In June this year, I drove my campervan to Stranraer in Dumfries to take the ferry to Northern Ireland for the last leg of my tour of small independent museums in the UK.
Over the past 18 months, I had covered several thousand miles, zig-zagging from St Agnes Museum in Cornwall, up to the Welsh valleys, across the Midlands, through north-west England to Glasgow and around the coast to the far north east of Scotland, before heading south through Yorkshire and Lincolnshire and closing with a circuit of England’s home counties.
The trip was part of the five-year Mapping Museums project, which is based at Birkbeck, University of London. As part of the research, the team has developed a knowledge base of more than 4,000 museums that had been open in the UK since 1960 and had analysed the data.
One of our most striking findings was that about half of all the museums in the UK were small and independent, that is, they attracted fewer than 10,000 visitors a year and received no core funding from the state. Most of these museums had been established since 1970 and were created and run by volunteers. We wanted to know why so many people had decided to open their own museums? What had motivated them, and how were they able to do it?
NIDDERDALE MUSEUM, YORKSHIRE
The Nidderdale Museum, in the market town of Pateley Bridge, was created in 1975 by the Nidderdale Museum Society. The collection focuses on life in the Nidderdale valley and includes interiors featuring objects donated or rescued from local buildings such as a pub “snug”, Victorian parlour, shoemakers, magistrates court and even a walk-through reconstruction of a mineral mine shaft.
Eileen Burgess, co-founder and retired secretary of Nidderdale Museum Society, describes why the museum was created: “A group of 28 people had been in a Workers’ Educational Association class that published a history of Nidderdale. No adult education group had ever done anything on that scale before. After the third edition, we had some money to spare and we offered it to people to write on local history topics.
“But instead of actually being spent, it seemed to grow. And after one of our AGMs, in 1973 I think it was, the treasurer and I said to each other: ‘What we really need in this area is a museum.’
“At the time, there was a farm sale nearly every week and stuff was going out of the dale. The final straw was that we had had a cobbler’s shop, but when the cobbler died, it just disappeared. We felt that the whole of the history of the dale, belonging to ordinary people, was disappearing, and would soon be gone.”
In order to find out more we needed to speak to the groups and individuals who had founded their own micromuseums. Toby Butler, a former Museums Journal writer and one of the research fellows on the project, conducted the first and major phase of interviews. I was due to do the second phase, revisiting museums to ask follow-up questions and travelling to new ones that would give different perspectives on the subjects raised in the first round of interviews.
I had only just begun when the pandemic struck and, like everybody else, I stayed at home waiting to see how the situation would unfold. Some museums did reopen during the summer of 2020, but many of the smaller venues remained shut. I also felt uneasy about the prospect of making dozens of train journeys and staying in multiple hotels, and meeting elderly founders who might have been vulnerable to Covid-19.
I prevaricated until a museum director friend advised me to press ahead. She said small museums were struggling and it was likely that some may never reopen. If I could get to see them, then I should. It might be important to document them while they are still there.
I started telephoning the staff at the museums I wanted to visit and almost everybody said: “Yes, come.” A few were happy to meet, so long as I wore a mask and kept my social distance. Most venues were still closed but some founders arranged for me to visit or invited me to accompany them on their routine inspections of the sites.
A few asked if I could visit them at home so that we could sit in the garden or meet in a park. The research was back on.
WHITEHEAD RAILWAY MUSEUM, COUNTY ANTRIM
The museum is run by the Railway Preservation Society of Ireland, which was formed in 1964 to preserve steam locomotives and carriages, wagons and infrastructure. Like many railway preservation societies, the emphasis was on preserving the engines, but unlike others, this venue in Carrickfergus was always open to the public, with open days, events, tours and education sessions from the outset.
The society was formally launched as a museum in 2000, having decided to participate in the Museum Registration scheme. The museum was founded and run by volunteers, although there is now a salaried general manager.
Charles Friel, founder member of the society, describes how staffing worked in the early days: “There was that great camaraderie and we just all mucked in. If something needed doing, we did it, and it didn’t matter what – somebody somewhere would have the skills to do it.
“Whether it meant washing engines or new metalling on axle boxes, it got more and more sophisticated as time went on. When we came here first our only jacks were screw bottle jacks, so you’re lifting 80 tonne engines with four of those. It was highly dangerous to say the least.”
