Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Brexit And Museums: Things Ain’t What They Used To Be

7th September 2016

If you want to understand the Brexit vote you could do worse than start in the UK’s small, town museums. Each of them depicts a lost world (and some of them depict many): lost, agricultural worlds; booming mills and factories; fairs and hurdy-gurdies; worlds made by hand; the old craft skills; the travelling life of the Romanies.  The list goes on and on.

The 20th century was a time of loss, and nowhere captures these losses more vividly and more poignantly than small, town museums.

I am just back from St Austell in Cornwall, whose small, town museum (it is in the town’s 19th century prison cells) is stuffed to the gills with old photos, memories, agricultural implements, playbills, costumes, shop signs and stories – all documenting a dizzying number of lost worlds, most of which date back to the time when St Austell was at the prosperous heart of the Cornish China Clay industry. The industry still exists but is increasingly automated and employs far fewer people.

All of Cornwall voted Brexit but St Austell was one of the most Eurosceptic.

The decline of St Austell is reflected in many other small and medium sized towns across the north and the west.  (Interestingly, in most of the towns we go into it’s the collapse of the High Street that really upsets people – although this of course has nothing to do with the EU and everything to do with the ongoing, hollowing-out  effects of the Internet.)

If you are in search of the old, agricultural world try Dorchester County Museum or Honiton Lace Museum. And if you want to understand the camaraderie of the cotton mills try Queen Street Mill in Burnley.  (Or rather don’t, because Queen Street Mill is on the verge of closing.  Our museums document lost worlds until they themselves become one.)

Nostalgia was surely one of the factors in the Brexit vote – but it wasn’t misplaced – many towns have declined outside  London.  And nor of course is nostalgia necessarily sweet and cuddly.  It can be very bitter indeed.

Since the onset of austerity in 2010 museums have seen a role for themselves, a way of justifying their existence by becoming places of therapy.  And there’s plenty of logic in that.  Freud knew the therapeutic power of objects. He used to give his patients a small object to hold on to as they set off on their mental journeys.  Museums are indeed therapeutic places but such is the scale of the losses in the 20th century it looks like the entire country needs therapy.

Sometimes it feels as if there’s a war going on out there, and the Past is one of the battlegrounds on which it is being fought.

Which, ironically, puts small, town museums on the front line. And suggests that we should take their power seriously.

(The image is of St Austell’s High Street, bustling in 1960.)