Sometimes it’s the small museums that have the biggest ideas, the best back stories – and the biggest wonders.
I am standing in the offices of the Museum of Cambridge with the curator Charlotte Woodley, looking at a blue, eighteen-century watch ball that she’s just unwrapped from its tissue. There it sits in front of us, a glass bauble from about 1720, which once hung in a house in the local village of Gamlingay. As it spun in the wind its bright reflections were designed to frighten off the witches; its surfaces would grow cloudy if misfortune came close. When I look at it I feel the usual museum-magic, that time-travel sensation that jumps you back three hundred years and returns you to the old world of the Fens, a pre-Enlightenment world of witches, ghosts and terrible floods.
This museum, which is dedicated to folklore and social history, is full of wonders. It has a mandrake root – acquired from a potion seller in Littleport – which could give men extraordinary strength, and a cawl that belonged to a local storyteller called Jack Barrett. A cawl is the membrane that occasionally wraps around a child’s head when he or she is born. It was highly valued because it was believed to have the power to save you from drowning. The museum also has a large part of the collection of the Folklore Society, amongst which is a corp chreadh, a celtic voodoo doll. First you stuck it with pins and then you put it into a river until the water washed it away – which was the fate that you were also wishing upon your enemy. Most of these wonders are in storage because the museum doesn’t have showcases of high enough quality in which to display them.
But perhaps the biggest wonder in this museum – equal to all the voodoo dolls and mandrake roots – is Ms Enid Porter, the middle-aged woman in a headscarf, twinset and pearls who – between 1946 and 1978 – more than doubled the size of this museum, pretty well singlehandedly. Every weekend she cycled out into the Fens, collecting things and stories. She conserved the objects, gave lectures, laid out the displays, took the money and even cleaned the windows – all for far less salary than her predecessor, Reginald Lambeth.
It is easy to overlook a woman like Enid Porter because she looked so old-fashioned. But look at her publications list and you see something else – a workaholic, with a steely determination and an astonishing output. During the first half of the twentieth century an entire rural world was vanishing – in a prefiguring of the collapse of the industrial world that happened in the second half of the twentieth century. It’s no surprise that a class of people appeared who were obsessed with the need to remember these lost worlds – Enid Porter amongst them.
There are plenty of people – Charlotte Woodley is one – who are filled with admiration for the charismatic ghost of Enid Porter, and all that she achieved.
And now the museum is starting a project called ‘Tracing Traditions’, which will explore the local customs that were around in Enid’s time and show how they have persisted or mutated into contemporary traditions. (First research suggests that localism is back and that old traditions are being re-remembered by the dozen.)
‘So,’ I ask, ‘it’s as if you are stepping in Enid Porter’s footsteps?’ ‘Exactly,’ says Charlotte. ‘That’s an awfully big project,’ I observe. ‘No bigger than Enid achieved,’ says Charlotte.
Enid Porter died in 1984 which is almost yesterday. And yet although she left behind dozens of notebooks she wrote down almost nothing about what compelled her to save the past, and now her motives are lost in obscurity. The museum sector doesn’t make much of its curators and their stories. In fact, there’s an interesting article, posted recently on the blog of the Museums and Galleries History Group, that suggests that we don’t make much of our museum histories, full stop. (Although the Museum of Cambridge is an honourable exception here, since they ran a great temporary exhibition on Enid Porter last year.) Are there other Enid Porters out there? Almost certainly yes. And do we make enough of them, their lives, passions, obsessions and compulsion to remember? Almost certainly not.
The image at the top of the page is locally-made glass, with a folk art feel, on display in the Museum. The image half way down the article is – of course – of Enid Porter, with thanks for its use to the Museum and to @Cambridge News.