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New Walk Museum

Miles Travelled = 140.7 
Museums Visited = 5
Mood = Happy

Stepping towards the front entrance of New Walk Museum feels like coming home. Not that I’ve ever dreamed lived in a building of such assertive grandeur.

Four smooth, white columns stand abreast at the front, arranged symmetrically around the door. The size of each at the base is truly massive but they taper slightly as they rise towards the high portico, lending false perspective to the structure and implying a dizzying scale.

No. I’ve never lived in a building like that.

The sight of it makes me smile though. The architect has taken a structure of substantial proportions and made it seem even larger. Protecting its feelings perhaps. As if it might develop a complex when compared to the even grander Museums of London.

New Walk Museum

New Walk Museum

And it does invite that comparison. There are Egyptian mummies and fine art. There are dinosaurs. As such, it is more akin to the museums of the capital than to any of the other local museums I’ll be visiting on this journey.

Three of the exhibits in New Walk Museum stand out to me as being particularly significant. First is a fragment of a Meteorite which fell on the Leicestershire town of Barwell on Christmas Eve 1965. The second is the Rutland Dinosaur, a Cetiosaurus, the sight of which strikes awe in children and adults alike. The third is a small and apparently insignificant fossil named Charnia after the Charnwood Forest area where it was discovered in 1958.

This feather-like imprint on grey stone was discovered by a schoolboy in a range of low hills some fifteen minutes drive from my house. It may not make jaws drop, but it transformed paleontology. Before Charnia, it was believed that no fossils existed in ancient Precambrian rocks. The discovery changed our understanding of the beginnings of life on this planet.

At this point I have to hold myself back. Given a willing audience I could rattle on about these geological themes for pages. Geology was my subject once. This is my local museum. These three exhibits part of the story of my understanding of the world. And in that way they are part of my own identity.

On this journey I’ve met many people who volunteer their time to share a little bit of history with others. And perhaps in visiting New Walk Museum and feeling my own reaction, I’ve stumbled on a key to understanding why. At some point the general history of everything crosses a line and becomes special to us. The more we discover, the more the themes intertwine with our own personal narrative.

That’s when a place or a collection starts to feel like home.

But, as I was about to discover, change has come to New Walk Museum’s geology exhibition. Where the Rutland Dinosaur once stood is now a huge and echoing space.

More of that in part two.

 

Newark Houses Museum – part two

Miles Travelled = 132.7 
Museums Visited = 4
Mood = Heating up

The Newark Houses Museum is sometimes described as the ‘Museum of Leicester Life’. That might sound like a collection of the ordinary and the un-contentious. But ordinary things become extraordinary when they are ancient. And the un-contentious from the distant past is white hot with political implication when new.

The MuBu project based at the Newark Houses Museum is engaging a group of volunteers in the shooting of three short documentary films about different aspects of the city’s recent past. Eight volunteers were gathered on the day of my visit, together with two professional film makers. I sat in their meeting and listened as they planned. We were then guided to the gallery where the films will eventually be displayed, a bright and cheerful room near the front entrance – one of the first galleries that visitors enter as they make their way around the museum.

“This doesn’t look like Leicester,” said one of the volunteers as he peered through the glass at a display of brightly coloured woven basketry from Somalia. “Not the Leicester I know, anyhow.” Others murmured agreement. I looked from cabinet to cabinet, taking in other objects from around the word. The title of the exhibition was ‘Coming to Leicester’, its subject, the different communities that have settled in the city.

The curator, our guide, nodded in agreement to the comments he was hearing and told us that the display was going to be moved so that it wouldn’t be the very first thing that visitors encountered as they began their tour.

Newark Houses Museum door detail

Carving on the door of the Newark Houses Museum

At this point it began to dawn on me that the job of the museum designer might be fraught with political choices. The introductory display did not reflect Leicester life to these film making volunteers. But for a group recently settled from other parts of the world, it might put in context everything they would see in the museum and help to connect them to the gradually unfolding history of their new home.

Later and alone, I travelled back to the Newark Houses Museum and explored the other galleries, looking for similar political questions. This is what I found: the older the subject, the less contentious the display. A helmet and breast plate from the English Civil War – no issue today, though they were symbols of political turmoil in the Seventeenth Century. A portrait of a local suffragette – an easy choice for the museum to display with pride, though in its day it would have been seen by some as shaking the pillars of the established order.

Upstairs I entered galleries dedicated to the ‘Tigers’ regiment and looked at trophies collected from the battlefields of the First and Second World Wars. Why should the helmet of a German soldier be different from that of a Roundhead? And yet I found myself uncomfortable to see it there behind the glass, knowing that it probably came from a victim of the war. Most shocking for me was a swastika arm band, the stark contrast of its red, black and white seeming far too fresh next to the faded browns and greys of the other artefacts.

Finally, having worked my way back downstairs, I sat and watched two short video documentaries, each highlighting the value of Leicester’s multi-cultural community. I’d arrived back in the present day. And though the success story of multiculturalism in Leicester is something about which I feel fiercely proud, I’m aware that my view is not shared by all.

Two weeks ago, violence arrived on the streets of Leicester – less than a mile from the front door of the Newark Houses Museum. A group of 1000 protestors from around the country converged in Humberstone Gate. They chanted angry and provocative slogans against one of the city’s minority communities. They threw bricks and fireworks at police officers and attacked buildings, including a community arts centre.

