What Have Local Museums Ever Done For Us?

In the offices of the Museum of Marco Polo we’ve been asking:  ‘So what have local museums ever done for us?’ Local museums, as we all know, are struggling to survive, their budgets lopped, their opening hours reduced, their expertise consolidated and pulled back to the centre. The big London museums, although under pressure, are sustained by the tourists who are pouring into London, but out beyond the M25 and in those places where international tourism doesn’t reach? – well, that’s another matter.   So these are the four things that local museums have done for us.

1. They’ve made history from the bottom upwards. No one has ever added up the numbers of curators, men and women, who have rescued pieces of demolished buildings;  gathered local fossils; recorded the local landscape; saved the momentos of protests and movements; and taped endless local memories, songs and stories.  Each piece saved has been a judgement that this too one day will be history.  And sometimes local history has made big history, and the latter has been rewritten because of it.

2.  They’ve changed museum-making.  It was in social history museums (and therefore in local museums) that the museum revolution of the last 30 years really took place.  Social history museums started to think of themselves differently, began to collect contemporary artefacts, started to see themselves as storytellers of the momentous things that were happening all around them, not least the collapse in manufacturing in the north.  Class got into museums, then was overtaken by race, gender and post-modernism. Audiences were invited in.  Museums became argumentive, even experimental.  Who would have thought it?  (Would you have ever got an imaginary museum, like the Museum of Marco Polo, in the 1970’s?  I doubt it.)

3. They tell our Story (and if they don’t who will?).  It’s in local history museums that you can see that museum-making is like storytelling – but of a very particular kind.  In fact it’s quite like quilt-making.  You tell the story piece by piece.  Each time you add in a new element you shift the balance of the story – making the overall effect lighter, darker, more or less contemporary.  It’s not like writing a novel nor making a film – it’s its own form of storytelling – and we’ll miss it if it ever goes because it’s the perfect way to tell the story of a town or a community.  You can (should?) be able to pitch up in any town in the UK and by going to the local museum make sense of where you are.

Tess of the D'Urbervilles poster in Dorchester Museum

Tess of the D’Urbervilles poster in Dorchester Museum

4.  They’ve made museums popular.  Well, they and a lot of other things as well. Because something has turned round the fortunes of museums, which back in the 70’s were considered unbelievably dowdy.  One reason, I think, is the new emphasis on Memory.  Because social history is often recent history and so is reachable through the intensely personal route of remembering, rather than the more formal routes of top-down, written history.  That and their emphasis on people stories and their diminutive scale is what gives local museums their special appeal.

And some local museums that we like?  In no particular order, Blackburn Museum for its amazingly eclectic mix of artefacts and for its surprising stories;  Dorchester County Museum, because it knows that the Imaginary Landscape (of writers and artists) is just as important as the real one; Kelvingrove, the biggest small museum in the UK;  and the Museum of London, because it’s our local museum.  I’ve lived in London long enough to feel a sympathy for all the people who’ve come this way before me.

So this is what local museums have done for us.  Tell us what they have done for you?