Small town museums, or museums of small towns?

Today we escaped the hustle and bustle of big city (ok, Leicester) life, and headed down to the pretty little town of Market Harborough, in search of charity bookshops, cake and the wonders of its local museum. Harborough Museum was full of visitors having a great time – kids (ok, and some grown-ups) dressing up and exploring baskets of toys, and lots of people reading finding out about local life and the history of the town. But it did make me wonder: why do small town museums focus almost universally on their local area?

Now, I’m no expert on the history of museums, so I’m sure there will be lots of people out there who can correct me on this. But I was under the impression that museums, and the collections they originated from, came about because of an interest in the wider world. This may have been due to an individual’s interest in ‘the exotic’, or it may have been because a group, such as a Lit and Phil Society, had an educational agenda. For example, Leicester’s New Walk Museum has, amongst other things, an Ancient Egypt collection, German Expressionist art, and Natural History from around the globe.

Were these collections of ‘not from round here’ things only ever found in bigger city museums? Have the small town museums always been concerned with charting their own history, and nothing beyond? Or was there some point in the 20th Century when these small town museums (or maybe the town Councils that ran them) decided that anything that wasn’t directly connected to their own locale was outside of their ‘collections policy’ and must therefore (rather sinisterly, in the museum parlance) be disposed of?

It’s not that I have anything against finding out about a town’s history. Harborough Museum has recently done a fantastic job of displaying the Hallaton Treasure, a haul of Roman coins found by a metal detectorist in Leicestershire in 2000. The exhibition was nicely done and interesting, and we had fun trying on replica Roman helmets. And of course, looking back at times past is certainly a way of stepping outside of the here and now.

Or at least a way of stepping outside of the ‘now’. But these small museums rarely step outside of the ‘here’. Maybe there isn’t the physical space, but it does give the impression that they simply aren’t interested. There’s so much world out there; why should these museums be so concerned with navel gazing? Are people in small towns so lacking in a sense of self that they need this historical reassurance, and nothing else? Don’t they, and their children, deserve to find out about the world beyond the green belt? Or do we now think that all of this can be done through TV, the internet, and foreign holidays, and that these museums should only be concerned with a narrowly geographical focus on history?

I know now is probably not the time to be calling for massive change to small town museums. Heaven knows, with all the funding cuts, they have enough to deal with. But in the longer term I’d love to see them just show a little bit more excitement and interest in the world outside. I want to go to one of these museums and be genuinely surprised by what I find there, and to feel like that museum has actually expanded my own world.

Just because a museum is named after a town, it doesn’t mean that that town needs to be the only subject in the museum. Does it? Surely it should be a museum for the town, as well as a museum of the town. Or are there lots of smaller museums out there that manage this, and I’ve just not been to them? Come on, Museoscope readers, prove me wrong!

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8 Responses to Small town museums, or museums of small towns?

  1. Jack Kirby says:

    Some of the issues you raise are valid, but your history of small town museums isn’t totally accurate. Yes there were small town museums founded by Lit and Phil societies, but Leicester is not a useful comparison. When the Leicester Lit and Phil was formed in 1835, the town’s population was several tens of thousands; by 1849 (when its collections were given to form the basis of New Walk Museum) it was nearly 60,000. In comparison, the population of the whole Market Harborough district was only 15,000 in 1851. The Market Harborough Archaeological and Historical Society was not founded until 1931 and the museum did not open until 1983. One can question why the ambition of a society founded in a small town in the twentieth century was so much more limited than that of one founded in a large town a century earlier, but it would be unfair to expect a comparable collection, let alone display. There ARE small town museums founded by Lit and Phil societies and others in the 19th century, with correspondingly broad collections – look at Whitby, for example, or Saffron Walden. There are also town museums founded by individuals with broad interests, such as Hertford Museum, or the Falconer Museum in Forres, Moray, (and also one or two broadly-based collections in cities that have become local museums, such as the Cuming Museum in Southwark).

    Your more general point about a focus on local history over other subjects is more interesting and it would be good to see some research on this subject. My suspicion is that any shrinkage in coverage of other subjects that are held in the collections of small town museums in recent decades (and I’m surprised not to see you commenting on how natural history has been squeezed out of some local museums, as well as non-local subjects) is twofold: local politics and civic pride means that local history may have been be privileged over other subjects; while staff and financial resources have meant that a generalist curator is less able to interpret other subjects for a modern audience and care for specialist collections. However, I don’t have much hard evidence to back this up.

