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Small, but perfectly formed

May 15, 2010

A few days ago I happened to be wandering round the museum in Bridport, Dorset.Outside it was one of the twice weekly market days and the streets were heaving with shoppers making the most of the sunshine. Inside it was very quiet; only two other visitors and a friendly guide on duty. I discovered all sorts of things about Bridport – its ancient origin, its charter, the importance of its port, and lots of clear and detailed stuff all about its past rope making industry. There were exhibits, models and examples to help; all invaluable to a re enactor in helping to understand the past. Upstairs there was a small exhibition of clothing which included a late eighteenth century maternity gown (the first I’ve seen), Victorian gowns and a selection of accessories  and children’s clothing. Imaginatively, behind a giant Roman shield which was actually a door, children could put on a toga and dress up as miniature Romans. This accompanied the exhibition of Roman and early items that had been excavated from the surrounding areas.

There are small museums all over the country, and for that reason they often get overlooked, yet many contain gems. In nearby Somerset, for example,  the museum near the Cathedral in Wells houses an excellent collection of samplers conveniently hung at eye height where they can be studied easily. Moving further East, Chertsey houses a full costume gallery with annually changing themed displays and further East still, over in Ipswich there is the magnificent (and free) Christchurch Mansion museum. This wonderful house in its own grounds often has special activities and exhibitions, as well as its own wonderful rooms which range from a Tudor chamber through Georgian rooms full of light and elegance to the Victorian kitchen. There is also an art gallery and a superb collection of glassware. Just so that this isn’t merely praise of the South, Morpeth in Northumberland has the truly fascinating Chantry Museum which houses bagpipes of all sizes and periods. As you can hear what they sound like its really absorbing, and I am full of praise for everyone in the museum and heritage centre up in Dunbar for their knowledge and enthusiasm.This is just a random sample, by the way, of ones I have found by chance.

But back to Bridport. Two things occured to me whilst I was there. The first was that we often take for granted what is under our noses, and fail to appreciate either the existence of these museums or the dedication of the volunteers who keep them open.  I have very rarely been to my local heritage centre, I admit,  because I assume it will always be available so there’s no hurry. The second thought followed the first: unless we do value them, the local past that they keep alive could be lost. Just recently two museums I know of have closed, their funding slashed as a consequence of council and lottery cuts. The tragedy is that the collections, either mothballed in a storage unit or dispersed, often incorporate a community’s past. Understanding our past, how communities developed, is the key to understanding why we are the people we are. We may not need to know how rope used to be made, for example, but it explained all sorts of other things like odd local road names, even the length of  old gardens.  We are constantly hearing that people feel disconnected  from their community and surroundings and have no sense of belonging or identity; perhaps we need to cherish more actively the attempts made in these museums to help us – and hope that more will not be lost to the savings and cuts we are being warned to expect especially as a collection once lost can never be replaced.

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