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A Local Exhibit for a Local Museum

Miles Travelled = 494
Museums Visited = 9
Mood = Slightly Squeamish

I’d travelled to the Melton Carnegie Museum to look for exhibits relevant to the subject of the weather and climate change. But, having meandered around the galleries with that in mind, I found myself staring into a large glass-fronted display case, containing a horrific instrument of suffering. 

The gaping iron jaws and sharp teeth clearly belonged to a vicious trap. Could it be for controlling some huge, carnivorous predator?  I peered through the glass and read the small explanatory card. This was a man trap of the kind once set by gamekeepers, designed to immobilize poachers by trapping, breaking and mangling their legs. Perhaps it was the word ‘mangling’ did it – typed in a small, unassuming font.

man trap set by gamekeepers for poachers

The photograph above is of a similar device, held by the museum service in Leeds.

Having had my attention grabbed, so to speak, I set off to examine nearby items: agricultural tools, an advertisement for John Player cigarettes, a red telephone box, an Ascot hat in the shape of a huge Stilton cheese.  

After my recent visit to New Walk Museum, this collection felt strangely diverse. New Walk is laid out in tightly themed galleries - German expressionist paintings, dinosaurs, Ancient Egypt.  What could unite a telephone box with a cheese hat? Only that they belong to a specific location. This, I believe, is the joy of a truly local museum – that it is part of the narrative and history of a local community. 

For Melton, that will include rural life, pork pies and Stilton cheese among many other subjects. Also fox hunting, considered by some to be an important aspect of the culture of north Leicestershire. Indeed, there is a beautifully presented display at the Melton Carnegie Museum dedicated to this very subject.

Though fox hunting is a subject guaranteed to raise the temperature of a debate, the display manages to remain neutral. One panel addresses the arguments for and against fox hunting. Other than that, the display seems merely to document. Though the choice of what to document is itself a political one.  I’m glad I don’t have to make that choice myself. 

Perhaps I’m just a bit squeamish.


Climate and Museums

Miles Travelled = 494
Museums Visited = 9
Mood = Backing northwesterly. Good.

Melton Mowbray is famously the home of the pork pie. It is also the home to a small but beautifully presented Melton Carnegie Museum.

I’m visiting in the company of Lucy Veale, who you may have heard in the last podcast, speaking about her MuBu climate project.  She is on a tour of museums and heritage sites around the region, looking for and documenting evidence of the past climate and people’s response to it.  In understanding the weather of the past, perhaps she will find evidence of climate change.

The subject seems appropriate, as we have just come in from slipping around onthe unseasonally icy pavements of a painfully cold day.  “Global warming?” I ask. It feels as if we could do with some of that.

“I’m not an expert,” Lucy says. “I can’t really explain the science behind it. But we’d expect global warming to increase the number of extreme weather events.”

“So it could get colder?”

“Colder in one place. Much hotter in another.”

This is Lucy’s second visit to the Melton Carnegie Museum. She tells me that one of the galleries has recently been refurbished and she wants to see if some weather diaries are now on display. It hadn’t occurred to me before that anyone other than a climate researcher would keep a diary of the weather.  But it seems that some people have done. One of the diaries in the museum was kept by a Women’s Institute group during the 1960s. The other was kept by a hospital.

“Weather diaries aren’t usually instrumental,” Lucy explains. “They’re often descriptive. Sunny. Cloudy. Wet. That sort of thing. But they are still evidence of the past climate.”

She tells me that in other collections she has seen barometers and weathervanes but hasn’t yet found many thermometers.  “If you know of any thermometers in museums, do tell me.”

Other evidence of climate can be found in collections of insects. Particularly moths and butterflies. As the climate heats up – and this is now an established fact – we might expect to see species that like warmer conditions extending their ranges northwards. I’d already seen the way records of insect pests are kept at Sudbury Hall, where they also keep hour-to-hour records of variations in temperature and humidity.

The more I think about it, the bigger Lucy’s task seems to be.

It is a this point in our conversation that, having strolled very slowly through the gallery as we talked, my eye is caught by something in the glass display case just behind where Lucy is standing. Of all the artifacts I have seen so far on my journey, this is the most gruesome by far.

Of that, and of the other stuff that fills a truly local museum, more next time.


Tea at New Walk Museum

Miles Travelled = 456
Museums Visited = 8
Mood = Thirsty

I’m at New Walk Museum with three scholars working on MuBu projects. I’m there to learn about the work they are doing. But first we take a tour.

We walk around the extensive taxidermy display. It’s a kind of dead zoo encompassing stuffed animals, the homes of which span the globe from the arctic to the dusty savanna. 

Reading piles of pulp fiction leads me to suspect that, in displays of this sort, the glass eyes of the animals should ’follow you around the room’. The reality is quite the reverse. I get the feeling that the eyes are staring without focus. The effect is somewhat creepy.

The areas of interest of the three scholars are climate, coal mining and food. I try to initiate a conversation which might make the taxidermy collection more relevant. Which animals could be useful as food? My gaze passes over the polar bear – the livers of which someone once told me contain poisonous levels of vitamin A – and settles on a model of a termite mound. Long ago I spent a year in Ghana, and remember seeing people collecting the flying termites for food. I mention this to the food scholar. Somehow I don’t think my suggestion will be included in her final report.

Then we head upstairs and spend time meandering several exhibitions of artwork. The three scholars each comment on different items, bringing in background information and enriching the experience. I have the distinct feeling that I am in the company of people who know a lot more about almost everything than I do. For someone as curious as me, that is a delightful experience.

By the time we have gone through the final gallery it has been quite a walk and I’m gasping for a cup of tea, so it is down to the cafe for refreshments.

This is my chance. They are just getting comfortable when I pull the field recorder from my bag, stick a microphone under their noses and ask for an in-a-nutshell description of their MuBu work.  This is what they said:

Climate Scholar 

Food Scholar

Coal Scholar