Sometimes a local museum is the quickest way – and maybe the only way? – back into that timeless, agricultural world that vanished sometime during the 20th century – a world in which travellers came every year at harvest time and where each small town had ‘making’ skills – as hatters, masons, carpenters, coachmen and shoemakers – that we’ve all long ago forgotten. I suspect it was a harsh world and I am glad I wasn’t born into it, but nonetheless I am intrigued enough to find myself standing in Allhallows Museum of Lace in Honiton, talking to Margaret, who is all-round curator, guide, painter, decorator, raiser of money and clearer of drains in this small, town museum.
Margaret is Honiton born and bred. She had wanted to work in this museum ever since she was five but somehow it never happened and so she went to work in the vacancies section of the local Jobs Exchange until her daughter got ill, at which she left work to nurse her. When her daughter got better she had some free time and so at last she was able to volunteer in the museum. When she first arrived the archive was piled up in Smiths Crisps boxes – everything wrapped in plastic and fastened with paper clips. ‘I could have cried,’ she said.
Margaret is a volunteer and has been so for 17 years – as is every one of the 104 people who work here – although she regularly puts in a full week’s work and will answer emails every day except the 25th December. Since no one is paid and they own their own premises, the museum’s main outgoings are power, insurance, security, and the fire alarm. It costs £58 a day to run the museum. When money gets low the volunteers set up a stall in the high street.
So how does a museum function when it’s entirely run by volunteers? The answer is, surprisingly smoothly. Everything is begged and borrowed – some of the showcases came from a gift shop that was closing opposite (they stopped the traffic when they wheeled them back across the road) but although everything may look ad hoc and charming, in actual fact the archives are sorted, every item has been digitised, and the reserve lace collection is stored neatly away into boxes. (The lace is the glory of the collection. 18th century Honiton Lace is a delicate, foamy concoction characterised by the flowers you would have found in a Devon hedgerow, creamy in its original state but sometimes stained with coffee or whitened by being boiled in milk. Think of it as a painting made with threads depicting an 18th century hedgerow.)
They also get HLF grants – always a good sign, the HLF being cautious about where it gives its money. Along with the grants came the gift of training. ‘I knew you’d get the money,’ says the HLF monitor to them afterwards, ‘It’s because you were all so enthusiastic.’
‘Do you ever argue?’ I ask her. ‘Once,’ she says, ‘when one of our volunteers wouldn’t make a cup of tea for one of the lace makers. I discovered that they had had a falling out, 25 years previously. It was over a posy of flowers.’
Margaret’s own family history is threaded through the museum. There’s a German knife in the WW2 case that was given to Margaret’s mother during WW2. When the police announced an amnesty across the town, Margaret’s mother thought she’d hand it in – but Margaret said, ‘No, I’ll have that in the museum.’ Sometimes they get visitors asking for information about their family trees and when Margaret does the research she discovers that they and she are related. Putting yourself into history is one of the perks of working in a small, town museum. It’s how you get some immortality – the equivalent of paying to have your name carved up on a board.
Lately Margaret’s been seriously ill. Before going into hospital she listed all her museum tasks on a memory stick and split them up between the other volunteers. By the time she came out the list had got much longer, because lying there in hospital she’d had time to think about it. ‘But I don’t dwell too much on all of that,’ she told me.
Nearly all the Honiton volunteers are older than 70. Behind Honiton lie many bigger questions. Can we – should we – run our museums on a shoe string? Who should pay for culture? Are local museums only a local issue? What happens to young people if we run all our museums like this? How will they pay for the roof when eventually it needs mending? And what happens when the volunteers are too exhausted to go on? But in the meantime I’m rather glad that 104 volunteers are rowing very hard in unison to keep a ship afloat.