Museums Work

Museums Work Blog

Ludicrous and sometimes disgusting…

Calke Abbey, the Crewe family home

In 1839 Sir George Crewe addressed the Derby Town and County Museum and Natural History Society (‘the Society’), of which he was President, on the subject of museums, their purposes and what they should collect.* The Society itself had been founded three years earlier as a private subscription organisation, with William Cavendish, 6th Duke of Devonshire as its patron. Much of its initial collection was donated by Dr Richard Forester, a local medical practitioner and former President of the Derby Philosophical Society, with further donations such as the minerals and stuffed birds given by Col George Cawler.

The latter included an albatross acquired during Col Cawler’s term as Governor of South Australia from 1838 – 41; but it was not this kind of object that Sir George Crewe had in mind when he referred in his address to the Society to ‘the ludicrous and disgusting expedients to which men have resorted, so as to strike out a hitherto untrodden path of collective research’. What ‘has not been collected at some time or another as a matter of curiosity?…’, he asked: ‘The ropes with which unfortunate men were hanged were collected in an adjoining county, I believe… and other more ridiculous, and if anything, more disgusting instances might be named’. He didn’t name them – but he did argue that, in terms of individual collections:

‘the interest and pleasure is more in pursuit, and in the act of acquirement, than in subsequent possession… if you have known the collector, in his busy days, whilst forming that collection, you will remember the sparkling eye, the enthusiastic voice, the ready civility with which he proudly exhibits the success of his labours thus far; and you cannot forget the anxious and spirited determination, with which he enumerated what was yet to come in order to make each class complete… Mark the same man, some years subsequent – visit him – you will find him sitting amidst his accumulated wealth, languidly gazing on the brilliant store, cooly demonstrating the beauty of this specimen or that – rather answering of necessity your queries, than tendering to you a ready description. How do you account for the change? Simply thus, “the day is o’er, the battle’s won” – the excitement of collection is at and end, and the pleasure of possession will not supply the vacuum’.      

The ultimate fate of such collections, he continued, was often to be ‘locked up, a prey to moths and worms’, ‘consigned to the friendly protection of accumulating dust’, or sold by an heir who ‘is not heir to his father’s taste’. All this led up to a plea for a public museum in Derby – not a ‘mere raree-show for a leisure hour’**, but an ‘illustration to children of the works of Providence’ and the ‘intellectual food’ after which th adult mind, ‘sharpened by education, and roused to all its energies, by an increased knowledge of its own powers, begins to hunger’.  

Stuffed birds inside - live ones viewed from the hide

A public museum in Derby had to wait until 1879 with the opening of Derby Museum and Art Gallery. Many of the works of art on display in the Crewe family home at Calke Abbey were placed there by Sir George Crewe himself, but it was his son who was responsible for adding many of the cases of birds and butterflies that – ironically maybe – give the house more of the feel of a private museum than Sir George might have personally approved.

* Sir George Crewe, Bart, A Few Remarks upon the Subject of the Derby Town and County Museum, and upon Museums Generally, Addressed to the Members of the Society at Derby (1839). The copy I consulted is in the public library in Matlock.

** a display carried around in a box, such as a peep-show

For more information about Calke Abbey and the Harpur and Crewe families, see


Industrial inheritance – a conference…

‘Industrial inheritance – exploring Leicester’s manufacturing past’ is a one day conference to be held at the David Wilson Library, University of Leicester on Saturday 17 September 2011 from 10 am – 4. 30 pm.

It is organised by the University’s Centre for Urban History and the University Library. Email Kate Crispin, to book a place.

Further details at


A hair of Prince Alfred…


The bar at the Yew Tree Inn

I asked in a recent blog – in connection with the Barwell Lambretta Museum – what turns a collecting hobby into an obsession that becomes a museum. Here’s an example of a slightly different kind. We recently discovered, quite by chance, the Yew Tree Inn at Cauldon, Staffordshire, around seven miles west of Ashbourne.  Not a museum as such, this is a pub full of museum pieces ranging from a 800 year old Greek urn to an assortment of pews and settles serving as the pub seats, including one from the state drawing-room at Alton Towers; a penny farthing, old radios, symphonia and working polyphons (activated by a two pence piece); and a four-poster bed said to have belonged to the grandfather of Josiah Wedgewood.

Queen Victoria's stockings

One of the cases also contains items labelled ‘A hair of Alfred Duke of Edinburgh’ (second son of Queen Victoria), and a pair of stockings that once belonged to the Queen herself, reputedly spotted on a Page 3 model in The Sun and bought at auction. Over the bar is a Victorian dog-carrier, patented but not of a design that would attract much of a market among dog lovers.  

The collection was started by the father of the current landlord, Alan East, who describes the 17th century pub as ‘a museum with a licence’. He has added to it over the years, partly by buying at auctions but also by giving a home to items that other people no longer wanted, simply because ‘I had some room’ (North Staffordshire Magazine, 17 June 2011). 