George Santayana once said, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

I say, long may our museums thrive. But I’m glad I don’t have to decide which objects to put behind the glass.

 

Newark Houses Museum – part one

Miles Travelled = 124.7 
Museums Visited = 4
Mood = Slightly Embarrassed 

The Newark Houses Museum is a last minute call.  They’re having a MuBu project event. Something to do with videos.  Would I be free to go along?   

So, innocent of any knowledge about the project, or indeed the place, I hurry into Leicester, find the museum and present myself at reception. 

It is at this point that I need to make another confession. Although the Newark Houses Museum is only a few miles from my house, and even though I used to work in a building just across the road from it, I’d never actually stepped across the threshold. 

This may show me in a bad light, but if I’m not honest on this journey, what are you going to get beyond a bland and vaguely pleasant travelogue? 

I’ve been to Leicester’s other big museum, on New Walk. They have a dinosaur skeleton. The child in me loves that kind of stuff. Dinosaurs have teeth and you need to crane your neck to see to the top of them. But the Newark Houses museum? A last minute Internet search before hurrying to the bus shows it to be a ‘museum of ordinary life’, which from my point of ignorance doesn’t sound as exciting as a museum of giant reptiles from the Jurassic period. 

The museum itself is situated near the inner ring road in two buildings which date back as far as the sixteenth century. The whitewashed exterior is hansom without being overly grand or showy. I must have walked past it hundreds of times without really looking. 

Newark Houses Museum, Leicester

The Newark Houses Museum

On stepping inside the Newark Houses Museum, my first impression is the cluster of welcoming smiles from people gathered around the reception area. One hundred and twenty-four miles and four museums ago, I might have assumed that meant the placed was surprisingly heavily staffed (considering the state of the national debt). But now I look from person to person trying to figure out if any of them are actually being paid for their service. In this case, the answer is no.   

I didn’t set out on this journey looking for a volunteer culture. But so far, it has been my single most stunning discovery. When it comes to preserving and sharing our history, a small but significant number of people are prepared to offer their time, energy and creativity for no financial reward. 

And me – I hardly knew the place existed. 

Which brings me to a question I don’t have any answer for.  Wouldn’t it be better if all these people were paid for their work? Or would that remove the nobility of the gift they are giving to society through their service? Like I say, I just don’t have an answer. And perhaps it isn’t even my job to ask.  This is a highly politicised question in contemporary Britain. Is it the ‘big society’ or ‘small government’ or is it a country too stretched to pay for work that needs to be done? 

And as I was about to find out, there are other political questions in the world of museums. The very stuff of history is intensely political. Displaying a 60 million year old dinosaur might be uncontroversial. But as soon as we step into the human world, the choice of what to display and how to display it are subject to debate. History is about politics and politics shapes the history we choose to tell. Never more so than with ‘ordinary life’. 

More of that in part two.

 

Sudbury Hall Podcast

Miles Travelled = 116.5
Museums Visited = 3
Mood = Dreaming of Grandeur

As promised – the story of that amazing floor mat and my dream of living in Sudbury Hall. And all in one little podcast.

Sudbury Hall Podcast

 

 

Sudbury Hall

Miles Travelled = 116.5
Museums Visited = 3
Mood = Dreaming of Grandeur

With the Museum of Childhood that had so arrested me still fresh in my mind, I found myself being guided around the grounds and in through a back entrance of Sudbury Hall itself. It was a MuBu project based here that had brought me to Derbyshire. ‘Pests Polish and Ponyhair’ was the title, though I had little idea of the detail.

The outside of the Hall exudes an over-the-top grandeur, a kind of 17thCentury brick-built bling, by which the rich – and they must surely have been very rich indeed - made their wealth conspicuous. Inside, I found myself following through a passage, up some stairs, along another passage and out into a truly magnificent room – the aptly named Long Gallery.

If a 17th Century visitor had somehow managed to remain unimpressed by the outside of the building, the Long Gallery would surely have fixed that. It runs the entire width of the house. There are high, ornate ceilings and noble ancestors stare down from oil paintings on the elegantly panelled walls. Tall windows look out over the lake and landscaped garden.

The Long Gallery, Sudbury Hall

The Long Gallery

It was the scale of the place that really hit me first. That impression deepened with each person I spoke to. For on this particular day the Pests Polish and Pony Hair project was in full swing and there were plenty of experts on hand.

 Tables laid out in the Long Gallery displayed different aspects of the hall and the way it is cared for by staff and volunteers. On one table metalwork was being cleaned. On another ceramics. A third had books. A display on household pests was laid out on the fourth.

There are, I learned, 5330 books in the Dante Library upstairs, with a further 2000 or so in another library downstairs. Each needs to be cleaned and catalogued, as do all the ceramics. Cleaning an individual piece from the ceramics collection can take 7 hours. And the maintenance of the floor mat – well, that is an art in itself.

The care that goes into looking after a National Trust property like Sudbury Hall might at one time have been kept hidden away behind the scenes. The Pests Polish and Pony Hair project brings it out into the open for visitors to see.

For the amazing story of the floor mat and the answer to the question of how I started to dream of actually living at Sudbury Hall, please hold on for the podcast, coming very soon.

 
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