This is a list of children’s books (including YA) which feature/are inspired by museum artefacts on public display around the world. The original idea for this list was to find books I could share with my kids and for us all then to be able to visit the museum/see the artefact in question.
For this list I’ve focussed on historical artefacts rather than paintings (although I accept the distinction between museum and art gallery may at times be moot). This list does not include children’s books inspired by paintings or featuring art galleries. I intend to do a second post looking at such books, though in the meantime you may find this list created by the Kalamazoo Institute of Arts of interest if you are looking for painting/art gallery inspired children’s / YA books.
The creation of this list was aided immensely by the enthusiastic and thoughtful responses I received to my queries about such books on two email lists: the Jiscmail CHILDREN-LITERATURE-UK list and the Rutgers Child_Lit list. I’m grateful to all members who discussed this topic with me, and I thank them personally at the end of this list.
I have not yet been able to individually check every single suggestion for books to include on this list, so please do let me know if there are any errors or misjudgements in my list. If you are able to provide further details on any of the books, or wish to suggest any new books to add to the list, please let me know via the comments.
If you do not wish to browse the entire list please click immediately below for museums/books in a given country.
British Museum, London
The true (ish) story of a Suffolk ploughman who discovered one of the most celebrated hoards ever found in the UK. The Mildenhall Treasure consists of 34 pieces of highly decorated Roman silver tableware of the 4th century AD is is part of the British Museum’s permanant display. Click here to visit the page on British Museum’s website about the Mildenhall Treasure.
This was inspired by a dream Thompson had which featured the Lewis Chessmen from the British Museum. Click here to visit the page on the British Museum’s website about the Lewis Chessmen.
Also inspired by the Lewis Chessmen. Click here to visit the page on the British Museum’s website about the Lewis Chessmen.
This is a picture book inspired by a real life “Ottoline, a beautiful white cat, who lived next door to the British Museum. She used to visit the museum in search of other friendly cats but could only find ones in glass boxes!“. Ottoline has a very simple website of her own here.
This draws freely on the collections of the British Museum: The five children time travel and bring a Babylonian queen back to London. She tries to get her personal possessions out of the British Museum.
Rick Riordan’s The Red Pyramid begins with the children’s father attempting to use one of the Egyptian artifacts at the British Museum as a magic tool (the father takes them to the museum under the pretence of studying the Rosetta Stone); part of the back story includes a scene involving Cleopatra’s Needle. There are also other references to museums and artefacts throughout the Kane Chronicle trilogy.
The third in the Bartimaeus series features the British Museum – it is partially destroyed.
In this second book in the Theodosia series about the imagined Museum of Antiquities and Legends in London, Theodosia meets a Mr Tetley of the British Museum.
Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Whilst the V&A does not feature in the story, the waistcoat in the story can be viewed in the V&A. Click here to visit the page on the V&A website about the waistcoat.
A picture book about a family visiting the Victoria and Albert Museum, which highlights several items in the V&A’s public collection
The three sisters are taken on a walk to see the dollhouses at the Victoria & Albert Museum most days.
Lots of the toys in the V&A Museum of Childhood (on a different site to the main V&A buildings) are included in this book, though I don’t know how many are on public display
Natural History Museum, London
This opens at the Natural History Museum in London. The artefact is a statue of a pterodactyl on the building itself rather than anything inside it.
This forthcoming title (published by the museum itself) is about the day the Queen and one of her corgis go to visit the dinosaurs at the Natural History Museum.
A companion book to Ottoline at the British Museum (see above).
About an unconventional Victorian child who is very interested in dinosaurs and fossils, this book features both The Natural History Museum and the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace
Katie has an adventurous trip back in time to meet the dinosaurs.
Imperial War Museum, London
Inspired (partly) by a toy dachshund made by a German prisoner of war, an object now in the care of the Imperial War Museum. You can read more about it in this article in the Guardian newspaper.
Dinosaur Court, Crystal Palace, London
A wonderful picture-book about the 19th-century museum dinosaurs that Hawkins built.
Dinosaurs come to life in this story and they are based on the statues in the gardens at Crystal Palace (and still to be found there). LitWits Workshops has an interesting collection of useful links about this story.
About an unconventional Victorian child who is very interested in dinosaurs and fossils, this book features both The Natural History Museum and the dinosaurs at Crystal Palace
Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford
This book includes a key scene set in the Pitt Rivers museum with shrunken heads.
Multiple scenes set in the Pitt Rivers Museum, including references to the shrunken heads.