    • elee says:

      Hi Jack,
      Thanks for the comment. I knew there would be lots of people out there who knew more about the history than I do, so thanks for filling in the picture a bit more.
      I maybe hadn’t made myself clear – I had intended to use Leicester as an example of a large town or city museum that had a broad interest, as a comparison to small town museums with narrow interests. I think we’re sort of agreeing with each other, but you use better evidence than I do!
      I had also started to put something in the blog post about small town museums run by special interest groups, and then decided that the post could go on and on, so decided to keep it concise and to make a single point, which is probably mostly about council-run museums. But I’m actually quite glad you make the point in your comment, because it is a very fair one. We’re going up to North Yorkshire very soon, so I’ll have to have a look at Whitby – it’s somewhere I’ve been intending to go for a while anyway.
      I think the thing I’d most like to see is a little more imagination in the approach of smaller museums. And of course, as you say, more natural history! I do appreciate how hard this is at the moment, and also how the history of museology and the relationship of museums and their local councils has ended up leading in this direction. But I think exhibitions on a shoestring are possible. I recently heard about a wonderful exhibition in Dubrovnik Natural History Museum, all about the ice age. It was all done in-house, on the kind of budget that would probably get you no more than a corner of an exhibition over here. It included a fantastic cave made of papier mache, that children could hide in and put hand-prints on. I’d love to see UK museums thinking more originally and creatively like this, so that the museums really stick in my mind, rather than blending into one amorphous local history gallery in my memory!

  2. ellie miles says:

    Hi Elee

    This is a really thought-provoking post. My research is about museum of places, so from my perspective your writing is very refreshing to read. I hope you’ll excuse the length of my reply and forgive the fact it is stubbornly from my own perspective.

    For my research on city museums I’m looking at museums about city history, rather than something like the Bristol City Museum which has a less-focussed scope. I have a different perspective from you, because I’m immediately more interested in how museums of all scales talk about place. Obviously city museums like the Museum of London, Museum of the City of New York and Museum of Copenhagen are a bit different from local history museums. I’d argue that they are still museums about places, interested in exhibiting the history of a place and what makes it characteristic. Some of the larger museums were started by local societies, many of whom explicitly aimed to nurture civic pride.

    When I saw your post I was re-reading a chapter in ‘Making City Histories in Museums’. It describes the move away from the ‘monolithic narrative, or static celebration of a past ‘golden age’’ in museums of places. Done well, museums about small places can be fascinating, critical and inspiring and shouldn’t feel like the self-indulgent poor relation of a museum with a different subject focus.

    I would suggest that museums of place work best when they give enough context to the history they present. Somewhere like the Museum of London Docklands gives an interesting explanation of the history of the local area of the docklands. It explores why docks were in that place, what that meant for their use and the city around them and how the docks connected to the city and the rest of the country as well as the rest of the world. Docks are an obvious example, but it’s not just docks that are connected to their surroundings. The intersections and connections that exist in different places make different industries, experiences and lives possible.

    Museums about places can’t explain a place by refusing to look outside of the town wall. The Museum of London is built next to the remains of the Roman London Wall. The Romans defined the city by physically demarcating its boundaries. The Museum of London offers a definition of the city that isn’t walled in.

    I was a little surprised that you wrote about a local museum as being the only museum available to visitors in smaller towns. I always imagined a local museum as a kind of gateway drug. We visited our nearest museum often, and because it was a rewarding experience we took harder journeys to visit bigger, flashier museums.

    I enjoyed your post because it gave me a new perspective. As I’ve written this reply I’ve been thinking about museums of place. I’m all for more museums that look at how our surroundings have informed the lives lived amongst them.

