Wednesday, 12 October 2016

Great Minds Think Alike, They Say

In 1993 Milan Trenc published a children’s book titled The Night at the Museum, and thirteen years later it was filmed, becoming a smash hit and spinning off sequels. It’s a family favourite to this day, and one of the success stories of the modern industry.

But a good idea is not necessarily unique, is it? I found myself wondering what could possibly have happened when  the movie came out, because (having not heard of the 1993 original at the time) I was naturally imagining my 1998 short story The Museum of Unnatural History had been plagiarised. It dealt with a new night watchman taking his first shift in a museum in which the exhibits came to life after dark and terrorised anyone there – sound familiar?

It was a vignette-length short in a batch I wrote on the guidelines of the fiction component of Elsevier Scientific’s “HMS Beagle” website (which no longer seems to exist). They took my story Innocuous but Lethal, but I was never able to get another past the post with them, despite showing them several, one of which was my museum opus. Not long afterward, “HMS Beagle” discontinued its fiction department and by the time Night at the Museum came out I had more or less lost track of them.

When I first heard about the movie I was pretty much dumbstruck and searched my records for contact names, got in touch with someone at Elsevier and found the fiction department long gone. It had been edited from another country entirely (Scotland, as I recall) and there was no information as to the disposition of manuscripts which had been through the hands of the editor. Any misdeed was of course entirely my own suspicion, and was wiped away when I learned about the Milan Trenc original – and especially that it was published five years before I dramatised the same idea.

The Museum of Unnatural History actually started life as an idea for an artbook, a series of paintings of the bizarre events unfolding, and I used it as thematic material in my third novel, Interpretations, written, oh, a very long time ago (1984) and never submitted. I simply remilled the idea in ’98.

So it’s true – great ideas are not unique and they occur to different people at different times. The one who gets on the stick and drives it to fruition is the one with (appropriately) the bragging rights. If there is a lesson in this it is never to let good ideas lie fallow – get out there and market them, and maybe one day you too will have the bragging rights!

As the story, in the wake of Night at the Museum, is simply a curiosity, I’m more than happy to offer it here, complete – I hope you enjoy it!

Cheers, Mike Adamson

(NB: The image accompanying the story is a free download from


The Museum of Unnatural History

© Mike Adamson 1998

I confessed to myself a certain uneasiness, as I mounted the broad steps toward the impressive portico of the Angkor Prime Museum of Natural Sciences. The Employment Counsellor had concealed wry humor when I had accepted the position of Night Curator of the Exobiology Collections – the famous Galactica Exotica compiled by the MNS over the hundred years since Angkor Prime was settled.

I paused before the fused quartz foyer and saw the greenish glimmer of the evening sky reflected from the scintillent points of the pompous edifice, and glanced back across the City. The colonizer ship Provincia had been preserved as the core of the capital of this new world, and its mammoth shape formed the cultural centerpiece of an entire civilization. Around it had grown a city to rival many on old Earth, and its elder daughter colonies amongst the stars.

Shaking off the strange feeling, I passed through the self-acting doors into the cool foyer, swiped my ID through the outstretched receptor of the elegant receptionist robot, and moments later I was joined by the Chief Curator, Talbot. Now in his sixties, he had been an employee of the Museum his whole life, and had helped build much of the collection. He wore a sleek black bodysuit and his silver hair fell to his waist, the epitome of cultural style in the 26th Century.

"Good evening, Sirrah," I began with a formal nod of my own braids. "I'm delighted to meet you at last."

"Young Sirrah Gordon, likewise," Talbot began, extended a hand for a fore-arm grip. "Your CV was most fitting. The agency briefed you on your duties?" His voice was deep and rich, and his gene-smooth face seemed bizarre against his deliberately platinum locks.

"Indeed, Sirrah. I am to oversee the collections during the Museum's closed hours. I liaise with the Security mechanoids, communicate with agencies elsewhere on Angkor, and its extraplanetary affiliates. I will undertake monitoring and assessment of displays in accordance with the Cultural Directorate."

"Very good," Talbot said with a smile, gesturing to the broad stair that wound up to the main hall. Everyone on Angkor Prime had seen the vast Hall of Alien Life, where the extinct megafauna of seven planets had been resurrected from its fossil bones.

The only complete specimen of Centroseptelius giganteus, the mighty browsing beast of the ancient forests of Rigel 7, lofted its tiny cranium over fifty meters high at the end of its neck of 24 vertebrae, and I shook my head in awe as we walked almost under its six-clawed feet.

"Impressive," Talbot said with a small smile. "But simplistic in its gross magnitude. Not a clever beast, near as we can tell from its DNA. The peculiar thing is that it was so large it hosted a community of endemic species within its body, whose remains are found nowhere else. Latest work suggests the parasites wrote their genetic structure into that of the host and were reproduced in the offspring in a way akin to retroviral amplification, or even mitochondrial DNA. They were passengers in the host in every conceivable sense."

We left the great Hall and entered the maze of passages and stairs where gallery after gallery was lined with display cases. Fossil and embalmed remains of hundreds of organisms were displayed here, ranging from microscopic – with functional microvisual devices for public viewing – to massive creatures larger than an aircar.

