Museum of Marco Polo

Celebrating Museums And Imagination 2020

Who’s Your Local Hero?/Museum of Marco Polo

11th May 2015

Here, in the offices of the Museum of Marco Polo, we have been pursuing the theme of Local Heroes, the men and women who’ve saved local history and sometimes changed big history because of it.

Which is why it is that we are in Torquay, looking at the local museum.

Now I can’t put my hand on heart and tell you this is a great museum – it is far too under-funded and under-resourced for that – but I can say that it has a great story to tell and that somewhere hidden in its storerooms must be a great collection of artefacts.

The story concerns Father John MacEnery and William Pengelly, who excavated Kents Cavern, the local caves, and changed our understanding of human history by proving that human beings had once walked the earth alongside extinct animals – so a beautiful example of how local history can sometimes change national and international history.

The details of the story go as follows.  John MacEnery was a young Roman Catholic priest who, having become obsessed with archaeology, worked by candlelight in the damp and dark of the caves in the 1820’s.  Deep beneath a limestone flooring he found the remains of cave lions, tigers and hyenas – including five teeth from a sabre-toothed tiger – side by side with flint knives and arrowheads – and so proof that men and extinct animals had once lived side by side.

MacEnery tried to publicise his findings but ran up against the powerful personality of William Buckland of Oxford University, who denied flat out that such a thing was possible.  MacEnery backed down, saying that ‘it is painful to dissent from such a high authority’ although in his notes he also wrote that ‘Dr Buckland is inclined to attribute these flints to a more modern date by supposing that the ancient Britons had scooped out ovens in the stalagmite and that through them the knives got admission.  Without stopping to dwell on the difficulty of ripping up a solid floor which still defies all our efforts . . . I am bold to say that in no instance have I discovered evidence of breaches or ovens in floors . . . ‘

In 1829 MacEnery had a serious accident and was very nearly suffocated.  He was also half-poisoned by caves gasses and so never fully recovered his health and had to abandon his excavations.  When he died at the age of 44 the manuscript of his book was sold for wastepaper and only partially reconstructed 20 years later.

William Pengelly was a different kind of man – a Cornishman, self-taught, confident and enormously hard working.  He picked up where MacEnery had left off, re-excavated the caves with great care, and proved to a world that was now willing to listen that human beings are indeed of great antiquity.  His diary, all 900 pages of it, is in Torquay Museum.  He also had a nice turn of phrase.  ‘My eyes ached,’ he wrote, ‘from looking so far back into the abyss of antiquity.’Image for body of text

But these are not the only heroes in this story.  For Pengelly founded the Torquay Natural History Society – one of those 19th century groups who did so much to create our museums.  When Pengelly died they built a Hall in his name which now forms part of the Museum.  Most of his finds went to the museum and it was one of the museum’s later curators, Arthur Ogilvie, who re-excavated the caves and found a human jawbone, 44,000 year old, and thus from someone who had lived alongside Neanderthals and woolly mammoths.  Stories don’t come better than this.

Beside the front door there is now a forlorn little message, saying that Torquay Museum needs to create an endowment fund in order to continue looking after its collections, that the Museum is considering selling some of its artefacts to pay for this endowment, and that without it the future of the Museum and its collections is uncertain.

Would it matter if Torquay Museum’s collections were relocated, say to  London?  I think it would.  Telling a story in the place where it happened is infinitely more powerful than telling it somewhere else.  In Lit Crit terms they call this ‘framing’ – the principle that the context of a story changes its meaning.

William Pengelly, although of great charm, was also a formidable fighter. He left this piece of advice. ‘Be careful in scientific enquiries that you get a sufficient number of perfectly trustworthy facts;  that you intepret them with the aid of a rigorous logic;  that on sufficient occasions you have courage enough to avow your convictions;  and don’t be impatient or annoyed if your friends don’t receive all your conclusions, or if they even call you bad names.’

Now there’s a man to admire.  Who’s your Local Hero?

By Rachel Morris