Kenneth Barton was known for his in-depth knowledge of pottery as much as for his museum work


David Dawson, Issue 118/11, p79, 01.11.2018
Kenneth Barton, 1924-2018
Kenneth Barton’s distinguished career in museums culminated with his retirement in July 1988 as the director of Hampshire County Museums Service.

He recalled the precise moment it all began: 2.30pm on 7 September 1949. He had left school at the age of 14, served in the Irish Guards in the second world war and had a number of casual jobs. But his museum career started when he was in Chester, as he leaned over the fence of an archaeological excavation that was directed by Graham Webster of the Grosvenor Museum.

Instantly, he knew what he wanted to do and volunteered to work with Webster. Fortunately, he had also found the right mentor to set him on his chosen path: a career devoted to museums and a lifelong passion for archaeology.

In the words of Webster, writing in 1991: “Such a career in museum curatorship is quite astonishing when one thinks of the lowly academic base on which it was built. It was all achieved by sheer hard work and an iron determination.

“Inevitably, Kenneth made enemies with his forthright manner, but he won friends as well and, as the earliest of these, I can but admire such gutsy willpower and capacity for work.”

Kenneth progressed from being a technician at the Ministry of Works archaeological conservation laboratory at Lambeth Bridge House in London in 1956, under Leo Biek, to assistant curator at Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery (later under the direction of the celebrated museum director Alan Warhurst), and then, in 1961, to assistant curator at Worthing Museum and Art Gallery, West Sussex.

By 1963, he had qualified for his diploma and was able to demonstrate his exceptional managerial and organisational skills by creating Worcestershire County Museums Service, based at Hartlebury Castle. In 1967, he became the director of Portsmouth City Museums and, after a brief time as the director of Tyne and Wear Museums in 1975, he was appointed the director at Hampshire County Museums Service in 1976. Here, he developed a strong museum service based at Winchester with a network of 11 venues across the county.

All this was underpinned by a character who was passionate about people. He was involved in the work of the Museums Association (MA) for many years. He served as a professional councillor in 1971-74 and 1976-79, was elected a fellow in 1974, was president of the South Eastern Federation of Museums and Art Galleries in 1977-80 and a vice president of the MA in 1982-84.

Indeed, Museums Journal records his championing of volunteer archaeological “correspondents” and small museums such as the one at Axbridge in Somerset and, most of all, the recognition and training of technical staff.

He chaired the MA’s technical training sub-committee, which reviewed the issue. This led to the creation of the Technical Certificate and, ultimately, the award of the diploma itself.

Kenneth was also a regular reviewer of books on pottery, giving praise where due, but being blunt when pointing out the shortcomings of a book’s author.

At one point in 1977, when the MA was unable to cope with the pressure on museums from changes in the way archaeology was being practised in Britain, Kenneth helped give voice to the concerns of archaeologists working in museums by being a founder and first chair of the Society of Museum Archaeologists (now the Society for Museum Archaeology).

Kenneth’s development as an archaeologist and pottery specialist ran in parallel with his museum career, but was integral to it. He began doing fieldwork in 1954 with the Flintshire Historical Society to investigate the recently closed Buckley potteries. It was excavating in Bristol that was to deepen his interest in medieval and later pottery.
Gerald Dunning, a revered founder of modern medieval archaeology, encouraged Kenneth’s passion for ceramics.

In one instance, the find of a Saintonge ware jug during his excavations triggered a trip on his Vespa to south-west France to investigate where the vessel had been made. It was the first of many excursions that laid the foundations of our knowledge of French medieval pottery and enabled its identification in England and Wales.

He published more than 60 papers and three books. The third, the Archaeology of Castle Cornet, St Peter Port, Guernsey, which came out in 2003, was the culmination of an association with the Channel Islands of Jersey and Guernsey that started in 1971.

Kenneth always shared his knowledge with others. He was a founder member of the Society for Medieval Archaeology in 1957 and was key in creating the Post-Medieval Ceramic Research Group in 1963 with John Hurst, who was an inspector of ancient monuments. The group was renamed the Society for Post-Medieval Archaeology in 1966. Kenneth was also elected a fellow of the Society of Antiquaries of London in 1967.

Kenneth was a great collector of ordinary day-to-day pots that, with general changes in lifestyle in Europe, are fast disappearing. He intended the collection as a memorial “to show the end of products of a centuries-old tradition, to marvel at its persistence and tenacity, to admire the abilities, skills and intelligence of their makers”. Kenneth donated this collection to Somerset County Museum after it had gone on display in Guernsey.

He died peacefully on 28 August and is survived by his wife, Marilyn, their children Oliver, Tabitha and Ben, by his children from his earlier marriages and by many colleagues, friends and acquaintances who owe so much to him for inspiration and encouragement.

David Dawson is a fellow of the Museums Association and former Somerset county museums officer