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Last Updated: Monday, 15 May 2006, 15:33 GMT 16:33 UK
The nation's attic
Boy and tiger skeleton, old bicycle, original Bagpuss at Canterbury Museum and  a Zetland lifeboat

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

The original Bagpuss. A dollop of medieval poo. A fingerprint machine. A skeleton or two. While national institutions grab all the attention, much of the UK's regional identity is enshrined in small museums.

Like the very best sort of attic - stuffed to the rafters with quirky relics and keepsakes - the small museums that cover the UK contain a treasure trove for those who choose to burrow within their sometimes unprepossessing walls.

The curious browser might find all manner of treasures that, while unlikely to attract high bids at auction, provide valuable insights into times past.

It is history, contained within everyday objects and personal mementos. For seemingly ordinary artefacts are now recognised as just as important a source of information as weighty research and official documents.

Local treasures for local people

Thanks to the booming interest in genealogy, among the (sometimes infrequent) visitors might be those whose families have long since moved away from an area, keen to catch a glimpse of what life was like for an ancestor.

One local museum to benefit is the Zetland Lifeboat Museum in Redcar. As well as catering to lifeboat enthusiasts, it recounts the town's heyday as a seaside resort and fishing port.

"There's the old characters of Redcar who like to come in and show their families what it was once like," says curator Edward Ransom. "The interest in local history means we can hold our own in terms of visitor numbers, compared with the decline of Redcar."

Open from May to September, visitors have remained steady at 4,500 a year on average - a fraction of the millions who pile into the big-name museums in main centres.

Curiouser and curiouser

Now hidden treasures such as the museum's 200-year-old wooden lifeboat are being put centre stage in a BBC Two series to find the nation's favourite artefacts. Every weekday for a month, The People's Museum will showcase the 80 exhibits open to a public vote.

A few come from big-name national institutions such as London's Science Museum and the Imperial War Museum North; but most come from the collections of small museums.

Children at the Grant Museum of Zoology
That's how big a rhino is
With little money to spare for the electronic gadgets now de rigueur in bigger museums, many of these Cinderella institutions instead hark back to an earlier age when curiosity was piqued as noses pressed against glass cases filled with exhibits.

Often staffed by volunteers and relying on donations to pay the bills, there's little left in the pot to revamp or expand their collections. Not that many can afford to stand still.

And so the Grant Museum of Zoology, housed in a disused lab in University College London, makes a virtue of being a Victorian scientific collection.

"It's an old-fashioned collection and it looks like an old-fashioned collection," says curator Dr Helen Chatterjee. "It's housed in traditional glass and mahogany cases packed with skeletons and bits of animals in jars. Many of our visitors haven't seen anything like it outside a Harry Potter film."

Rather than go for a makeover, the museum has spent a recent grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund on improving the information available and on increasing its profile. It's paid off; in 18 months visitor numbers have almost quadrupled from 3,500 to 12,000 a year.

"Like many academic museums, few people knew we were here as traditionally ours were teaching collections. Today, access is the buzzword."

Off with his head

Unlike larger institutions, the 1,500 small museums open to the public typically have the bulk of their collections on display, with plenty of opportunities for hands-on encounters.

Charles I, played by Sir Alec Guinness
Queen Victoria gave the museum its Charles I exhibits
At Carisbrooke Castle Museum on the Isle of Wight, dedicated the island's social history and to Charles I's incarceration there in the last year of his life, visitors can try on replica chain mail or take aim with a reproduction crossbow.

"People who come say it's so nice to be able to touch things, rather than just look and try to imagine what it must be like to wear or use it," says curator Glen True, who has worked at the museum for 26 years.

It too, has had a recent revamp courtesy of the Heritage Lottery Fund, a body set up in 1994 to help preserve the nation's diverse heritage.

"We asked people what they wanted, and what they didn't want was the electronic gizmos found in so many museums. Older people felt it wasn't in keeping; younger people said 'we live our lives with computers, it's nice to see something real'.