Smokey the Yew Tree Inn cat

The pub till dates from 1898 and only goes up to 19 shillings 11 pence halfpenny. Be prepared for a short delay while your bill is totted up in 2011 currency – but as one of the many newspaper items on display also notes, his mother Doris celebrated 50 years in the pub trade in 1982 by selling drinks for one day at 1932 prices… 

It’s a fascinating place – as the 2010 CAMRA Good Beer Guide says, ‘there cannot be another pub like this’ - and if you also like cats the current resident, Smokey, is also very friendly. 

There are more pictures of the Yew Tree Inn, including the dog carrier, at


Susan Lansdale reflects on nine years with East Midlands Museums Service…

Susan Lansdale

I recently caught up with Susan Lansdale, the Executive Director of the East Midlands Museums Service (EMMS). Susan will be leaving  soon to take up a new post as Director of the Oundle International Festival, so I asked her to reflect on her time at EMMS and her plans for the future.  

How long have you worked for EMMS? 

Over nine years. I started on 1 April 2002, the day EMMS changed from being the government-funded area museum council in the East Midlands, to an independent membership network for museums and heritage organisations. It was on the same day that a new regional agency for museums, libraries and archives, East Midlands Museums, Libraries and Archives Council (EMMLAC), also came into being.

What did the job involve when you started – and how has it changed over the years? 

The first priorities were to find an effective modus operandi with EMMLAC to ensure that our regional museum sector was best served in the new landscape, and to maintain effective communications and confidence in a changing world. Not much has changed since! There seems to have been constant churn in the sector. EMMLAC (which became MLA East Midlands, then MLA with a regional presence), and the Renaissance East Midlands partner services, and EMMS, have all become much more effective at working together on behalf of the regional museum sector. That is now standing our regional museum community in good stead with current changes, new partners and opportunities, and diminishing resources. 

Some of the projects I inherited in 2002, such as ‘Interact’ – the freelance educators’ network, were gradually passed over to Renaissance East Midlands or EMMLAC, who were better resourced to deliver. However, the REDS – Regional Emergencies & Disaster Support – scheme is an EMMS’ initiative that has gone from strength to strength: delivering emergency planning training and support has become a major area of EMMS’ work over the past five years, bringing national recognition. Communications and consultation have also remained a key part of EMMS’ work, through networks and meetings such as Practitioners Panel, Elected Members Panel and Front of House Network. More recently, the EMMS website was completely re-vamped and is now proving a great resource as a safe destination for key reports and information as Renaissance and MLA wind down.

In short, the work has evolved organically. EMMS has passed on responsibility and activity in areas where appropriate, and continued to use its own resources to prioritise work and advocacy where our members have clearly identified need. Although EMMS is a membership organisation it has become more inclusive over the years, seeking to support the whole museum community in the region whilst providing additional benefits and services for its subscribing members.

What have you enjoyed most about the work? 

The people!  Working with like-minded people on the EMMS Board, and colleagues in other organisations, who share a real passion for museums and cultural heritage, and have a strong vision and goals for the regional museum community. 

What will you miss about it when you move on? 

The people!  It has been a privilege and pleasure to meet and work with so many wonderful museum practitioners. There is such a great diversity of museums in the East Midlands – with fascinating collections and knowledgeable, enthusiastic practitioners who care for them, and tell their stories. This is a challenging time for museums, but people in the sector are resilient, flexible and creative. I look forward to maintaining contact with many of them in the future – as a visitor, and through new projects.

What are your plans for the future?  

I am looking forward to taking up my new post as Director of the Oundle International Festival in September, and re-utilising my musical background and skills. However, I will be taking with me a great deal of learning from the heritage sector – for example, building effective partnerships and community working, creating a great user experience, and the importance of volunteers. I am also looking forward to discussing potential projects with museums in the East Northants area!

Is there anything else you would like to add? 

A big thank you to everyone I have worked with over the past nine and a half years – for their expertise, enthusiasm and generosity of spirit. 


EMMS was founded in 2002 as a forum and regional network for museums and heritage organisations in the East Midlands. It offers a wide range of services to support their work. Members include local authorities, independent museums and heritage groups, the regional branches and properties of English Heritage and the National Trust, universities and individual members. You can find more information at


Interview questions…

Are you applying for a job in the museums or heritage sector? If so, there is a list of potential interview questions on the University of Manchester Postgraduate Careers blog at that might be very useful for preparation. Alongside the predictable ones like ‘What made you apply for this role?’ and ‘What are your two main strengths and weaknesses?’, these include some that are well worth a little prior thought, such as ‘How would you deal with difficult internal and external volunteers?’; ‘What is your favourite work in the collection?’; and ‘Can you give us an example of a project that has gone wrong/not turned out as planned?’.

Leave a comment if you’d like to share some of the questions you’ve been asked – or some positive or not so positive interview experiences.


