Stories from small museums
Updated: Mar 18
Stories from small museums
by Fiona Candlin, Toby Butler, and Jake Watts
Manchester University Press, 224 pp., £16.99, November 2022
978 1 5261 6688 3
Stories from small museums taught me a lot about myself. Having read through it for the first time, I felt suspended between a sense of brooding and fascination—these pages had just demystified the proliferation of small museums across the UK in the last half-century, but why, I found myself asking, had I never noticed? All of those soggy rides that littered my childhood, through the muted prospects of Cornwall or Devon or Cumbria, invariably to a cold and quaint collection of tat (in which, like many an adolescent, I saw little merit)—why did I just look at the stuff and not think about it? I must have known these things meant something to someone, but it never felt as though it meant something to me. When I visited the behemothic residue of the Victorian museum makers—The National Gallery, The British Museum, Tate Britain et al—it was spectacle that got me hooked; how could a screw or bar of soap in some stagnant basement compete for my captivation with the likes of The Nereid Monument, or Van Gogh’s crabs? Then, growing up, I unconsciously consigned the small museum to a world of Nuts in May, of damp caravans, of collections that weren’t really museums at all.
If you live in the UK, you probably aren’t far away from a small museum. On the back of writing about Stories from small museums I took the short ride to my nearest one; the Museum of Cannock Chase is a modest two floor space complete with gift and coffee shops. The former, which also functions as a cultural information point for the surrounding area, sells books about coal mining, maps, and replica Roman denarii. Quaint blackboards outside advertise local wildlife walks; in a vitrine in the foyer, there is a menagerie of bronze statuettes that resemble miniature coal mining equipment. The café evokes the 1980s, but the museum entrance is handsomely refurbed. The Museum of Cannock Chase is built on the site of a former coal mine, which at its zenith trained the majority of coal miners who extracted from the Cannock Chase seams. Particularly fascinating is the way in which this filthy industry thrived in such pristine surroundings—Cannock Chase is a designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, its woodland home to ancient canopies and rare species.
Regrettably photography is restricted; if I had taken the shots I wanted, one would’ve shown the first sentence the visitor sees upon entering the display space— ‘Welcome to your museum’. The ground floor is mostly comprised of wall panels (with the odd stuffed mammal making an appearance), which explain the primary industries of the local area, community pastimes such as football and working men’s clubs, and prominent gentry. One had particular poignancy for me, a small board about ‘Brindley Village—‘the lost village’, a close knit community that existed in the middle of the forest for thirty years (c. 1929-50s). My grandfather grew up there, and would often take me and my sisters to the site of the village when we were children to spot the remnants of houses in the undergrowth, and pick fresh bilberries for pies. Most of the site, with the exception of the school playground and a few posts near my grandfather’s old house, displays only the subtlest trace of settlement, and has been considerably reclaimed by the woodland. Learning that a record exists, small as it may be, was an unexpected comfort to me—a feeling I don’t often get in museums.
The main exhibition of the museum is a lottery funded display about coal mining. It explains why and how coal is extracted, features a reconstructed shaft cage, and displays artefacts from the communities that depended on the industry for employment. The cage is highly evocative—especially as its audio preserves the niche local dialect, which is distinct from the Brummie or Black Country accents, and swiftly petering out as we sleepwalk toward the banality of estuary English. Moving clockwise around the displays, a screen near the end features a 1990s news report about the closure of the final pit on Cannock Chase after many centuries (the earliest evidence for coal mining in the area dates from the 13th century). These miners aren’t the sort to cry in public, let alone on camera, but there’s a deep sadness there—you can see it in their eyes. It is difficult to imagine the sheer emotion that an exhibition like this conjures up for someone whose forefathers had been part of this community and industry for time immemorial; outside, you could probably forget it ever happened, inside the museum, the soot and smells and symbols evoke a world of daily rituals, Saturday night dances, and of some who went down and never came out.
Returning to the impression I formed as a teenager, it’s not that major museums are in a different league to these provincial ones, but that they aren’t really the same type of thing. Candlin, Butler, and Watts address this ontology by entertaining the bigger question of what a museum is. The problem here is that there is no consensus—nobody knows. It is noted in the Introduction, for instance, that the Museums Association has revised its definition of a museum on four occasions since 1971. Some jurisdictions, such as Scotland, operate with the International Council for Museums (ICOM) definition, in conflict with the other three nations, because it recognises ‘intangible heritage’. Naturally, the authors set their own criteria; ‘museums would have a collection, care for objects in the long term, and that at least some of those objects would be on display… they also had to have a public orientation and occupy demarcated space.’ This definition means that the study could include places ‘too modest’ to be considered museums by guidebooks or administrative bodies.
