It seems a revolutionary idea in this day and age to think that your local museum should have a focus on local history. Your local history, your local culture, the development of the town in which you live and how it came to be—all of these things are important. And yet, museums in towns up and down the country fail to deliver this information. Too many times I have been to a local museum or heritage site, only to discover that I am learning about general history and not the specifics of that particular area. Whether Hertford, Shrop or any other -shire, you are told the same, limited, often irrelevant information. It’s akin to getting kidnapped and placed in a Wetherspoons. You could be in any part of the country but you’d never know where. A Wetherspoons is a Wetherspoons is a Wetherspoons; and, increasingly, a museum is a museum is a museum. Knowledge of the wider world and global events is important, of course—but that is for the realm of the classroom and the curriculum.
When it comes to my local museum it is sad to say that it falls woefully short in the ‘learn about your little part of the world’ mantra that I like to see. Now my town, as terrible and decaying and dilapidated as it these days, does have history—and a strong one at that spanning centuries. Its geography and proximity to both Scandinavia, the North Sea and even more eastwards to the Baltic brought it to the attention of foreign visitors (read as invaders) across the ages. In later centuries that position made it a vital port for trade: it served as a Kontor town for the Hansa, and merchants including the ancestors of Geoffrey Chaucer among others made their wealth through the town’s trading network. Several men and women who have had an impact on British, European, and even global affairs have come from the town. The issue is, unless you already knew that, you remain unlikely to know it after visiting the museum.
It’s a drab little building, this museum—an old Victorian sort that seems to suck out the energy from your very soul the moment the tired brickwork comes into your view. I enjoy an old building. Just a few days ago I was at Dover Castle, where the twelfth-century Great Tower is positively modern compared to some of the other locations in its grounds. This Tower, along with the pharros, the Roman lighthouse, and the sites dating back to the Iron Age create in you a sense of wonder and in their own way a sense of living history. The local museum, however, is an entirely joyless affair. On the warmest, brightest, summery day where there is a slight calming breeze and the birds from the nearby park are chirping away in their song, the museum still sits as a dull, lifeless carbuncle. If Dover Castle is a vibrant elder full of vigour regaling eager listeners with tales of his glorious past, the local museum is an atrophied pensioner labouring towards his final breaths.
Inside, the museum fares no better. A tacky over-lit gift shop greets you, selling its overpriced tat. One might find a bookmark with the local museum’s name on it, or a postcard, or a fridge magnet. Along the back wall, an assortment of gifts based around the central attraction of the museum. Of course, nobody buys the tat so an overstock soon begins to occur: stuffed toys and books and puzzles and all other assortment of items lay listlessly over hastily erected tables with signs handwritten scruffily on some lined paper. The person behind the counter looks half-dazed as they stand in the lonely isolation of the booth, their monotony only broken up by the half-glance of a new visitor eyeing up the store before passing into the museum proper.
Walking through the museum, the exhibitions are sprawled out in such a meandering way that there is no sense of chronological or even simply logical progression throughout the building. At best the exhibitions are uninformative, some appear as if they have never been updated since the grand opening of the museum; and at worst counterproductive to learning. The World War displays are intermixed, meshing items from the First with medals and stories from the Second. It’s a good thing the Germans were kind enough to fight against us both times otherwise there would be even more confusion. The Anglo-Saxon section is nothing but mannequins that were not being put to use, displayed in ways which are meant to show how people in the past live, but offering no explanation to what those ways were. I don’t need a reconstruction of a kitchen and a grave to know that people in the past ate food and buried their dead. To add insult to injury, a rather groundbreaking discovery relating to the Anglo-Saxons was unearthed in this region of the world. The only evidence of that in this museum? A sign saying that if you want to see those items, you have to go to London. The Egypt and Roman sections—naturally two subjects related to this rural English land—have the same lack of description with their mannequins. The Egypt section has a bust of an Egyptian burial mask, by the side of which there is a headset that apparently you can put to your ear to listen to a story of this bust’s life and death. Naturally, the headset is broken. Yet even worse, is that in the Roman section one of the mannequins is of a rather angry red-haired woman, standing with teeth clenched, as if in the early stages of some war cry. Newcomers to the museum might simply take this as a rather angry Roman housewife, one angry at her husband who seems far more interested in his mannequin goat. Those who have visited the museum over a longer period will know that the mannequin is actually of Boudica, queen of the Iceni and enemy of Rome. Paulinus is no doubt laughing in his grave at this added humiliation to that proud woman. There is a taxidermy room of birds, so shrouded in darkness that the museum must assume that all the residents of the town suffer from ornithophobia. It is said that this room is dedicated to animals who are—or were at previous periods in history—local to the area. I must say I have never known pangolins, sea lions, or giraffes patrolling the high streets.
But all of this is only if you can see the displays to begin with. The halls are so dimly lit that it’s hard to get a firm grasp of exactly at what you are looking. A museum is a very visual experience, to lack visibility is a fundamental issue. Along the way, someone working within that museum has confused ‘low light is necessary to preserve the condition of the artefacts on display’ for ‘treat the museum as if it were a dark room for photographs’. Of course, you cannot ask staff to assist you with your viewing because they are never around. There is a very high chance that you could spend an entire day circling the same exhibit and never see a member of staff. The only one who is ever there is the one in the gift shop, and they are instructed at the threat of death and dismemberment to never answer a question that is not related to the supply of plush toys. When you do happen to pass one, daring to interrupt their day by asking them about the display earns you a look as if you have just punched your hand through the display case and ground up the bones into a fine sand. I made the mistake of asking about an item in the display case once. The exchange went like this:
‘Do you know if there is a transcript of this anywhere?’
‘I wouldn’t; no. I can’t read Latin so it would have to be sent away first.’
‘The sign right there says it was transcribed, so it seems someone has already done it..’
‘Yes, I suppose someone must have.’
‘Would you know if there is a copy of this somewhere else? I can read Latin so either a copy of this or the English transcription would be appreciated.’
‘I suppose there is, but I wouldn’t know where to look.’
‘Do you know of anybody here who would know?’
‘No.’ And then he walked off.Lovatt and an unnamed museum worker, 2017.
In my youth I would have assumed that a requirement for working in a museum would be some knowledge of some sort of history, interpreting history, and exhibiting that interpretation to the public. But evidently I was wrong.
It’s a shame, really. I like my town. I like the history of my town. I wish the people and the premise dedicate to sharing that history did, too.