Family affair - Museums Association

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Family affair

A museum that tells the story of the Salomons family has made a small grant awarded for its redevelopment go a long way, writes Sharon Heal
Family collections are not unusual, and their worth frequently depends on the individual family members involved: eccentrics, inventors and explorers often make the most interesting subjects.

So it was no surprise to discover that the Salomons family, the focus of a redeveloped museum that opened this summer, contained a fair number of the above, with a politician and civil rights campaigner thrown in for good measure.

The family patriarch was the financier David Salomons, the first Jewish Lord Mayor of London, and the first Jew to speak in the House of Commons. This latter accolade is marked in the museum, not with a boring old plaque or commemorative inscription, but with the bench from the House of Commons from which he launched his attack on the establishment that had prevented him from taking up his seat. (Salomons was elected in 1851 but refused to swear the oath and was subsequently fined £500. A friend and ally bought the bench and presented it to him adding that 'he had already paid for it dearly'.)

The family's rich history is told in just two smallish rooms in what was the original family home, near Tunbridge Wells. When Vera Bryce Salomons, the grand niece of David Salomons, bequeathed the house to Kent County Council in 1936, one of the conditions was that two rooms were kept available for the collection. The house is now part of Canterbury Christ Church University's campus and, until recently, the library and sculpture room was a 'memento room' where the family collection was available for viewing by appointment - although you would have had to be pretty keen to get to see it.

Now, although the floorplan is exactly the same, the difference is that the collection has been sifted, selected and redisplayed to tell the family story.

And that story doesn't stop with David Salomons. Perhaps the most interesting member of the family was his nephew David Lionel Salomons. The general consensus seems to be that the uncle made the money and the nephew spent it. But this is not a story of a dissolute second generation. David Lionel was fascinated by anything new and anything that moved. So Salomons was one of the first domestic residencies to have electric lighting, and David Lionel was the second person in Britain to own a car.

The selection of objects and the accompanying interpretation eloquently tells his story. David Lionel's list of his cars hangs on one wall: Electric car (home-made) 1874; Peugeots 8; Daimler 1; Renaults 2; and so on. A small display case (all the cases fixtures, fittings and wallpaper are original) contains memorabilia from the early motoring associations and clubs - David Lionel was a founder of the RAC and organised the first motor show in the UK.

Unfortunately, one of the stars of the museum is not permanently open to the public. In 1894, David Lionel built a science theatre to dazzle dignitaries and locals with his experiments, public lectures and demonstrations. An enormous custom-made Welte Organ sits at the back of the stage and, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant, it will play again for the first time in 60 years this month.

For those unable to access the science theatre (it is now used for conferences and events), the story of David Lionel's fascination with new technology is told in the museum through a choice display of small objects - for example, a 3-D puzzle made in his vast workshop to demonstrate the accuracy of his electrical cutting equipment.

The last Salomons whose story is told here is David Reginald Salomons. He was a traveller and soldier who was killed in the first world war. His medals are on show, but it is not these that catch the eye. In the upper reaches of the display cabinet is a typical Victorian arrangement of photographic portraits of what appears to be a five-year-old girl. A central oval portrait is surrounded by a circle of other photographs and separated by what at first seems to be some embroidery. It is in fact the long brown curls of Reginald - it was customary for Victorian mothers to keep their sons in curls until the age of six and then snip the tresses as a memento.

This latter object is typical of the museum - the best and most intriguing bits of the collection have been selected to tell the family story. The narrative is clear, the graphics and labels a model of clean, engaging interpretation.

These days, £30,000 is not much, but that was the sum total of the grant given by the Arts and Humanities Research Council to redo the display. The Salomons Museum proves that a little can go a long way. It has displayed the collection, documented it and conserved it, reinterpreted it and set up a website for this modest sum. The family's history is interesting, and some of the stuff the museum has acquired is fascinating, but it is the way the story is told through the objects that makes it remarkable.

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