A career in archaeology…


Friends of Jewry Wall 'Food' event 2010

How do people get involved in working in museums in the first place? A little while ago I mentioned Jean Mellor, the first field archaeologist appointed by Leicester Museums in the 1960s. In an interview around ten years ago for the East Midlands Oral History Archive, Richard Buckley, now one of the Directors of the University of Leicester Archaeological Services (ULAS) and Chair of the Committee of Leicestershire Archaeological & Historical Society, recalled Jean’s influence on his own choice of career:

‘As a child growing up in the very early ’60s I became interested in history and anything old… It was visiting Jewry Wall Museum that sort of increased my interest in archaeology and made me channel my energies in that direction. When I was at school in the mid-70s, I managed to get the teachers on Wednesday afternoons to let me come and do a little bit of digging on sites in the city. I’d already had contact with the Senior Field Archaeologist – Jean Mellor – sometime in the early to mid-70s, and she just said “well, come along to our excavations of the Austin Friars”, the excavation of an Augustinian friary just by West Bridge. I went there on Wednesday afternoons and occasionally on Sundays in about 1973-74, so that’s how I got involved.

‘After the Austin Friars I then decided I needed to get a degree in archaeology if I wanted to carry on with a career in the subject, and so after A levels I went up to the University of Durham… and then also participated in some more excavation work. Like many archaeological graduates I had to think “well, what am I going to do next?”. I came back to Leicester and spoke to some of the people at the local unit here, and they said “well, we’ve got plenty of excavations running in Leicestershire”, so I joined one on a temporary employment scheme back in the summer of ’79… The Norfolk Street villa excavation I worked on is one of the most exciting sites visually that’s been done in the city for many, many years. Particularly exciting I think when it was being machined and the JCB scraped virtually onto the top of a Roman tessellaated pavement… nerve-wracking but exciting at the same time!’.  

You can listen to the whole of Richard’s interview at the Record Office for Leicestershire, Leicester & Rutland (ROLLR) – ref 679, LM/13
Leicester City Museums Collection. See for details.


Of Scotland and scooters…

I’ve read a couple of articles about museums recently from quite different viewpoints, but both touching on the question of who makes the decisions about what they collect and display, and how they interpret their collections for their various publics. One was by Amanda Vickery in the August 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine, no doubt inspired by the recent opening of the new National Museum of Scotland whose collections are described in the article by Sir Angus Grossart, Chairman of its Trustees, as telling ‘great stories about the world, how Scots saw that world, and the disproportionate impact they had upon it’.

'Frog Museum', Astoria Hotel, Garda

The article asks asks if we need a museum of British history, and – if so – what it should be aiming to convey. Should it, as Lord Baker suggested in his own case for such a museum, ‘show the position of Britain as a world power and European power, and what over the centuries it has given the world. It would also demonstrate how Britain came together as a nation’? Or is this, in the words of Tristram Hunt, a ‘view of the past that mainly entailed good chaps doing good things… [with] no sense of the struggles littering our past’? 

Even supposing there was a consensus about the basic ‘story’, what should be displayed in a museum of British history – and who would make the decisions about this? Amanda Vickery doesn’t venture her own opinions on the question, beyond making a strong case for the primacy of objects over documents; but I was reminded on reading the second of the two articles, an interview in the Leicestershire Chronicle (25 June 2011) with John Branson, curator of the Barwell Lambretta Museum near Hinckley, of how many museums are founded on private collections that for one reason or another have eventually been placed into the public arena – from learned societies to organisations and individuals, through to the ‘Frog Museum’ in the hotel in which we stayed last year on Lake Garda.

This consisted of hundreds of objects or images of frogs in its public areas – everywhere except on the menu, I was relieved to see… Not strictly a museum at all, the collection began in a small way and gained a momentum of its own, not least through donations of yet more frog-related objects from visitors – whose cash donations go to support a charity in Kenya founded by the hotel owner. The Barwell Lambretta Museum in John Branson’s own words, ‘started out as a hobby’ and became ‘an obsession’. As well as seven Lambretta scooters, his collection includes badges, advertising posters, a pack of 1950s playing cards with an image of a man smoking a pipe on the back of a Lambretta, and a milk carton with a Lambretta on the bottle top – ‘all things Lambretta’ as it says on the website at

... and more frogs

What turns a hobby into an obsession resulting in a museum? Lambrettas, made by the Innocenti company in Italy, are no longer in production, so part of the motivation for the museum – currently housed in his garage – was to keep their history and memory alive. However, the collection itself was as much inspired by the music associated with the scooters, including Madness and the 1979s film Quadrophenia, inspired by the rock opera of the same name by The Who.

The Lambretta Li 150 Series 3 used in the film was sold at auction for around £36,000 a couple of years ago – a little too much for it to make it into the Barwell museum, but interestingly, there are other Lambretta museums in Weston-super-Mare ( and in Italy itself, in Milan (, both of them the work of individuals rather than the Innocenti company itself.

I’m planning to explore the origins of more museums in the East Midlands over the next few months, and the motivations of the people who founded them. In the meantime, if you have any views on what might go into a museum of British history, do pass them on…