The National Leather Collection (founded as the Museum of Leather Craft in London 1946) currently lives in the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, Northampton. The museum was relocated to the town in the late 1970s because of its heritage of shoemaking and leather manufacture. In its earliest iteration, between 1946-76, it was housed in the Guildhall Museum in London, after which it went into storage at Northampton’s Abington Park Museum.
“It tells the world story of leather from prehistory to present day through more than 10,000 objects,” says its curator, Victoria Green. The collection begins in 40,000BC, then takes a detour through neolithic Britain, ancient Egypt and Rome, before heading for the middle ages, the civil war era and beyond.
Green describes it as “a unique, eccentric, treasure trove of leather goods”, which includes George III’s travelling toilet, ancient Egyptian underpants, Samuel Pepys’ wallet and an impressive collection of royal trunks. The museum also has a leather library and an archive of about 30,000 documents, including photographs, notebooks and individual company records.
Its 2019 pop-up exhibition, Secrets in Leather, was a hit, says Green. “It was held in the shopping centre to share research discoveries with visitors. Over the past few years, we’ve taken a second look at items we thought we understood. Sometimes an object is what it says on the label. Sometimes it’s just a pair of leather underpants.”
Help at hand
There are one full-time and three part-time staff, and about 30 volunteers.
The annual turnover is just under £100,000, with income mainly coming from donors while the museum is closed. Admission is free.
“Treat your volunteers like family,” Green says. “They help with everything, from installing exhibitions, to collections care.” She also says that it’s important to stay up to date with modern debates. “Leather is often misunderstood. With increasing veganism it can be hard to engage individuals with leather as a material made from animal byproduct. But it is our job to educate them.”
Being closed presents a special challenge. “Lockdown allowed us to reframe this challenge via our #CouchCurator blog,” Green says. “Rather than challenging visitors, we challenged the curator instead. We wanted to see what we could find out about some lesser documented items using a single catalogue image and the internet.”
The main site has been closed since January 2019 for refurbishment. Between July 2019 and March 2020, pop-up exhibitions in the shopping centre received more than 2,000 visitors.
The museum is working to make the collection available online. This will be accompanied by a rebrand, and a new website in 2021.
Louise Gray is a freelance writer