past. The greatest museum, she tells us, is our own memory. ‘It will never be full, there is always room for something new and strange and marvellous …’ A splendid legacy of a gifted writer, beautifully illustrated by Richard Holland.’

Caz Royds was the book’s editor at Walker Books, and remembers its conception …

‘I was looking after that part of the Walker list at the time and probably held forth to Jan about narrative non-fiction and uttered some truism about the real world being as exciting as the worlds authors conjure up in their imaginations. Jan said something I’ve never forgotten: every time you write a novel you do a huge amount of research because things in a novel have to be true. She mentioned a book she’d recently written where she’d spent ages learning about radio waves because she needed to understand them for the story. 

From there I must have said, ‘Would you like to write a non-fiction book?’ and she must have said yes. The subject of museums was her choice and my memory is that one reason was her daughter had collected apple cores when she was little – such an unusual way into a subject and I’d never have thought of it myself! I still think the Museum text she wrote is fantastic. So clever and thought provoking – and I do remember that she loved researching it.

I also remember that we were going to follow it with a book on maps and for years after she died I kept a piece of paper with a paragraph she’d written about how the earliest maps had spaces with “here be dragons” on them. Again I thought what a great way in.’

The Museum Book was Jan’s last book, but the first publication for the illustrator, Richard Holland. He offered these thoughts about the experience of the commission …

The Museum Book was my first ever book with Walker Books. I was at the start of my illustration career and Jan’s text was crucial to helping me discover a new way of working.

I remember sitting reading the very first draft sent to me by my editor Caroline Royds. I sat drinking a coffee scribbling ideas as the text was so rich in visual imagery.  I hadn’t come across much of Jan’s work but my editor explained that Jan was a very accomplished author. I remember my first meeting at Walker after reading the text turning up with a whole scrapbook of reference material and scribbles. Stripping it down over the day into a small dummy book took quite an effort. 

I first met Jan about a month after reading the first draft. I was slightly nervous as I didn’t know what to expect. Jan was absolutely lovely and over lunch I found her to be very intriguing. Her input into the work I had already done was really positive. I then remember having a couple more meetings with Jan before she invited me for a day in Oxford. I met her at a pub in Oxford and ended up having my own private tour of Oxford and quite a few glasses of wine! She was a very unique lady who had such a wonderful way of explaining things about Oxford.

By this time I had already created some visuals and final spreads for the book so at least Jan could see her text come to life. Sadly Jan never got to see the final images; my editor phoned me with news that Jan had died. I remember feeling very sad, [but] the text Jan created almost forced me to work in a new style with which I have continued to work with.’ 

‘Here’s a link to an interview with Richard Holland, where he describes his work on The Museum Book.

Illustrations (c) Richard Holland.

Richard illustrated the order of service for Jan’s memorial service, held in London in April 2006.