    • elee says:

      Hi Ellie,
      Thanks for your comment. I’m glad the post was so thought-provoking to you!
      I must qualify here that I personally tend not to be drawn to museums of place, but maybe more museums of concepts, ideas or themes. As Jack pointed out above, my own preference is for natural history. I also really like science and art museums, as well as ethnography, music and so on… That’s not to say that I haven’t visited and enjoyed lots of museums of place, but they don’t tend to be the ones that I seek out.
      I also should say that I certainly don’t think that local museums are the only museums available to people in small towns. Market Harborough is about 12 minutes on the train from Leicester, and Leicester station is about 3 mins from New Walk museum, so theoretically it is quicker for someone who lives next to Market Harborough station to get to my local museum than it is for me to make the 30 minute walk there from my houe. And when Leicester’s city museums were threatened with closure last year, one argument against keeping them open was that they were serving the county more than the city, which is insane, but that’s a different issue – it does, at least, show that they are well used by people from outside the city.
      I love the idea of these small museums being ‘gateway drugs’! Although, surely a gateway drug should be really exciting and (dare I say it?) cool? I’m sure people would be even more likely to visit other museums if their own museums were really lively, imaginative and creative. When these small museums are only about the town in which they are located, it does make me wonder how much they are actually for visitors to the town, rather than the townsfolk themselves. Do people in these towns really just want to look at displays of their own locale on a Saturday afternoon?

      • ellie miles says:

        Thanks for your reply. It is really interesting to hear more about how museums were supported and defended in terms of city/county visitors, and where people are coming from. Sometimes I think it’d work out quicker for me to get to New Walk than some museums here in London!

        I think the issue of who visits a local museum is important and can be difficult for museums with the topic of place. I think there is an appeal in finding out about your own locale, when it’s done well. There’s a nice quote here from a visitor to an exhibition at the Museum of London, in their 2004 annual report: “The exhibition is exciting and gives me goose pimples. It captures my youth and development and places me firmly in a historic moment.” (By coincidence I happen to be writing about this today, I don’t read this stuff for fun, honest!) District Six Museum is one museum that seems to really hinge on the connections between lives, history and place.

        We all have our predilections and preferences, but by organising a museum around a place I think there’s a nice opportunity to combine different kinds of collections in one narrative; social history, natural history, art collections and oral history material could sit well together for instance. That’s not to say it’s always done well, I guess I’m just making the case that local museums have potential.

        • elee says:

          It’s also interesting to compare museums of place in large cities compared to in small towns. In London, there are hundreds of museums of many different subjects, some of which are about local history. I have no doubt that these play an incredibly important part in people’s understandings of themselves. In the case of Cape Town’s District Six, this sense must be especially keen. However, in these cities local history might make up (let’s say) half of the museums, with the other half consisting of all sorts of non-town related subjects.
          Why is it that, in smaller towns, when all other subjects are pared away, local history (generally industrial and post-industrial, supplemented by the Romans) is often all that remains? Is it fulfilling some need of the populace to understand themselves and their historical context, or does the council just not want to spend money on staff and resources unconnected to their own narrow agenda?

  3. David says:

    There’s definitely a battle at times when dealing with the ‘operators’ of museums, particularly in local authorities, to make them understand “Why do we have all this stuff that’s not from ?”

    The instinct of an authority, especially in times of economic stresses, is to retrench and draw very narrow acquisition/disposal policies that effectively eliminate anything that isn’t directly of place. A museum I once worked in, the director drew an astonishingly narrow policy that would have necessitated disposing of 75% of the collection! Fortunately that was soon headed off.

    Often, those small town museums have wider collections because those local connections are far more esoteric than the obvious ‘made here/born here/lived here’ indicates. They can represent trade links (a great example being Egyptology at Bolton, which is there mainly due to the cotton industry), local passions (donations from a wealthy individual, a councillor, an amateur society), attitudes of the people to aspects of the world around them. It’s down to the staff of the museum to understand and communicate this, and in so doing broaden the context of the collection and take visitors out of the here and now.

    Working across a range of museums, I rarely find a museum that exists in such purely local context. There’s always stuff in the collection from elsewhere for some reasons. Those that don’t have such material are usually ‘heritage centres’ invented within the last 30 years or so. I’ve worked with numerous brilliant small town museums that throw the kitchen sink (perhaps literally in some cases) at the display areas, providing a wide world of discovery. So they are there, it’s not an endemic problem.

    The range of origins for different museums is impressive, and usually a narrow focus is more likely to occur where a museum has a subject-specific remit. Even then, it’s rare the collection will be purely ‘local’.

    • David says:

      Not convinced that I got to my central point there which, more plainly stated, is that ‘Museums of Place’ can and should be about broader contexts, because no place exists in isolation.

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