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Originally published January 31, 2014 at 1:16 PM | Page modified February 3, 2014 at 9:10 AM

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Q&A: Author Harriet Baskas, chronicler of museum oddities

Seattle Times book editor

Author appearance

Harriet Baskas

The author of “Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Feb. 12 at the University Book Store, 4326 University Way N.E., Seattle; free (206-634-3400 or Baskas will also be speaking around the state about her book on a tour supported by Humanities Washington; for more information go to and use the search term Baskas.

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Lit Life

Everybody has something they just can’t find out enough about, even if they can’t explain why. For Harriet Baskas, that thing is museums. Not the mammoth, marble-lined kind (though those have their moments) but the museums of the backwaters, byways and small towns of America, the repositories of a community’s heritage.

The word “heritage” is a big tent. We might be talking about John Dillinger’s gun (the Dayton History museum, Dayton, Ohio). Or a quilt pieced from Ku Klux Klan headgear, stitched together by a Puyallup housewife (Yakima Valley Museum, Yakima, Wash.).

Or a pilot’s manual used by Orcas Island’s “Barefoot Bandit,” Colton Harris Moore (Orcas Island Historical Museum, Eastsound, Wash.) when he taught himself to fly. Or the gravestones of Perry Edward Smith and Richard Eugene Hickock, the killers of the Clutter family, made famous by Truman Capote’s book “In Cold Blood” (Kansas Museum of History, Topeka).

These are items that are considered too expensive, too dangerous, too charged with emotion or simply too weird for museums to exhibit, as Seattle author Baskas amply demonstrates in her new book, “Hidden Treasures: What Museums Can’t or Won’t Show You” (Globe Pequot Press, $19.95). “Most museums will say that they don’t show things because they are too fragile or they don’t have room. I was after all the other reasons,” says Baskas, author of six previous books on museums and an NPR commentator on the subject.

Baskas answered questions about her book, the extraordinarily curious items it features and the state of museums in general:

Q: While reading your book I was struck by the power of objects, even when their original owners are long dead. The Ghost Dance Shirt (in the state of Iowa’s historical museum), most likely cut off its dead owner after the battle of Wounded Knee, took my breath away. The gravestones of the “In Cold Blood” killers.

A: You’re exactly right, it’s the power of objects and the stories that become attached to them.

The Clutter family’s killers’ tombstones — some day they will put those out (for display). They are being respectful of their local communities. It’s too emotional for the families that are still around, they need to wait until it turns from news to history. (The Clutters were murdered in 1959.)

Q: The Orcas Island Historical Museum’s collection of evidence in the “Barefoot Bandit” case has similar resonance, I’m guessing.

A: It’s almost the same kind of thing, but it’s brand new. Those objects bring up too many emotions right now.

Q: You include chapters on items that are no longer displayed because they’ve been stolen. Two Lewis and Clark peace medals, given to Native Americans as tokens of goodwill during the Lewis and Clark expedition, were stolen from the Maryhill Museum of Art at Goldendale in the 1980s. What do you think happens to such items? Where do they wind up?

A: It’s like artwork that gets stolen. People just love to have it. They might not show it or tell anyone, they just need to have these things.

It was interesting — at first they (museum directors) didn’t want to talk about things that were stolen — it was embarrassing. And then they thought, maybe someone will bring it back.

I talked to the FBI agent in charge of art theft. He said for small museums, security is very expensive. Most of the things that get taken are stolen out of the backroom.

Q: You tell the story of “Jimmy,” a porcelain doll in a Kentucky museum who keeps scaring the staff, partially because he keeps moving around on his own.

A: I actually went to visit that doll recently and got my picture taken with him. That doll is more scary in person than in the picture.

Q: These museums hold our country’s heritage in their hands, and many of them are small and not well funded or staffed. Are you concerned about that?

A: I worry that these small museums aren’t going to exist for very much longer — the money, the security, that there won’t be enough old people to (volunteer to) sit there between two and four. Bigger museums have a hard enough time.

Mary Ann Gwinn: 206-464-2357 or Gwinn appears every Tuesday on TVW’s “Well Read,” discussing books with host Terry Tazioli (go to for archived episodes). On Twitter @gwinnma.

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