That just left me with the problem of travel and hotels. I decided to go ahead and buy a van. For several years I’d dreamed of making epic campervan journeys across Europe and the daydreams had become considerably more vivid in lockdown.
I would be able to use a campervan for the Mapping Museums trip, travel safely in a relatively controlled environment, reduce the risk to myself and to the people I was visiting, and when conditions allowed I’d be able to set off for Spain, Romania or Italy.
Having trawled eBay to see what I could afford, I settled on a 1990 VW, which had the dubious distinction of a pink floral interior, and set off. Several breakdowns later and with the help of a specialist mechanic, I made it out of Cumbria, where I live, to tour the UK.
There were some real high points: camping at the Bubblecar Museum in Lincolnshire I was treated to homebrew cider in front of a bonfire and a midnight tour of the collections. On my way to the Laidhay Croft Museum in Caithness, I camped next to the beach and fell asleep to the sound of seals singing. Above all, though, it was a real pleasure to meet the people who had established museums.
BUBBLECAR MUSEUM, LINCOLNSHIRE
The Bubblecar Museum was established in Somerset in 2004 and later relocated to Lincolnshire. The site includes the owner’s house, a row of bubblecars in need of restoration and a light industrial building where the museum, cafe and facilities are housed.
As well as numerous bubblecars, the museum includes a series of dioramas showing the insides of period rooms from the 1960s. The museum was founded by Paula and Mike Cooper and is now owned outright by Paula.
Here, she describes how inexpensive bubblecars are: “You can go on eBay and buy almost any microcar. There are a few very unusual ones, but we tend to go for the ones people are more likely to have seen. People want to see something familiar, not something obscure.”
The founders told us all manner of stories about lobbying local landowners and councils, about unexpected donations, builders who worked at cost, about learning how to mend roofs or lay bricks, organising coffee mornings, and collecting objects of all kinds. Their stories were of peppercorn rents, favours levied and of taking a do-it-yourself approach, of help from local councils and landowners, and of sustained input from local history enthusiasts and civic societies.
The founders also told us about the objects and places that they valued or loved, about communities and identities that had been lost or that they were attempting to build, people they had known, family histories, friendship, belonging and not-belonging, and the pleasures of collective endeavour.
Their stories also incorporated much wider narratives that stretched far beyond the individual museum or locale. Take railway museums, for example. Steve Alsop, the co-founder of the Dinting Railway Centre, explained that in the mid-1960s he was part of a group that collaborated to save the 45596 Bahamas, a Jubilee class locomotive stationed at the Stockport Edgeley Sheds.
It was the only named engine at the depot (most are only recognised by a serial number) and it was particularly notable because it had been modified in 1961 to enable it to run on lower quality coal. This was the last improvement made to any British Rail locomotive and marked an endpoint in its use of steam technology. Despite its credentials the engine was due to be scrapped.
GAIRLOCH HERITAGE MUSEUM, ROSS AND CROMARTY
Gairloch Heritage Museum was founded by members of the Gairloch and District Heritage Society and opened in 1977. The museum interprets the local history of the parish of Gairloch (meaning ‘short loch’) on the shores of Wester Ross in the North West Highlands of Scotland.
Topics covered include agriculture, religion, whisky, wool, fishing, Rua Reidh Lighthouse, wartime naval history and croft life. The museum also has an extensive local history archive including maps, Gaelic studies and 3,000 historic images.
In summer 2019 the museum moved to a newly converted and expanded 1950s building with updated displays. The museum was one of five winners of the Art Fund Museum of the Year 2020.
Karen Buchanan, the curator at Gairloch Heritage Museum, describes collecting at the museum.
“If you look at our accessions register, I don’t think we’d purchased a single object until I arrived in 2013. It was all donations,” she says.
“We now collect more actively and I have an annual acquisitions budget. We can also take stuff on loan. We have agreed that objects that left the area a while ago will come back to the area from other museums, including the National Museum of Scotland.”
After the second world war, the railway companies were nationalised, coming together under the banner of British Railways (later British Rail). At the same time there was a move away from rail towards road transport. Numerous trunk roads were built across the UK, freight was increasingly moved by road and car ownership became more common. Railways started to go into decline and the network began to run at a loss.
