The Impossible Museum subtitles itself ‘The Best Art You’ll Never See’ and author Céline Delavaux collects its contents together under the unusual headings Disappeared; Transformed; Destroyed; Hidden; and Stolen – to draw attention to the world of art that has ‘gone’. We’re all used to visiting museums and seeing Etruscan artifacts, we all know that caves had paintings, and ‘old masters’ are inescapably ‘old’, but what this book focuses on is that which hasn’t survived.
Delavaux also inspires a whole new aspect to the appreciation of anything non-contemporary. Next time you’re in the British Museum, the Met, or Berlin’s Pergamon Museum, spare a part of your enjoyment for the thought ‘Oh my god, these things are still here’. In London for example they have the oldest known article of clothing in the world, it is a shirt that has survived for around five thousand years – in an age where your last-generation iPhone looks like it should be in a museum, this is nothing short of literally unbelievable. The Impossible Museum highlights how lucky we are to still have some of this, and the many ways in which it can end up otherwise.
It is also interesting how many of these stories are familiar – large art crimes make the national newspapers, the destruction of the Buddhas of Bamayan caused an international outcry – this book encourages us to consider these individual cases as facets in the strange lives that some works of art lead, for surely no one expects works to be un-moved or un-bought-and-sold, no one expects a work to exist without a history.
It’s simply the case that when there’s no work, it’s difficult to find a hook to hang the history on. Delavaux’s book represents a welcome collection of stories that would otherwise be, like the works themselves, lost to us.
The Impossible Museum: The Best Art You’ll Never See
by Céline Delavaux is published by Prestel, £16.99.