Anyone who has ever worked in small museums – and anyone who hasn’t – will love this book. It covers the heartwarming and gritty stories of people who become museum-makers, driven by the love of their way of life, their local community and a host of objects that were precious to them.
Stories from Small Museums introduces the reader to the founders of a broad range of museums across the UK. Fiona Candlin, a professor of museology at Birkbeck, University of London, along with historian Toby Butler and researcher Jake Watts, travelled 10,000 miles to capture oral histories about the founding of more than 60 museums that opened from 1964 to 2020.
The book explores how and why museum-making happened and the impacts on the lives of the people involved. This is not about museum professionals who set out to preserve and interpret heritage; it is about members of communities who wanted to share the experiences of people with others.
Museum-makers were self-appointed volunteers doing everything from building work and restoring exhibits to admin and displays, usually without support from museum professionals.
This book beautifully reflects how getting involved in such museums changed and affected people’s lives in deep and emotional ways that went beyond preserving heritage for its own sake.
The opening chapter gives readers an understanding of the Mapping Museums project, defining what the word museum meant in the context of this research and what the authors set out to achieve.
One of the joys of this book is that the reader is then invited to read the stories in any order to suit their own interest.
The stories are not about collections, or even the audiences, but about the people who attached deep meaning to ordinary objects, places, events and organisations, and wanted to find ways to share them.
The authors explore different contexts of museum-making, including economic changes, modernisation, changes in modern warfare and shifting administrative boundaries, which all resulted in the creation of museums about transport, war and conflict and local history.
The book also describes the journey from collecting objects for personal or family reasons, or as a hobby, to going on to share the stories with wider audiences beyond the special interest group.
But the real highlights of Stories from Small Museums are the snapshots of what this meant to the people involved: the life-affirming camaraderie of being part of a group that is looking after collections; of gaining an extended family; learning new skills that led to a career; of helping veterans to process the trauma of war they had experienced; or the chance to meet people socially for those feeling isolated.
For museum-makers a sense of place was often crucial, along with the small distinctions between village boundaries and objects that defined them. I loved the significance of a stuffed turtle and a farmer’s smock that defined two museums in neighbouring Cornish villages in a fundamental way.
I was pleased to see that women who set up museums are featured as pioneers, particularly in preserving and celebrating stories about local women’s lives.
The author acknowledges that the stories are about the lives of white people and asks why virtually no museums in this period were created by Black or Asian founders.
The only example of museum-making by non-white founders happened in reaction to experiences of racism, and highlights the importance of the current work by Sandra Shakespeare to create the Black British Museum. My only regret is the lack of mention or analysis of the absence of LGBTQ museum-makers and their stories – we must have been there.
Nevertheless, this is a book that all museum-makers today should read.
Sue Shave is the acting director of Jewish Museum London and a queer museums and heritage consultant