THE PRIVATE MUSEUM OF MISS MARGARET by Zhu Yue translated by Jianan Qian and Alyssa Asquith

Miss Margaret, despite her current age of 89, is still energetic, brave, and wise. Like some unmarried and childless women, she is aloof, arrogant, and easily annoyed. But this takes nothing away from her great charitable contributions. She is a philanthropist, a sponsor of artists. Although she shows her love and generosity in a subtle way, the rich and profound impact of her acts will be seen over time.

Margaret was born into a high-bourgeoisie family. She received an excellent education from an early age: Olfbeck, the famous poet, and Satti, the composer, both worked as her live-in tutors. Young Margaret was known for her beauty and elegance. Indeed, she was once a renowned socialite in the upper class. But all that fame is gone now. 

It is the Private Museum of Miss Margaret that affords her this eternal reputation.

The museum is 89 years old. We cannot easily say whether it is a success or a failure. In fact, despite its fame, only around 200,000 people have visited since its opening. Yet, if we think about it from a different perspective, this is a great success: the museum itself is a piece of art, and the value of art lies not in its public recognition, but in its uniqueness. On the one hand, the Private Museum of Miss Margaret is worth no less than The Guggenheim, The Pompidou Center, MoMA, or Tate Modern. On the other hand, the museum is different because it has exclusive rights to all its collections; its methods and subjects are revolutionary.

The museum was founded by Margaret’s parents. They had been operating it since Margaret’s birth and continued until she came of age. But in another sense, this museum has belonged to Margaret all along, as it owes its existence to her. The entire collection comes from Margaret herself. Or, more precisely, from her body.

The museum contains four floors: the basement floor consists entirely of an enormous, underground freezer. There is only one exhibition hall, the Hall of Hair, which is located on the first floor. Every hair that Margaret has lost from her birth until now is displayed according to its different categories: eyelashes, nasal hair, pubic hair, and other body hair. 

The second floor contains the Hall of Nails and the Hall of Skin. Toenails and fingernails are laid out separately. Flakes of skin are divided into dandruff and others. 

The third floor hosts the Hall of Bodily Fluids; different types of bodily fluids are stored in air-tight jars, pretty and transparent. Among them, the sweat collection, which is of course incomplete: you can imagine how difficult this is to collect. And the problem with the vaginal discharge is that it’s impure. You can see the special notes that are included with such exhibits: Also contains: the semen of Richard A. Gram, early morning, November 6, 19**. Saliva, snivel, and tears, however, are free of the two aforementioned flaws. The most striking is Margaret’s blood, most of which is menstrual blood. The most precious exhibit is the blood that was shed when her hymen was broken. It is stored in a small crystal bottle and sits in the center of the hall. 

The fourth floor contains the special collection, a coffee shop, and the curator’s office. Current exhibits in the special collection include the womb that Margaret had removed at the age of 42, the left breast that she had amputated at the age of 50, the scabs that have formed after each of these wounds, and 51 teeth.  

The basement freezer contains her excrement, vomit, earwax, tartar, tongue coating, and nasal mucus. That area is usually closed to the public. You can visit it only with the curator’s permission. During the past 89 years, fewer than 30 people have visited.

The Private Museum of Miss Margaret has adopted many state-of-the-art technologies and equipment to seal and preserve the collections. This prevents the exhibits from expiring or volatilizing. A large amount of money and effort has been invested in this area. Even more impressive is the collecting process. Currently, Ellen, Margaret’s chambermaid, is in charge of collecting all specimens. 

When asked about her work, Ellen said, “She has no privacy in front of me. We both know this is unavoidable. She is aging, losing her memories and flexibility. When she was young, she could collect things from her body, which greatly reduced the maid’s workload. But now everything depends on me alone. I suggested that she hire more people, but she refused. She is stingy, to which she herself admits. I spend every minute from morning to night extracting, refining, and sorting things in her bedroom and bathroom. You can’t imagine how careful I am when making the bed, sweeping the floor, and filtering the bath water… I won’t quit. I inherited the job from my maternal grandmother. My family won’t allow me to resign. What troubles me the most is that recently Miss Margaret has accused me of sneaking my own hair and bodily fluids into the collections. Her concern is unfounded. I want only to accomplish our shared mission. I don’t know for sure what that mission is, but I feel it is meaningful.”

Margaret plans to renovate the museum again this March. She has decided to add another floor to the building so that she can exhibit her body after she passes away. She wants this top floor to take the shape of a pyramid, and she has already hired Alberti, the most famous and expensive modern architect, for the job. The project is estimated to take ten years to complete, and will cost more than 7 million pounds. During construction, the museum will continue to add to its exhibits and will remain open to the public. This arrangement will complicate the task of construction, but for Margaret’s fans, it is perfectly reasonable.

There is no denying that the Private Museum of Miss Margaret has suffered a lot of criticism. Hoffman, a respected art critic, once described Miss Margaret as a fraud. 

“Art shouldn’t be a staggering joke,” he said. “Nobody should enforce their disgusting eccentricities onto an innocent public audience.” 

However, despite such harsh condemnations, Mr. Truviano, the curator, has confidence and pride in the future of the museum. 

“It is true that our methods are still a bit conventional,” he said. “We haven’t yet found the most suitable approach for the future. It’s not surprising that some people don’t understand us. We don’t have pricy collections. We don’t showcase trendy, conceptual art. We don’t even own a major art piece. Here, we show you a complete human. It is complete, so it is true.”


Jianan Qian and Alyssa Asquith are both recent graduates of Iowa Writers' Workshop with an MFA degree in fiction. Jianan is a staff writer at The Millions, and her works have appeared in The New York Times, Granta, Guernica, among others. Alyssa is originally from Massachusetts. Now sheworks and lives in Iowa City. Alyssa’s stories have appeared in Hobart, X-R-A-Y, The Atticus Review, The Adroit Journal, and elsewhere.

Zhu Yue, viewed by many as Borges in China, has published three collections: The Blindfolded Traveler, Masters of Sleep, and Chaos of Fiction. In English translation, his works appear in The Washington Square Review, The Portland Review, The Margins, Litro Magazine,among others.

Art by Bob Schofield @anothertower

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