In response, the government drew up the Modernisation Plan of 1955, which aimed to make the railways more cost efficient and improve speed and safety, thereby winning back custom from the roads. One of the recommended reforms was to introduce diesel engines, so the existing steam locomotives and rolling stock was scheduled for scrap.
But the group successfully raised enough money to buy the engine and rented a redundant railway depot where it and other engines could be accommodated. When the Dinting Railway Centre opened to the public in 1969, the Bahamas was the prize exhibit.
The Dinting story is echoed in other railway museums across the UK. The Whitehead Railway Museum in Carrickfergus grew out of the Irish railway preservation movement, also formed in response to the end of steam, while the Museum of Rail Travel in Keighley was established to preserve the wooden carriages that were rapidly phased out in the 1960s as part of the Modernisation Plan.
Most of the museums found accommodation in no longer required depots designed for steam locomotives or at stations made redundant in the later Beeching reforms, where a third of the network was cut, again on the grounds of cost and efficiency. In short, the availability of the vehicles on display, the sites used for museums and the perceived need to preserve these objects is inextricably tied up with the reorganisation of the railways in the postwar period.
Keeping the past alive
Micromuseums of local history have opened in different circumstances. When we asked Eileen Burgess what had prompted her to help open a museum in Nidderdale in the Yorkshire Dales in 1976, she replied that the creation of the venue was a response to seeing farms in the area being sold off at an alarming rate and the closure of a swathe of traditional businesses, such as a local cobblers, that had been an important part of life for people in the dales for many years.
The changes in Nidderdale related to the mechanisation of agriculture and the rise of agri-business, and to a lesser degree to wide social shifts including the availability of cheap clothing (fewer people bothered to mend worn out shoes), and the rise of car ownership (less walking meant less need to resole shoes), the end of the high street and the rise of supermarkets.
The Civic Society group in Settle, which is also in the Yorkshire Dales, set up the Museum of North Craven Life in 1977 for similar reasons. It is housed in The Folly, which was built in the late 1670s by Richard Preston, a wealthy Settle lawyer.
MUSEUM OF NORTH CRAVEN LIFE, NORTH YORKSHIRE
The Museum of North Craven Life is concerned with the landscape, settlement farming and other aspects of life in the area around Settle in the Yorkshire Dales.
It sits in a large, 17th- century townhouse and includes a cafe and shop alongside the museum galleries. The museum was established by a conservation organisation, the Settle Civic and District Society, which was created in 1968 and included local playwright Alan Bennett, who became its president.
The society, which became the North Craven Heritage Trust, has saved, bought and restored many historic buildings in the area. Curator Anne Reid recalls some good advice when the museum was being planned.
“One of the great plus-points right from the beginning, was that we got excellent advice from the Area Museum Service for Yorkshire & Humberside, as it was then called. The director visited us and said that whatever you do, don’t just become another collection of bygones, have a proper theme and proper idea,” Reid says.
“It was at that point that we decided we wanted to be the museum for the whole of North Craven. We wanted to develop the approach where a visitor coming into the museum would easily be able to learn about the area and then, when they went out and started exploring the landscape or the villages, they would understand what they were all about and why the fields and barns were the shapes they were, and also about local industries such as the Burton in Lonsdale Pottery industry. So that was the approach we took from day one.”
Other groups have responded to changes specific to their areas, such as the end of mining in the South Wales valleys and changes in housing as a result of tourism or second home ownership in Cornwall.
These local history museums were a means of preserving material culture in the face of change. By salvaging objects, recording histories, preserving and reusing historic buildings, or fostering communities of interest, the founders hoped to establish a degree of continuity between the area as it had been and was now, to retain what was valuable, to mitigate loss, and sometimes to resist or at least protest against what was happening in the neighbourhood.
The more we investigated, the more it became apparent that there was no single answer to the question of why and how so many micromuseums had opened. Instead we found that numerous factors underpinned their foundation.
The people we met often talked about what was happening to their villages and towns, to their transport networks, workplaces, industries, and wider environments and how that had impacted their families and communities. Thus, the emergence of micromuseums is often interwoven with some of the major social, political, and economic shifts of the late-20th century. They may be small and are often highly localised in their concerns, but their foundations are intimately linked to national and international histories.
Fiona Candlin is professor of museology at Birkbeck and director of the Mapping Museums project. Her book Micromuseums is due out with Manchester University Press in 2022