The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford
This includes a chapter that takes place in the Ashmolean Museum and describes some of the artefacts, though that is not the main plot of the book.
The words “Liht mec heht gewyrcan” on the first of the Signs which Will Stanton finds is a steal from the Alfred Jewel in the Ashmolean (“Aelfred mec heht gewyrcan” – Alfred had me made).
Reading Museum, UK
Inspired by a Roman eagle (not actually a legionary standard) in Silchester / Calleva museum. See her note to the latter book.
Whitby Museum, UK
There are references to both the Hand of Glory in Whitby Museum and 1861 lifeboat disaster display at the Whitby lifeboat museum in this book.
Eden Camp, UK
Georgie’s class goes on a trip to Eden Camp, a former POW camp turned into a World War 2 museum of 29 huts each dedicated to one aspect of the war.
Sutton Hoo, UK
At one point this references the Sutton Hoo ship.
Bronte Parsonage Museum, UK
This book revolves around the toy soldiers Charlotte, Anne, Emily and Branwell Brontë were playing with during their childhood. In the story the soldiers are brought to the Brontë Parsonage museum – which exists, but does not hold the toy soldiers. Although these did originally exist (or at least the Brontes wrote about them as if they existed) they seem to have been lost over time.
The Manor, Hemingford Grey, UK
Lucy Boston’s Green Knowe books are based on the real house, and many of the items in the books are on display in the house, which is open to the public.
Charlecote Park, UK
Set before the first First World War, this book tells the story of Tom, Laura, Hugh, and Margaret, whose home is the great house, Charlecote, which is now open to the public.
Belton House, Lincolnshire, UK
The Learning Manager at Belton House wrote this to me: “The National Trust asked for a book to be written to interest children in a National Trust property (she had already written “The Secret World of Polly Flint, based at Rufford Hall). Due to a cancelled appointment with Radio Nottingham; an interview with Bob Hope had taken precedence! Helen had time on her hands so she arrived at Belton, unplanned, on a sunny September day – she remembered the autumn colours in the garden and parkland. She knew about Belton as her husband had played in cricket matches on the green in front of the house. She walked her dog in the quiet, almost deserted, grounds.
Having taken her dog back to the car, she walked on her own under the clock arch and into the west courtyard, where she noticed the door slightly ajar in the far corner. Passing through, she entered the gardens. As she walked along the terrace she experienced unexplained shivers down her back. She felt the scene had been set and the garden was waiting for her (this is where we get Minty’s experience). She counted the seven steps down to the gravel path leading through the garden and, like Minty, looked back because she felt she was being watched. She experienced stranger and stranger feelings as she approached the sundial. The word ‘Moondial’ came into her mind and the question ‘what happens to time when the moon shines on the sundial.’
Helen felt a feeling of ‘sadness’ during her visit, and thought it was connected with a child. Unhappiness was often closed away in the past, thus the characters of Sarah and Tom. Children who were disfigured or disabled were often locked away, which is why Helen used the idea of the devil’s mark superstition in the story. Tom was also aware that he was short and thin and therefore ‘disfigured’, he wished to be a tall footman. ‘Sadness’ permeates our characters. Even Miss Vole the governess, was probably living a desperately unhappy life, why she expressed her frustration in cruel treatment of Sarah.
The ‘Moondial’ was one of Helen Cresswell’s favourite books; it took six months to write which was longer than usual. She never knew how her stories would work out, no definite plan when she started to write a book, they evolved as she was writing them.”
Tynemouth Lifeboat Briage Watch House Museum, UK
Westall’s book is based on this museum, which you can find out more about here.
The Art Institute of Chicago, US
This book and its 2 sequels, Stealing Magic (2012) and The Pirate’s Coin (2013) are set at Chicago’s Art Institute, specifically in their (miniature) Thorne Rooms. The children discover how to shrink down and enter the rooms and travel back in time. For information on the Thorne Rooms, click here.
The Field Museum, Chicago, US
A wordless picturebook in which a bird flies around in rooms at Chicago’s Field Museum.
Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art, New York, US
Although the statue and the bed are not on display, other artefacts mentioned in this novel can still be seen in New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art (for more information see this guide produced by the museum)
This is a picture book version of the story “The Blue Faience Hippopotamus” by Joan Grant. The text is by Phoebe Gilman, who in her teens worked at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and fell in love with “William,” the blue faience hippopotamus who is the unofficial mascot of the museum.
This is the story of an embroidered carpet in the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Click here to see an image of the carpet.