"A lot of museums that have these electronic interactive screens find they break down. Unless you have someone on staff who can maintain these, it stays broken for a long time."

Lost stories

Without a repository for histories big and small, notable tales risk being lost for all time. Among the most poignant exhibits to feature in the series include:

  • a brass matchbox holder from World War I, in which a Protestant Irishman carried a love poem from his Catholic sweetheart
  • a ukulele made from scrap by a World War II POW keen to keep spirits up in Changi Prisoner of War Camp
  • and the Royal Red Cross - the Victoria Cross of nursing - awarded to Sister Janet Wells, sent to Zululand to treat wounded soldiers when just 18 years old.

The latter's personal effects are housed in the tiny Tenterden and District Museum in Kent. Were it not for the diligence of local historian Adrian Greaves, of the Anglo-Zulu War Society, her contribution would have been lost forever.

"By the age of 20 she was one of the most decorated women in the country, yet her story disappeared until a couple of years ago. I got word that all her effects were about to be consigned to a bonfire by a little old lady; when we got them we found we had a most amazing story."

Sister Janet's is but one of the many tales to be uncovered by the curious. For that is why museums first came about - for the visitor to embark on a voyage of discovery.

The People's Museum is broadcast in the UK every weekday for a month on BBC Two at 1530 BST, beginning on Monday, 15 May, 2006.


Your comments.

I love museums, and I am a keen genealogist, tracing the DUROSE surname. Hence I am very upset to discover the Bagpuss is wooden. One of my DUROSE ancestors, Emacina, married Sir Geoffrey de Bakpus in 13th century, and this makes me a descendent of Bagpuss, the two names being so similar they must be variants. And I dont like to think of one my ancestors as being wooden, although many of them are eccentric. Unlike myself.
Liz, Stockport, UK

I would like to know what archaeological artifacts are in local museums, unknown to the broader scientific community. There are probably some uncharted worthwhile discoveries just as there are many undocumented American Indian artifacts in small local American museums.
Jeremy, Atlanta, USA

Two local British museums I'd recommend are the City Museum of Lincoln (with it's collection of albino animals), and the museum near Arundel (I've forgotten it's offical name) with all the tableaus made from stuffed kittens.
Peter Bullock, El Paso, Texas, USA

Collections of material culture such as the quirky acumilation of objects stuck up with aging selotape illustrating a history of Labour and political history that used to be housed in Limehouse town hall displayed a sympathetic synthesis between the objects and 'intent' Moved to Manchester, it was insitutionilised and neatly arranged by a proffessional (sic) exhibition designer to lend a linear history to the items. Result, a dull teaching conformity pervades the displays. With a few exceptions one encounters this same corporate museum style everywhere. Among regional Museums partly resisting this pressure is Hulls Wilberforce House and Maritime Museum in the old dock offices. Check them out.
ken sequin, london

I have found local museums to be invaluable sources of information and support during my PhD studies. The staff are helpful and the artefacts generally have a clear provenance. Long live the local museum!
Helen, Bristol, UK

Sorry to say, Peter Bullock, that the wierd & wonderful "Potter's Museum of Curiosities" in Arundel which had all those creepy stuffed animal displays, is no more. After first moving to Jamaica Inn, it was finally split up & sold off as individual items. I think that was a national disgrace!
Chris Osborne, Chippenham, Wiltshire

In 1988 I visited the Cambridge & County Folk Museum and was amazed & delighted to find a museum that truly felt like an multi-level attic - the visitor could not only touch the exhibits but had to creep around them sideways! Hope it hasn't been "updated" too much...
Elizabeth, Galveston, Texas, USA

Bury St Edmonds museum: thanks to Lucinda Lambton I saw the actual record of The Murder of the Red Barn bound in the flayed skin of the murderer (pores and everything), but also that medieval farthings really were quarters of pennies
C Falconer, London

The Horniman Museum in South London is a veritable treasure trove. I've being going there since I was a child in the 70s and there always seems to be something new to find, a yurt, a stuffed walrus, the largest mask in Africa, ... Well worth a visit.
Steve Dempsey, London, Uk




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