"I was surprised to receive so prestigious a job so promptly, Sirrah," I said in conversation, becoming aware of the empty vastness of the Museum now that the flow of patronizing beings was subtracted.

"We have a ... high turnover in Night Curators," Talbot said mildly. He paused to inspect an exhibit, remove a smudge from a clear partition. "That's actually what I most wanted to speak to you about."

The unease came back with a rush. "Sirrah?"

"You'll have heard of the Curator who went insane a few months ago? I see you have. What you won't know is that he succumbed to raving after the Museum security systems failed. He spent most of a night in the company of deactivated robots and blind scanners, and by morning he was ... well, you know the rest."

"I see." I looked around the gallery of grotesque, leering beasts through which we moved. "An impressionable mind."

"Not at all. He was an eminently stable person. It was..." Talbot drew me to a halt as we reached a mezzanine overlooking the Hall of the Calendrian Menagerie, gestured vaguely at the riot of animalian forms that seemed frozen in the act of ripping each other limb from limb. "Let us say... The bacchanalia of life can be overpowering for some."

My eyebrows must have quirked, for he smiled with a peculiar, vindictive edge. "Surely there is more," I pressed.

"Certainly." He drew me on, up another ancient-style, ornate stair toward the Gallery of Birds, where a multitude of flying creatures from the Seven Worlds made a cascade of color from feathers, scales and membranes. "It started here, they say. A trail of damage that lead through the Museum to the Security Room, where he was found next morning by the day staff, when the systems were being rebooted. Damage such as we had never imagined."

"Such as?" I asked, feeling less superior by the moment.

"Scratch-marks... Fittings dislodged. Cases opened by force, as if he had ... tried to release the exhibits." Talbot grinned, skull-like. "I stood Night Watch when I was younger, and never encountered anything ... unusual."

I held my tongue now, let him lead me to the Security Room, and took a seat by the monitors of the manual alert system. Screens relayed the POV of robots already on patrol, and a relay bank chattered with flash traffic from expeditions and agents elsewhere on this and other worlds.

"This is your station," Talbot said with a raise of his eyebrows. "Take a hint. Don't leave it."

"You suspect...?"

"Let's just say, strange things seem to happen in this Museum at night. The systems never record anything, the robots detect nothing, but ... things are moved. Displays are fractionally different from day to day, and as often as we rearrange them, they change once more." He grinned like a skull. "Of course, you'll hear a lot of foundless hear-say from the lay community about the multiplicity of lifeforms here including types that only seem to be dead."

"Pardon?" I asked, grinning in spite of my earlier misgivings. "Zombie taxidermy?"

"Ridiculous, isn't it?" Talbot leaned on the console and seemed to be agreeing with my scepticism. "But there again, since the organism is cured complete by drying in some cases, and merely held in stasis fields to prevent bacterial decay in others, who's to say what capacities unknown creatures may have? I don't for a moment believe the Uvarovian Iguana prowls these halls at night, any more than that the Capellan Slime-Sac can escape its case and drag itself across dry land." He was still smiling, though he never made eye contact now. "Rubbish and nonsense. The last three Night Curators all died from completely normal causes." He rose, clapped a cold and unsympathetic hand to my shoulder and turned to go. "Well, I'll leave you to it. Have a good time with the ghosts."

My face must have been a picture, he cackled with laughter as he headed along the corridor. I saw his smiling face on several monitors as he went down to the foyer, checked with the reception robot and stepped out into the glittering night of Angkor Prime. The robot closed the doors and sealed them with a pass of its sensor-laden claw. I saw the displays indicate that the Museum had changed to secure condition, and that all was normal.

Normal. What was normal around here, though? Three curators? Surely he was joking.... Yes, I decided – joking. The authorities investigated exobiological phenomena diligently, and the MNS had been instrumental in creating the protocols for safe encounter and manipulation of dissimilar biologics.

I smiled. The Curator was enjoying levity at the expense of my inexperience. I relaxed, settled back and amused myself checking the influx to the mainframe of data from expeditions.

Perhaps an hour went by as I silently performed these checks, and the unease had fled when my head came up and I listened very carefully.

Scratch... Scratch...

My eyes flew across the readouts, and the screens were calm, nothing had interrupted the monitors and the robots were still roving without encounter.

Scratch... Scratch...

But as the internal scanners cycled through the frozen menagerie I was sure I saw not one but many doors on display cases standing ajar. The cameras cycled too quickly for me to be sure, but....

Scratch... Scratch...

But those doors were open, and suddenly my breathing was a hoarse rasp of fear as my hand went to the outside line. Because, all objectivity aside, I was in no doubt at all that something was scratching steadily, methodically, and with malicious intent, at the Security Room door.



  1. Yes, I remember this one ... and I also remember being bemused when I saw the movie. As you say, ideas are not unique, but ...! Great story, Mike.

  2. Cheers! I was miffed to say the least, but they ran with the idea and did something great with it, so it's all okay in the end.