The trouble with living in London is we are blessed with the most amazing museums: the British Museum; the V&A; the Natural History Museum; and the Science Museum. Room after room of stunning artefacts and stories, modern displays, state of the art engagement and interpretation, but more important than all the treasures they hold is the simple fact they are all completely free.
If you are taking a holiday in the UK, a ‘staycation’ if you will, and you have three small children to entertain, you will find yourself visiting many of the local museums dotted around the country. These local museums are not always free and it can sometimes be a bit of a shock to the purse strings to have to fork out for family tickets. This brings a new element to the museum experience, is the museum worth the entry price? I am often more analytical of an exhibition if it has cost me over £10 to visit. It is a lot of money and you want to get your money’s worth, regardless of whether you have already experienced much more than £10 pounds worth for free in other parts of the museum. Having once had to spend nearly £20 to visit a ‘Teddy Bear Museum’ that consisted of a few rooms of moth eaten teddies (they shall remain nameless) the money and cost become a factor that impacts on enjoyment.
The reason why I love museums so much is the simple fact they are all different. While our high streets have become clones, shut your eyes, open them again and you will see a Boots, a WH Smiths and a Costa Coffee shop, indistinguishable from your own local high street. What makes our ‘staycations’ different is a trip to the local museum. They all look different, have different stories to tell, objects to share and each one provides you with a very different experience. These I call our ‘holiday museums’ and when the suit cases are unpacked and the memories begin to fade, it is often the museum anecdotes that stick in my mind. The Teddy Bear Museum a prime example of a not so good experience, but there are many more goods ones. The kids dressed up in period costumes, my son charging round Brading Roman Villa on the Isle of Wight dressed as a Roman Soldier, helmet on, sword in hand, swatting anyone that moved. My eldest daughter being fired up by the Lyme Regis Museum, learning all about Mary Anning and determined to discover her own ichthyosaurs.
Sometimes we seek out a museum, particularly in recent years when my museum obsession has become a little overwhelming for my poor family. Equally, some we just come across, and it is these museums, the little advertised and hard to find, staffed with friendly volunteers, open peculiar hours that often provide the best experience.
On our last visit to the Isle of Wight we came across the Donald McGill Postcard Museum, basically just one room, dedicated to the saucy postcard. I was enchanted to begin with, as children under 5 cost 1pence, the kind of entrance cost that always puts a smile on my face. But here was one room, engagingly decorated, sand on the floor, postcards – floor to ceiling, binoculars for you to spy a saucy quip, a giant stick of rock, I could go on. It was wonderful, a real dip into a fast disappearing world when risqué postcards were banned and confiscated from local sellers. After leaving the museum in Ryde we came across a Red Plaque telling more of the story, highlighting a shop that had been raided. You begin to understand not only an artist who illustrated these wonderful time capsules, but a different time and place, everything that a museum should be.
On our most recent visit to the Isle of Wight this Easter, I was desperate to visit Brading Roman Villa. The family ticket cost us £20.00 but there was lots to see and do, a very friendly welcome and a small price to pay to come across the strangest mosaic I have ever seen – ‘Gallus’ the cock-headed man. The only example in the Roman Empire, it is not clear if it is a satire of the mid-third century emperor, Trebonianus Gallus, gallus being Latin for cockerel or a depiction of a God. There was a great mosaic of Medusa too. It was interesting to learn of the flooding in 1994 that had caused damage to the mosaics, the flood water contaminated with agricultural fertiliser. Even once discovered and ‘saved’, threats are ever present. But it was the desperate need to save the mosaics that led to a Heritage Lottery bid and rebuilding of the visitor centre. It is a sympathetic building in a beautiful spot, you can stand on the villa’s front porch and imagine the Romans who looked out to sea and surveyed the beautiful land they called home.
Another pleasant surprise was to come across the British Museum touring exhibition Roman Sexuality; Images, Myths and Meanings. Perhaps not one for over inquisitive kids, I managed to spend some time on my own contemplating large winged phalluses, but the real show stopper was the Warren Cup. To basically be on my own with this stunning artefact was most unexpected and a real insight into how the Roman world viewed homosexuality. I have to mention the BBC website article I came across when researching this blog, with a headline worthy of the Daily Mail – “Roman ‘sex-goblet’ comes to the Isle of Wight” it highlights all you need to know about todays attitude to sex and homosexuality. I found the exhibition gave a new dimension to the experience of visiting Brading, particularly as local finds were also used setting Brading in context and proving the importance of sharing collections.
I could go on and on listing wonderful museums we have visited. The Lyme Regis Museum, I mentioned early, a beautiful building, on the site of Mary Anning’s home you can feel her spirit and inquisitiveness inhabiting every remaining fossil and anecdote of her life. The children loved the fun recreation of a cabinet of curiosities.
The Dorset County Museum, another beautiful building, where the children enjoyed rebuilding a skeleton and I enjoyed the modern artists using the collection as their inspiration within the museum space. Not just a case of looking back but looking forward too.
But where would the good museums be without the bad ones? Maybe bad is not the right word, where would we be without the weird museums? Those slightly odd collections that can only loosely be termed a museum. Perhaps more of a collection, someones strange fancy, maybe that is what all museums are to begin with, the kernel that begins them, someone’s collection and obsession.
On our Easter holiday we came across the Isle of Wight Steam Museum, a strange hotpotch of mechanical machines and pictures of boats, but anything hands on always gets the keeps the kids entertained, even if there were a few frightening things hidden in the dark corners. The ‘Museum Mannequin’ is another strange phenomenon that I am becoming slightly obsessed with myself. The Museum is on the site of Blackgang Chine a slightly dated theme park by todays standards but one which I have a curious soft spot for and where my children have enjoyed themselves on a number of occasions.
There is a Coastline exhibition there too, a Roman helmet meets you in the entrance with no label, explanation or information. A giant map of the British Isles is your next encounter with buttons to press and plastic bubbles that light up and tell you of facts, objects and items local to the area. I loved the fact someone had left an upturned plastic tub with a few tomatoes in, a weird addition that I hope was intentional. Museums and exhibitions are so much better for the visitor who can leave a little bit of the themselves behind.
Then round the corner you come across a whale skeleton you can walk through. Blackgang Chine was a theme park established as long ago as 1843 making it the oldest them park in the UK. The whale was washed up on the coast in 1844 and became an attraction that you can still visit today although it competes with water slides and roller coasters. Allegedly Queen Mary, George V’s consort, visited and struck her head on the jaw bone knocking her hat off, the manager then proceeded to saw off the offending section. You can still see the saw marks to this day.
It is this kind of bonkers information and experience you can only get at a holiday museum. I loved the fact they have warned you not to mark the bones with your name by marking the bones with a nailed on sign but as the skeleton has lasted this long, they must be doing something right.
I will end my holiday museum blog by sharing with you my new favourite holiday museum, the Toy Museum. If you want to see the complete Stars Wars collection you have come to the right place. Their labelling and conservation awareness maybe a bit lacking but that make up for it with louche Superman hairbrushes, scary lego clowns and the ever trendy 1960s Paul, Sindy’s best friend comes complete with travel flask ready for every occasion. My two favourite items have to be the super cute Clarks Star Wars trainers, if only they did them in an adult size and the most disturbing sight worthy of any 18+ horror film – the demon doll.
So after all this you can see why I say ‘Long Live the Holiday Museum’, the good, bad and the downright weird. I hope they never change, because when you step through the door you never know what you are going to find.
My last picture, a little treat from the Teddy Bear Museum I mentioned at the start, I give you …… Che Guevara Bear. I bet you Wish You Were Here!