For their ends, these criteria do the job. But because of what the multiplication of micromuseums is a symptom of, even these criteria might be too restrictive. The final page of the book’s conclusion reflects on the micromuseum horizon, and mentions several which are soon to open or have done so recently, among them the Vagina Museum, the Museum of Neo-Liberalism, the Museum of Transology, the Museum of Homelessness, the Museum of British Colonialism. Evidently, the sorts of micromuseums opening are reflective of cultural concerns. Often, it appears that such small museums deal with areas of social history that have been overlooked and overshadowed. Intrinsic to nearly every definition of a museum is the element of protection—a museum must fulfil a preservative or protective function for its collections. It is also embedded in our museum discourse—these places ‘care’ for things, they ‘look after’ them. It is imperative to understand, however, that protection entails threat—even if the only threat is time. Therefore, we should be aware of the fact that museums are by definition concerned with threats to culture or heritage, this is typically material, but as demonstrated by the ICOM definition above, it can be inclusive of the intangible (for instance, a recorded interview, or an idea). Museums are intrinsically defensive and reactive.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there is a positive correlation between the proliferation of micromuseums and cultural threat. The ruptures in local communities in the United Kingdom in the second half of the twentieth century—a direct result of deindustrialisation—were frankly seismic. The loss of a way of life that these changes entailed is the single biggest factor in the increase in micromuseums. This idea is not new, and it’s not one that the authors of Stories from small museums completely buy either, though the stories that the book’s subjects relay are said to be ‘closely interwoven with some of the major social, political, and economic shifts of the twentieth century’. In their historiographical rundown, the authors highlight the arguments of Robert Hewitson, John Urry, and Raphael Samuel. For Hewitson, ‘the emergence of the new independent museums in the UK was linked to the near-collapse of the UK manufacturing base, especially after the Conservative government came to power in 1979’; for Urry, ‘rapid de-industrialisation had created a profound sense of loss, both of certain kinds of technology, and the social life associated with them’; on the contrary, for Samuel, these museums had their origins in the full employment of the 1950s and 60s, and were motivated by ‘pride in industry, not its passing’, but were nonetheless ‘work of the people’. The Museum of Cannock Chase, though not included in the book, strongly supports the deindustrialisation aetiology.
Stories from small museums deals with three categories: Transport, Conflict, and Local History. Transport is the one that dominates, ‘a success story of the micromuseums boom’. We read of immense visual loss, the blue and cream buses of Rochdale made by Daimler, the cherry red ones in Bolton ‘at the forefront of 1960s design’, and the lustrous locomotives that ripped through the fields on steam; thence, naturally, the advent of museums that memorialise them. Often the people who work in these museums had a personal connection with the preceding industry—the museums employ those whom they in a sense commemorate. Most potent are the junctions between genealogy, community, and arborous threads; take, for instance, the Dinting Railway Centre in Derbyshire. A double loss—the museum shut down a few decades after the decline of the industry it memorialised—the book includes a transcript of a song about Dinting, featuring the chorus: ‘For I’m a Dinting Engineman I’m proud of all we do / And what I’ve learnt from older hands I’ll gladly teach to you’. This line encapsulates a way of life that micromuseums frequently concern and is emblematic of the community cultures eroded by deindustrialisation, globalisation, and modernisation. My editor likens these museums to gravestones.
Some stories from small museums talk in terms of trauma rather than threat. Frank Olding, heritage officer for the Blaenau Gwent Museums Service, provides the most poignant and visceral description; apropos of the Brynmawr Museum, he says that ‘feelings were very raw, and people, the guts had been ripped out of these communities…raw and beaten up and embittered and despondent…there were times when these communities were thriving places’, and what’s more, that the new museums of the area ‘are part of the healing process’. The section of the book that looks at Conflict explores this notion of the micromuseum as therapeutic more deeply, and provides a fascinating insight into the powerful, but overlooked, functions of these places. One of the first observations that the authors make about museums of conflict is also applicable to many of those concerned with industry or local history; they write ‘as our research developed it became increasingly clear that the museum founders were aiming to support members of their communities in processing difficult or traumatic experiences’. Moreover, The Museum of Free Derry, which records the events of Bloody Sunday, fulfilled this function, but also played a more exceptional role— ‘funding the Museum of Free Derry was a means for public bodies to acknowledge some of the wrongdoings of the past, whilst simultaneously maintaining some distance and hence apparent neutrality with respect to the British Army.’ This is a compelling example of how a micromuseum can do a good deal more than what it says on the tin.
The case studies in Stories from small museums also indicate the broader tension between museums as inclusive and exclusive places, of unofficiality and institutionalisation. Many of the micromuseums we read about are exclusionary in some way, as demonstrated, for example, by the case of the spat between the St Agnes Museum and Perranzabuloe Museum; not only does Perranzabuloe harbour considerable stuffed turtle envy for a specimen (rightly) in the possession of St Agnes, but the two museums became embroiled in a squabble over a farmer’s smock. The smock, it seems, was the possession of a St Agnes man, and upon his death was within the jurisdiction of the St Agnes museum, but in what can only be described as an utterly vexing twist, a relative donated the smock to Perranzabuloe. (To avoid any undue offence, it is imperative you remember the following if you ever grace that part of the world: Perranzabuloe has the smock, St Agnes has the turtle.) The notion of exclusivity is also reflected in the relationship between Cornish museums and non-Cornish people, by the idea of them preserving a heritage that has boundaries (often geographic, but also related to class and race). There is, too, the prominent clash between the officiality that the creation of a museum insinuates, and the fact that so many of these micromuseums are not on official lists, and in several cases do not fulfil the administrative definitions of the museum. The truth is, however, that it was never the job of Stories from small museums to answer or resolve such tensions; as a record of the generation of micromuseums, and the socio-economic conditions that triggered it, the study provides a compelling insight into these bureaucratically neglected thresholds that enhance our cultural landscape.
Vincent Jordan is an Editor and Contributor at Curation Space
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To learn more about Stories from small museums, or purchase a copy (non-affiliated link), check out Manchester University Press here.