Kittens and dinosaurs: the museum cats that inspired writer Holly Webb
Published on: 29 April 2020
Author Holly Webb writes about her favourite history-loving felines...
Writing the Museum Kittens series has felt like a lovely accidental present – as if I’d been given the story! In November 2017 I went on a book tour to Moscow and St Petersburg with my Russian publishers, Eksmo. I’d been to St Petersburg once before as a student, and loved visiting the amazing Hermitage Museum – but somehow I’d missed that the Hermitage had cats! Not only thousands of amazing cat paintings and artefacts, but real cats, who live in the basement under the museum, and protect the works of art from mice.
The cats have been at the Hermitage since 1745, when it was still an imperial palace, and Empress Elizabeth of Russia demanded cats to keep her palace mouse-free. I couldn’t help thinking what an amazing setting for adventures a museum could be – and then a child at one of my St Petersburg events asked if I would write a book about the Hermitage cats. As a goodbye present, the team from Eksmo gave me a gorgeous book full of photos from the museum. I was hooked…
When I started researching, I found that the British Museum had actually been famous for its cats too, although sadly they’re no longer in residence. As a student studying classics I’d loved spending time at the British Museum, and then I worked a couple of streets away for years. (I always intended to go to the museum at least once a week in my lunch hour, it was more once every few months…) Mike, the most well-known of the British Museum cats, has a perfect origin story, one that I borrowed for The Midnight Visitor, the first Museum Kittens book. Mike arrived at the museum one morning in 1909, carried in the mouth of his predecessor, Black Jack. Jack dropped a tiny kitten at the feet of Sir Ernest Wallis Budge, the Keeper of Egyptian Antiquities, and strolled away. This is even better when you remember that Sir Ernest was responsible for the frankly spooky mummified cats in the museum collection. When Mike died in 1929, Sir Ernest wrote his obituary in the Evening Standard!
This photo is from Sir Ernest’s monograph Mike, the cat who assisted in keeping the main gate of the British Museum from February 1909 to January 1929
For Museum Kittens, Mike became Peter, the tiny, confused black kitten who arrives at the museum one stormy night…And if you look carefully at Sarah Lodge’s fabulous illustrations for The Midnight Visitor, you’ll spot lots of the British Museum’s treasures, including the mummified cats, and the beautiful Gayer-Anderson Cat.
I did borrow artefacts from all over the place for my imaginary museum though – after all, how could I resist mixing kittens and dinosaurs?
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