Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

How To Unpick A Victorian Museum

12th July 2015

We are lying out on the cliff tops not far from Lyme Regis, having visited an awful lot of small and medium-sized museums in the last few months.  And now I am making in my head a classification of small museums (a mental museum of small museums?) and thinking that the trickiest thing in the world is to shift a small museum from one type to another.

So these are my categories:

Town museums, telling a local story and with a little bit of everything.  Letters, paintings, pub signs, old prams, fishing nets, some nice bits of ceramics, flint knives, agricultural implements, a Victorian dress or two, a fine 18th century sampler, a Roman gravestone. Museums like this are accommodating but robust and can take a whole range of showcases from new to tatty without looking strange. It is quite hard to ruin a good town museum.

Museums that tell a single story and chart an obsession – lace, canalboats, Victorian toys and so on, Honiton Lace Museum down the road being a nice example.  Again so long as you run them with the same obsessive passion as the original collectors, keeping the quirkiness and avoiding a corporate look, it is quite hard to ruin them.

And my third kind?  Victorian encyclopedic museums, some of them very small but which in their hearts are big museums and so set out to be encyclopedic and to tell the story of everything.  Like the British Museum but on a miniature scale, these Victorian museums aspired to be complete worlds.  They had local geology but also Egyptian mummies;  Victorian dress but also Assyrian reliefs;  stuffed foxes from the local woods but also African wading birds.

It is these museums, which – if they have to be unpicked – should be unpicked with great care.  For despite their random look, they actually have an organic completeness (at least by Victorian standards), and their beauty comes from the feeling that they were like clockwork machines in which each part has a role.

And yet, of course they come out of a world that has gone.  At the beginning of the 21st century we are a much more story-ish culture than the Victorians were, no longer as interested in classifying the world as in telling stories about it.  And anyway these museums are expensive to run (all those skills, all those showcases needing different environmental conditions) and so there is a temptation to unpick them totally.

But museums, more than any other organisation that i know, are formed by their pasts.

Bolton Town Museum and the museum in Saffron Walden are two examples which haven’t been unpicked, where the basic structure has been kept but film, interactives, personal memories, contemporary stories have all been added in –  because Victorian encyclopedic museums are very easy to update.

And examples where they have been unpicked?  Some small and medium-sized museums that now feel incoherent, where you stand in the entrance foyer and think, ‘Where have all the objects gone?  I don’t understand what this museum is about, what is it the museum of, what story is it telling?’

So how should you unpick a small Victorian encyclopedic museum (apart from with great care)?

One way is to look for the strongest and most compelling themes, and especially the ones that best explain your town – and major on these whilst letting the other collections and stories – not vanish exactly but slide a little into the background.  Gradually it will cease to be a museum that covers every subject with equal weight and become a museum of major and minor notes, where some stories occupy the foreground and others paint a supporting landscape.

But here’s something else I would love to do – and that is to leave a Victorian Museum untouched – or at least a part of it – whilst building round it a more modern museum. So that the two museums and the two centuries talk to each other.  Now that would be interesting.

(The image at the top of the page is from the Museum of Fruit in Turin, a quite beautiful museum from about 1900 dedicated to cataloguing the different types of apples grown in the Piedmont valleys.  Who would have thought fruit could be so beautiful?)