Christophe, a New York cat visits the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Egyptian galleries and finds himself transported back to Ancient Egypt.
A history of the Hatshepsut sphinx: from its carving in ancient Egypt to its arrival in New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The Cloisters, New York, US
This is a YA title that heavily features the Cloisters
About the romantic relationship between two 17-year-old New York City girls who meet at the Cloisters.
The museum has a famous unicorn tapestry which features in Blizzard in a Blue Moon. Apparently the tapestry is also to be seen in the film adaptation of the last Harry Potter book, Deathly Hallows Part II.
According to an interview with Guibord (see here), this book is inspired by the unicorn tapestry on view in the Cloisters.
American Museum of Natural History, New York, US
Much of this book is set in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. You can take a Wonderstruck Virtual Field Trip to the American Museum of Natural History with this YouTube video.
It is a superb and horrifying fictional treatment of a true event. In 1897, Robert Peary took six Eskimos from their homes and “presented” them to the American Museum of Natural History in New York as a living exhibit. Two of them were father and son: Qisuk (“Smiler”) and Minik. This is Minik’s story.
Much of this book is set in New York’s American Museum of Natural History.
The meteor fragment that is the subject of this picture book is on view at New York’s Museum of Natural History. It is the largest meteor on view in any museum.
About what the nightguard at the Natural History Museum does when he discovers the collection of dinosaurs has gone missing.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History, US
Short non-fiction pieces describing different artefacts in this museum, and how its exhibits are assembled and prepared.
Actually the large fibre glass dinosaur named after the character in this book is no longer on display at the Smithsonain Museum of Natural History. It can be seen instead at the Zoo in Lemur Island (more info here). My understanding is that this model was inspired by the book, rather than the other way around.
Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington DC, US
This book is about the heist of the original Star-Spangled Banner from the Smithsonian Museum of American History
The Mattatuck Museum, Connecticut, US
About the bones of a slave once on display at this museum. You can find out more about the bones and museum in this NPR article.
Children’s Museum, Boston, US
The Friendship Doll by Kirby Larson
Miss Kyoto-fu, one of the 58 friendship dolls given by Japan to America in 1927, is on display in the Children’s Museum in Boston. Miss Tottori is on display at the Museum of the South Dakota State Historical Society (Pierre, South Dakota), whilst Miss Yamagata is held by Maine State Museum. This website maintained by Bill Gordon contains information on all the dolls, including locations where known. Not all dolls are on display (though in some cases it is possible to view them by prior appointment). My thanks go to Kirby Larson for providing me with the link to Bill Gordon’s website and for so generously responding to my query about the dolls.
Springfield Science Museum, US
A lovely picture book biography of Carol Otis Hurst’s father who went on to become the director of the Springfield Science Museum.
Orchard House, Concord, US
In this book the children visit Orchard House, once the Alcott family home, now a museum, in Concord, MA.
Stockbridge Library Museum, Stockbridge, Massachusetts, US
Hitty is on display at the Stockbridge Library Museum. You can find out more here.
Royal Ontario Museum, Canada
This book, which could be characterized as crossover YA, is set in Toronto and has a memorable scene inside the Royal Ontario Museum’s ancient Egyptian room.
The Canadian War Museum, Canada
This tells the true story of a teddy bear sent by one little girl to her father, serving in Europe during World War One. The bear itself is currently on display at The Canadian War Museum
The Museum of Ontario Archaeology, Ontario, Canada
Welwyn Wilton Katz has confirmed to me that this museum plays an important role in her book False Face. When she wrote the book, the museum was called The Museum of Indian Archaeology but has since changed its name.
The National Museum of Australia
State Library, Victoria, Australia
Ned Kelly was a dangerous man – a thief, a bank robber and a murderer. Yet when he was sentenced to hang, thousands of people rallied to save his life. In the Jerilderie Letter we hear from Ned in his own words. Wicked, angry, vividly descriptive – this is Ned’s justification to his countrymen of how it all transpired
The Herakleion Museum, Crete
This features Minoan golden bee earings which are on view in the Heraklion museum in Crete.
In Flanders Fields Museum, Belgium
Michael Morpurgo was inspired to write this book by a letter he saw in this museum in Brussels. It was a letter from the army to the Private’s mother saying that her son had been shot and killed for being a conscientious objector. Michael Morpurgo asked the curator if this was an isolated incident/letter, and was told it wasn’t. He was then taken to the stores where he was shown many other similar letters.
