“…curators of anthropology. They’re priests and priestesses, really – custodians of our human sense of ingenuity, belief and beauty”
The Mystery of the Venus Island Fetish is the first book by museum curator of worms, Dido Butterworth, and is introduced and edited by Australian author, teacher, mammalogist, palaeontologist, environmentalist, global warming activist, and former museum director, Professor Tim Flannery.
Assistant curator of the anthropology department at the Sydney Museum, Archibald Meek has just returned from a field trip to the Venus Isles. His return is long overdue but he is enthusiastic about the wonderful collection he has amassed: plants, worms, fish and insects, and all manner of artefacts made by the Islanders. He is also hopeful that his traditional love token will ensure that his fiancé, Beatrice, registrar in the anthropology department, accepts his marriage proposal.
But Archie notices immediately that the ceremonial mask acquired much earlier, The Venus Island Fetish, appears altered. Some of the human skulls that form part of the artefact are discoloured. When Archie learns of the mysterious absence of several museum curators, he suspects these two irregularities are connected, and he begins to worry for the remaining curators. Is it all coincidence, or is he right to be concerned?
Butterworth peoples her tale with a cast of quirky characters, many of whom prove not to be quite what they first seem; she often gives them absurd names that rely for humour on association with the body’s nether regions. Her plot is highly original and includes a few twists that maintain the intrigue. There is plenty of (often tongue-in-cheek) humour in this mystery: the final twist and the end note will have readers grinning from ear to ear.
Butterworth manages to include in her story a Government Inquiry, a meteorite, Meissen pottery, the Japanese Navy, a Roman bronze priapus, fugu poison, arson, soapbox orators, rare minerals, stuffed goats, buck teeth, a tattoo, an amputation, an outhouse full of spiders, an Italian fruiterer, a ceremonial dance, prickly pear and some shady doings with antiquities.
Butterworth provides conclusive evidence of the best food for roses and her extensive experience with the politics and practices of museums is apparent in every paragraph. And while the story is set in the 1930s, much of what occurs is not so different from modern day experiences. Readers can only hope that Professor Flannery is examining more of the museum’s taxidermised exhibits for manuscripts such as this one. An absolute delight to read!