The Museum of…Our pick of the UK’s specialist collections

Louise Gray hears how a museum dedicated to a 19th-century social reformer survives on a shoestring budget
Louise Gray
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Where?

Newtown, Powys

What are you?

The Robert Owen Memorial Museum commemorates the life and legacy of the Welsh social reformer and utopian Robert Owen. “Even David Cameron acknowledges that his Big Society idea has its roots in Owen’s thoughts,” says retired social-history lecturer and museum curator, Pat Brandwood. The museum occupies a Grade II-listed building across the road from where Owen was born and died.

Opened

Owen died in 1858, but the museum didn’t open until 1929. “Wales has always had a difficult relationship with Owen, partly because of his scepticism about organised religion and partly because he made his name outside Wales,” says Brandwood.

Collection

“The collection includes papers, pictures, artefacts and furniture, mainly donated by Owen’s family and local people in the 1920s,” says Brandwood. “The museum tells the story of Owen’s life, but it also explains his impact on social reform, education, the genesis of the cooperative movement and the history of political ideas.”

Highlights

Brandwood points to the prints, portraits and watercolours, singling out some letters from Owen’s later years when, like many contemporaries, he developed an interest in spiritualism.
 
Owen’s “spirit guide” allowed him to continue conversations with late friends such as Shelley, Jefferson and the Duke of Kent. Brandwood’s personal favourite is a scrapbook of press cuttings about Owen, collated by his daughter.

Help at hand

The museum is run by volunteers.

Budget

Apart from an annual £14 in “war bonds”, the museum has no regular income, and survives on gifts from visitors and friends. Entry is free.

Sticky moment

“When I became curator just over a year ago, the cost of running the website, insuring the collection and auditing the accounts had begun to outstrip income,” says Brandwood.

“My first experience of the realities of voluntary-sector funding was a shock. The museum’s traditional relationship with the cooperative movement [especially Co-op Cymru] has been a financial lifeline in the past year. The launch of the Friends of the Robert Owen Museum in November may provide a little extra for marketing and the collection’s enhancement.”

Survival tips

Brandwood says it is important to be patient and take advantage of voluntary-organisation networks.

Visitors

There were about 1,000 last year. “We have visitors from all the world and I am always willing to take people round,” says Brandwood. “The highlight of last year was one small boy in a group of mixed infants who thought Robert Owen must be a hero because he wore a cloak like Superman.”

The website gets more than 10,000 hits a year, which the museum sees as an important way to communicate with Owenites across the world.

Future plans

Grant funding permitting, the museum will be redecorated early this year. A longer-term aim is to improve the accessibility and storage of  its books and papers.

www.robert-owen-museum.org.uk

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