Tokyo Holocaust Education Resource Center, Japan
A fascinating sounding real story about the suitcase belonging to a child who died in Auschwitz. The suitcase (actually a replica after the original was lost/burnt in an arson attach) is now in Japan.
The Treaty House, New Zealand
Journey with Olley as he learns not only is the Treaty house special, but so are the events that have happened in and around it, events that have shaped New Zealand to become the nation Olley is part of today.
The Coromandel School of Mines Museum, New Zealand
Danger at Devil’s Cove by Marilyn Bakker
Ms Bakker also confirmed that the artefact in her book The Mystery of the Missing Artefact is not based on a specific artefact on view. She wrote to me, “In ‘The Mystery of the Missing Artefact’, the reader is introduced to some factual elements of the Maori culture of New Zealand and woven into the background of the story is a description of a Maori Village from times past and artefacts or Taonga Maori (Treasures of the Maori) and created an image of Maori villages from years gone by and of protocols on the Marae (meeting place). This was done in consultation with an advisor on Maoritanga, Mrs Rose Mohi.
I have visited the Auckland Museum and Institute, housed in the magnificent memorial building set in the magnificent Domain not far from Auckland City Centre, many times. It is well worth the visit to see a comprehensive display of Maori artefacts, to walk inside a beautifully decorated meeting house and to see models of Maori Pa (fortified villages) of years gone by and gain an understanding of the skill and expertise of the carvers.
Maori tradition describes the land of the origin of the Maori as Hawaiki and there has been much research and discussion about the geographical location of Hawaiki. When researching the background for the book (set in the 1950s) I discovered that one theory of that time suggested that some Maori people settled for a time in India before migrating on to the Pacific Islands and New Zealand. Maori Taonga has considerable cultural and spiritual significance. Being respectful of this, I deliberately chose to describe the ‘artefact’ for ‘the missing artefact’, as indicated in the title, as being quite different from traditional Maori artefacts and drew on the India theory, describing it as made of ivory as opposed to the traditional whale bone and included jewels as opposed to traditional use of Paua shell to decorated carvings.” (quoted with permission)
These are books people suggested for inclusion but I have not been able to ascertain if the artefact/museum/gallery in the book is indeed based on a real one or not. If anyone has further information on these books, I’d love to hear from you.
*Robert Swindell’s Room 13
*Cynthia Voigt’s ‘The Vandemark Mummy’.
*Posy Simmonds’ book Lulu and the Flying Babies
*Eleanor Cameron’s _The Court of the Stone Children_. – > This is described as being set in the French Museum San Francisco but I can’t find any references to a museum of this name. Is it the Legion of Honor?
*Patricia Wrightson’s An Older Kind of Magic – may also take place in the Australian Museum?
*Hugh Scott’s Why weeps the Brogan – the museum described may be the British museum but it is not clear. I’ve written to Hugh to see if I can find out.
*Mary Anning’s Treasures’ by Helen Bush / The Fossil Girl by Catherine Brighton – do these include page(s) on display of artefacts in museum? (Stone Girl, Bone Girl doesn’t make specific mention of museum where Anning’s finds can be seen nowadays)
*Midnight at the Museum by Richard and Pamela Wolfe – according to this site, Richard Wolfe “drew on his years as a display artist and curator at Canterbury and Auckland museums” but it would appear the book is not about a specific museum. Anyone got any further insight?
My sincere thanks go especially to Nolan Dalrymple, Judith Ridge, Annie Reichmann, Jane Stemp Wickenden, Charles Bayless, Catherine Butler, Melanie Brocklehurst , Pat Hanby, Elizabeth Bentley, Jenny Schwartzberg, Jameela Lares, Ann Dowker, Virginia Lowe, Rebecca Davies, Melanie McGilloway, Alison Baker, Damyanti Patel, Bridget Carrington, LH Johnson, Diane Kerner, Becky McDonald, Jennifer Rothschild, Angela Leeper, Nancy Thalia Reynolds, Roseanne Parry, Judith Saltman, Karen Kosko, Kate Messner, Charlotte Taylor, Waller Hastings, Tim Regan, Kerry Mockler, Judith Saltman, Rita Auerbach, Agnes Bluemer, Abigail A. Moller, Angela Soutar, Becky Giles, @JennySarahJones, Valerie Budayr, Ian McLean, James Mayhew, Welwyn Wilton Katz, Melissa Maynard, Marilyn Bakker, Lucy Pearson and Jill Thomas for their suggestions.
The image on which the logo for the page is based was taken by Morten Diesen.