Sea change | Brightlingsea Museum, Essex - Museums Association

Sea change | Brightlingsea Museum, Essex

A reimagined venue that has overcome major challenges to tell the story of a maritime community
James Steward
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A display showing some of the tools of shipbuilding

Brightlingsea is an ancient maritime town situated in a corner of the Essex “sunshine coast” at the mouth of the River Colne. Brightlingsea Museum is a relatively recent feature on its timeline, having first opened in 1989. The museum has now relocated to a newly renovated venue – the town’s former police station.

The availability of the site, bought in 2015 with the help of a significant bequest by the founding chairman, Claude Dove, was too arresting an opportunity to miss for this ambitious independent.

After two years of development, the Covid lockdown suddenly brought everything to a halt in March. This not only meant the museum could not open in May as planned, it also stalled the installation of displays and visitor facilities.

But a smooth sea never made a skilled sailor, and for the community volunteers, led by the museum’s curator, Margaret Stone, it has been a long but determined voyage. The ambition to relocate, convert a building and install a new museum is a challenge regardless of size, but needing to rethink how to develop new displays and reconsider the approach to almost everything, including the visitor experience and interpretation, during a pandemic has been testing, to say the least. Despite this, the museum seized the initiative and overcame the practical hurdles of a new, coronavirus-proof museum, which opened in September.

Displays on the town’s role during the second world war

The museum has a bright, colourful reception with seaside imagery including a knockout panorama of the famous Brightlingsea beach huts. A well-illustrated map of the town highlights other places of interest and sets the welcoming tone of a light, airy and accessible venue.

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A Punch and Judy-themed noticeboard and an ice-cream stall reception desk conjure a sense of long summer days by the sea and will serve well to attract the attention of passers-by. A playful automaton donation box reminds visitors that while the museum is free to enter, it needs their financial support. The museum is all on the ground floor, making it fully accessible, and a simple plan of the gallery layout and displays is provided on arrival.

Fishy history

An introduction to Brightlingsea’s varied history is shown imaginatively as a timeline through 10 objects. It is a simple but effective display, which features a bronze-age urn from a local burial mound and ends with a thoughtful consideration of the town’s future with what could be described as a symbolic presentation of a windfarm technician’s lifeline. Interwoven throughout are the proud stories of a community that has excelled in fishing and shipbuilding, and played a significant part in the heyday of pleasure sailing and steam yachts in the hundred years leading up to the second world war, when the town’s fishermen used their skills to crew some of the fastest yachts of their day, including in the America’s Cup.

A section of the Colne Fishery map of 1896. The fishery managed the oyster dredging and trade

The design of the well-lit gallery spaces will undoubtedly provoke the curiosity of visitors, whether they know their adze from their bow saw or not, and the designers have made imaginative use of the limited space available by varying the pace and choice throughout. While the overall look and feel of the museum is constant, there is a good variety of interpretive approaches that will engage visitors. I enjoyed hearing real voices on the sound archive recordings and the displays felt connected to local people, with stories told with authenticity.

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Storytelling and the oral tradition are of great importance to maritime museums and I would have liked to have seen more evidence of this using different sources, if only to emphasise the local context more. There is much on display that has not been seen before, including letters, autograph books and tools, which are mounted in an imaginative display about shipyard skills. 

To the non-traditional shipbuilding enthusiast, one display of shipbuilding tools can look like any other, but it is clear that the intention behind the curatorial approach is to provide a place of shared memories for the community. Stories are effectively told even in areas of the museum where there aren’t many objects to give the local history context.

Pearls of wisdom

The interpretation is clearly committed to active visitor participation and one factor that has necessitated a vital rethink in light of coronavirus is the consideration of interactive features that were enthusiastically planned throughout.

Traditional low-tech interactives include a ship-caulking activity (the only instruction being to use the hand gel provided), a temporarily roped-off knot-tying activity, a somewhat confounding morse code activity and simple but effective oyster-shaped “pearls of wisdom” that reveal nautical sayings. I expect that “the good seaman weathers the storm he cannot avoid” was a late, stoic inclusion on reflection of the recent challenges overcome by the team.

There is a wealth of graphics and information throughout the museum, and the text is well researched and illustrated. Of particular interest is the story of Brightlingsea’s busy oyster fishery that developed from the late 18th century when the town had more oyster merchants than anywhere in England. A combination of wars, changing dietary tastes, shellfish health scares and easier employment caused this local industry to go into sharp decline, but the story has been brought up to date with a display on marine conservation.

The museum explores the town’s history of fishing

The museum has a small temporary exhibition space that, in the absence of content, defaults to an intriguing, if rather disparate, A-Z of the town, which ensures there is always something to see. Unexpectedly “J” is for Joan Collins, who was apparently a regular visitor during the 1950s, but I instinctively looked to see whether X would impart a creative but tenuous Brightlingsea connection to the xylophone. Alas no, but I was delighted to learn of the proud public expression of objection, known as the “Battle of Brightlingsea” in 1995, when a staged series of protests gained national attention against the live “eXport” of livestock from the town.

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Around 600 people were arrested, many of whom were local residents. The venue, in its previous incarnation as a police station, must have been a little overwhelmed at the time, but the campaigners won and the live exports ceased. This story, well within living memory for the local community, certainly deserves more attention in the museum.

Sailing against the wind

Brightlingsea Museum is set for a bright future and will provide a compelling haven of exploration for maritime enthusiasts and general visitors alike. Its ambitions for working with other local organisations will take its role as a community anchor out of the museum and contribute to the local distinctiveness of the area, while ably representing the collective memory of Brightlingsea.

When I visited, the staff clearly still had concerns about opening to the public, but nonetheless this reinvigorated museum certainly heralds an exciting new chapter. The art of the sailor is to leave nothing to chance, and in dealing with the challenges of this museum development, the staff will have learned to sail in the high winds of expectation.

Project data
Cost
£746,000
Main funders
Claude Dove Legacy; National Lottery Heritage Fund; Essex County Council
Architect
Tim Snow Architects
Exhibition design
Maltings Partnership
Interactives
InfoActiv
Audiovisual
Maltings Partnership
Graphic design
Maltings Partnership
Film
Maltings Partnership
Graphics printing and installation
MX Displays
Admission
Free

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