It’s not as easy as it looks, collecting to tell the story of a culture and a time. You have to know and love that culture, understand its spirit, know that it is vanishing. But get it right and it’s as evocative as any film or novel.
So if you want to know what it was like to live in the remote and watery world of the Fens before the 1930’s, then the Museum of Cambridge is for you. This is a ‘list’ museum – with stories lightly inscribed on top – and it overflows with sugar cones, green glass bottles, a bed-bug trap, a 19th century apple peeler, jelly moulds, a corner closet for powdering wigs, 19th century skating boots (for skating on the frozen Fens), notes on local witchcraft, a witches’ bottle, thatching tools, sun hats for horses, top hats, dolls, a child’s perambulator – the list goes on and on.
This lost world was a hand-made world – and so the museum is stuffed to the gills with the tools that made it. Speaking as someone who is legendary in my household for my cack-handed approach to tools (although I am fairly nifty with words) I can only gaze at them in astonishment and wonder who invented them?
Did I know that to keep a knife rust-free you have to put it in a warm, dry box near a fire? I did not. And did I know that a salamander was a long, metal tool with a diamond-shaped end that you heated over a flame and then used to brown the tops of Victorian creme brûlée? No, I didn’t know that either.
The ghosts who haunt this museum are the curators who built it – chief amongst whom were Reginald C Lambert and Enid Porter. Enid was an expert on Fenland culture, history, customs, stories and beliefs. She collected in the middle of the 20th century but her achievements are easily overshadowed by the young, macho, stylish curators who came after her in the eighties (and who set out to save the remnants of Britain’s industrial revolution).
Enid with her cardigans and the scarf knotted under her chin, looks old-fashioned by comparison. But look again and wonder at what she made, by finding things and putting them together.
She also interviewed William Barratt, the storyteller of the Fens, who in turn got his stories from Chafer Legge, a renowned Fenland skater and bare-fist fighter, who heard his stories from his grandparents in the 18th century. She never recorded her interviews – she didn’t want to frighten off her interviewees – but memorised them and wrote them down afterwards in diaries that are beautifully inscribed with poems and maps.
There are plenty of East Anglian storytellers who admire her enormously.
The Museum of Cambridge is one of those museums that are accidental works of art, created by many people, some named and some anonymous.
The Museum of Cambridge is at 2/3 Castle Street, Cambridge CB3 OAQ