Micromuseums

April 15, 2017 0 Comments

Micromuseum is a new word for me.  But that was the topic of a presentation to the Friends of the Glynn Vivian last week by Fiona Candlin of Birbeck College.  It was the ideal talk – funny and self-deprecating but full of ideas that rattled your lazy assumptions about what museums are about.  And it was illustrated with photos that raised plenty of eyebrows.

Fiona didn’t define a micromuseum.  In fact her treatment wasn’t in the least analytical.  She took us on her personal, almost ethnographic journey, funded by a Leverhulme Fellowship.  The journey began in an underpowered and near-unsteerable VW camper van as she set out to drive the length and breadth of Britain and Ireland in search of very small museums.  Her trips were not without their discomforts and dangers, including a near-fatal asphyxiation in the freezing camper van.  And they were long-distance trips.  The national and other large-scale museums are mainly clustered in big cities and are easily visited, especially if you live in south-east England, but micromuseums exist in small towns, villages, suburbs, or in the (sometimes remote) countryside.  Another problem was knowing when the museums were going to be open: opening hours of small museums tend to be erratic and are apt to vary from those advertised.

The museums are mostly privately-run and they tend to be very small and ‘unaccredited’.  Their owners are enthusiasts – perhaps hyper-enthusiasts would be more accurate.  Her own friends and big-museum colleagues, Fiona told us, were highly sceptical about her quixotic adventure.  Their stock word for the typical micromuseum owner, intended to dissuade her, was ‘eccentric’.  Perhaps they are, but, as Fiona said, they do know a lot about their chosen obsession.  Generally they know more than anyone else, including specialists in the big museums.

Anything can be the theme of a museum: baked beans, shells, diesel engines, Irish republican weapons, old radios, Romany caravans.  Most specimens are not bought but donated by people who share a common interest.  Fiona visited a museum in Nelson, Lancashire that specialises in the history of the British in India.  Its founder attracted attention from dozens of old India hands, and was unusual in that he maintained contact with the donors and so left careful documentation about the provenance and associations of the objects.

The Nelson example was interesting from the point of view of perspective.  It sounded like a collection that reflected a particular experience of the Raj, that of the imperial ruling class and its servants.  A publicly funded museum on the same theme would surely have felt the need to balance the British view with those of the Indians who suffered at the hands of the colonists.  A private museum is under no obligation to be ‘balanced’ in its coverage or interpretation.

A more extreme example of this was a small museum Fiona visited in Lurgan in County Armagh, an uncompromisingly partisan collection of objects, including weapons, associated with the IRA and other republican organisations.  She admitted that she’d felt uneasy in this place, but admitted its power and value.  My mind went immediately to conversations I’d had with a former director of the Ulster Museum in Belfast, a public institution which, during and after the Troubles, was obliged to go to enormous lengths to avoid any appearance of partiality.

Most micromuseums are so small that their curators share their living space with the collections.  This was true of the owner of the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum in West Dulwich, an old man whose house contents matched the antiquity of his exhibits.  This blurring of ‘public’ and private space has implications for the how the visitor sees the objects in the museum, and indeed on the outlook and behaviour of the visitor.  In essence micromuseums are deeply personal, and often the collections are inseparable from the history and careers of their owners.

Fiona’s best example of the interpenetration of object and owner (and, as it turned out in her case, visitor) was the popular Museum of Witchcraft and Magic in Boscastle, Cornwall.  It’s located in an appropriately gloomy and claustrophobic setting, and the skulls, spells, knots and other objects within, curated by practising witches, seem to take on a supernatural life of their own for the psychically susceptible visitor.

This ‘extended life’ of the object is something that can happen much more easily in a small private museum than in a ‘proper’ large one.  In the latter, incoming objects – accessioned, conserved, catalogued and vitrined away from direct public contact (or, more likely, hidden from view in the stacks for decades) – almost immediately lose their immediacy and power, and their close association with their source.

If an object in a national museum is exceptionally lucky it may have an ‘advocate’ – a curator on the staff with a special interest in its class of object, who may be eager to exhibit it, or tour it, or write about it.  But it would have to be lucky: curator numbers are going down in austerity Britain.  Objects in small private museums receive much closer and loving attention – not just by the owners but by like-minded people who volunteer in them.  Fiona gave a good example, the Internal Fire Museum of Power at Tan-y-groes, Ceredigion.  Here the volunteers periodically organise what they call ‘crank-up days’, where all the exhibits are coaxed into action at once.  The radio and television museum allowed visitors to watch the Oprah Winfrey Show live on an early, prototype TV where the image was viewed in a small mirror.

The most obvious difference between the two types of museum, though, is what’s allowed into the collections.  Private museums are unconcerned with the dictates of ‘collection policies’.   They collect whatever they want, even if they don’t know where it’s going to go.  They may collect what a national museum would consider ‘rubbish’ (but one person’s ‘rubbish’ is another’s ‘relic’, as Michael Thompson argued in his book Rubbish theory).  While a big museum may want to collect a single specimen they would find no difficulty in amassing a fanatically large collection of similar objects.

The main problem with micromuseums, of course, is sustainability.  Their funding is usually precarious, and their future depends on the health and continuing life of the owners.  Does this matter?  If, like me, you’re used to working for what we like to call a ‘permanent institution’, it seems unacceptable that a collection carefully assembled by an individual over decades can be dispersed or destroyed in weeks when he or she expires.  But maybe micromuseums shouldn’t be judged in the same way as national collections.  They belong to their moment, not necessarily to posterity.

Fiona’s sceptical critics, when she was starting out on her journey, have been proved wrong.  Small museums, it turns out, are well worth serious study.  Her book, Micromuseums, was published in 2015 and was well received, and now she’s been given a Chair by Birkbeck.  She and her colleagues have also been granted over £1m by AHRC to carry out more work.  In its first phase they’ll construct a database of the hundreds of micromuseums scattered across the country that have been established since 1960.  I only wish such a tool had existed a couple of years ago when I was trying to discover what small museums existed in Wales.  Micromuseology is here to stay.

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