‘Help us repeal bad laws,’ said Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg on 1 July, asking the public for feedback on unnecessary legislation the British people would like to see scrapped. One response, published in the Independent on 5 July 2010, was so witty, it deserves a wider audience. ‘In Hereford’s Cathedral Close it remains illegal to shoot a Welshman with a longbow on Sunday’, wrote Paul Dunwell, of Alton in Hampshire, who went on to point out that ‘In Chester that’s perfectly OK within the city walls during the hours of darkness any night of the week, and Henry IV seemed to make enduring provision for the decapitation of not only Welshmen but anyone who shows them sympathy’. Meanwhile, he warns, ‘any Scotsman carrying a bow and arrow in York is fair game’.
Such laws, Paul points out, are ‘monstrously discriminatory, especially against those who cannot get Sundays off, those who work nights, and those who don’t live within easy commuting distance of Hereford, Chester or York’.
Hunter Davies, the prolific writer best known for his biography of The Beatles, has a new book out. It is called Behind The Scenes At The Museum Of Baked Beans — a companionable complement to CA‘s own Odd Socs column, in which the author uncovers the motivations and obsessions of the founders, owners and curators of various unlikely museum collections. The book’s title refers to Davies’s own personal favourite in the quirky collections world: the Baked Bean Museum. Half expecting this to be nothing more than a virtual museum, Davies was astonished to find, when he visited the curator’s council flat in Port Talbot, that ‘it proved to be a little gem of a museum, arranged on professional display stands, consisting of about 500 items of baked beans history: tins, advertising, toys, souvenirs.’
Davies loved it and, so it seems, do thousands of others: curator Captain Beany claims the museum attracts 50,000 visitors a year, which is an astonishing number (it averages about one visitor every two minutes). That is nothing compared to the Pencil Museum’s 100,000 a year (but then, the museum is located in the tourist hotspot of Kendal, where it often rains) or the 60,000 who beat a path to the Kelvedon Hatch Secret Nuclear Bunker to see the 40 underground rooms on which millions of pounds were spent in the 1950s in order to create a hideaway for 600 of Britain’s most important people in the event of nuclear war.
Many of these mad-sounding museums are, says Davies, actually very well run, informative and entertaining. His recommendations include the British Vintage Wireless and Television Museum, located in the 13 rooms and assorted garden sheds of a private house in West Dulwich (the late Sir J Paul Getty was a fan, and donated the 1924 HMV Lumiere to the museum) and the enormous nostalgia trip that is the Museum of Brands, Packaging and Advertising in London’s Notting Hill.
One that Hunter Davies seems not to have found is the Museum of Leathercraft, which proudly boasts that it is ‘internationally acknowledged as having one of the finest collections of leather artefacts in the world’ (in case you were wondering how the competition stacks up, you can find links to Europe’s leading leather museums — all four of them — on the internet: www.euroleather.com/museums.htm).
Perhaps the omission of this fine museum from Davies’s guide can be explained by the fact that it has been peripatetic for several decades. Now it has secured a permanent home as part of the Abington Park Museum, in Northampton. This town already has ‘one of the most outstanding collections of shoes in the world’, displayed in the town museum’s wittily named ‘Life and Sole Gallery’. (The related website dispenses invaluable etiquette tips along the lines of ‘Why should I never wear browns in town? In short it simply is not done; City gentlemen should ideally stay with a black Oxford.’)
So now in one town you can you thrill to the sight of a mid-19th century painted vase moulded from the bladder of a camel alongside a sculpted leather torso (made in vegetable-tanned calfskin, wet moulded and stitched, over supporting formers, since you ask) and an internationally important collection of saddlery, luggage and shoes.
But don’t leave it too late to make a visit because the Abington Park Museum’s website warns ominously that ‘the opening hours are under review’. Similar words might aptly describe the situation nationwide as we await the results of the Government’s Comprehensive Spending Review. The outcome of this once-in-three-year exercise is due to be announced in October 2010, but Jeremy Hunt, Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, seems to be competing for the prize of most eager and aggressive cutter by getting in early with his proposal to make half the department’s staff redundant — pour encourager les autres — and to abolish the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.
Not that you would know this from the MLA’s response: ‘Our various programmes and the expertise of our staff, including the Field Teams across the country, will continue unabated,’ says the press release put out after the announcement of the MLA’s abolition, thus putting one in mind of a decapitated chicken. ‘We will work methodically and calmly to continue to deliver a vibrant and effective expert service for the public who rightly expect excellent, sustainable museums, libraries and record offices in their local neighbourhoods,’ it continues, utterly failing to understand that the MLA is now a Norwegian Blue.
Neither does the MLA do its case much good when, in setting out the case for the continuity of its work, it argues that ‘place-based investment, with much more joined-up and better strategic planning, can and must deliver more for less; closer attention to demand and better systems for delivery must result from all new alignments’.
Much more likely to win support than this bureaucratic gobbledegook is the poetic sentence (perhaps penned by MLA’s Chairman, Sir Andrew Motion), which says that ‘Museums, libraries, archives and other places of art and creativity are nourishment for the spirit and encouragement for everyone in times of adversity; these are vital components for tourism, the economy, quality of life, cultural creativity and personal well-being’. That message is likely to be repeated over and again in the coming months, as cuts of 40 per cent or more are demanded of all the heritage and arts bodies funded by the Department of Culture.
If you do decide to visit the museums of Northampton, you will find that the road signs at the county border no longer welcome you to the ‘The Rose of the Shires’; instead they feature the slogan: ‘Welcome to Northamptonshire — let yourself grow’.
This bewildering injunction, reminiscent of the hippyish advice given to us all by Eric Clapton on his 1974 album, ‘461 Ocean Boulevard’, is one of a new breed of road signs that are becoming more frequent as local authorities throw out historical associations in favour of new branding.
Examples of such rebranding include ‘Welcome to the Borough of Tunbridge Wells — Love Where We Live’, ‘Welcome to Oldham — Many Places One Destination’ and ‘Hyndburn — an Excellent Council’, which you might think a touch self-congratulatory until you read the footnote, which explains that ‘Hyndburn
Borough Council has been ‘rated as an “Excellent” council following its recent Comprehensive Performance Assessment by the independent Audit Commission; the rating places the Council amongst the very best local authorities in the UK’.
What is wrong with all this jargonising, whether it comes from the MLA or from local authorities, is the naive belief that real problems can be solved with something as petty as a slogan, and that the public is easily brainwashed. A fine example of both comes in the form of the European Union’s Euromed Heritage Project, which aims to use archaeology as a means of forging links between all the peoples of the Mediterranean; a challenging objective, given that quite a number of these nations are engaged in civil war, or war with their neighbours.
One of Euromed’s valiant attempts to deploy heritage in the interests of pan-Mediterranean love and peace was the ‘creation of a beautiful promenade’ along the seafront in the southern Lebanese city of Tyre, with signs explaining how the city’s Phoenician maritime trading culture relates to that of other Mediterranean ports. The result was disappointing; according to the initiator of the project, cultural heritage specialist Fabrizzio Fucello, local vandals have damaged benches, signs and street lights. Fucello said: ‘people do not understand that this project aims at enhancing their life.’
So, all the problems of the world would be solved if people would just buckle down and conform. If things go wrong it is not the scheme’s fault but that of an ungrateful populace. Fucello’s solution sounds a little like our Prime Minster’s Big Society idea for the future of our museums. The answer, Fucello believes, is to ‘sensitize people … incite them to participate in public work’. So, people, go out and be sensitized — for the sake of the heritage.