Dorset’s cabinets of curiosity

My Easter break took me to Dorset’s Jurassic Coast for a few days of walks, searching for fossils on the beach and skipping showers by heading into second-hand book shops and little museums. The weather, and the light, were gloriously changeable.

Both of these images were taken at West Bay, near Bridport, one on and the other below the strikingly golden sandstone cliffs.

The museums, despite being of fairly similar size, were equally variable. All had something to offer, and evidently had enthusiastic staff and good relationships with local schools, but differences in funding (perhaps), the imagination and knowledge of curators (probably), the possibilities of the location (certainly) and use by visitors all played their part in making our visits more or less engaged.

The common themes, unsurprisingly, were the area’s relationship with the sea and the unrivalled geological heritage. There were more ammonites than several sticks could be shaken at, and more than a handful of Mary Annings. Anning, of course, was the 19th-century Lyme Regis woman who followed her father into business as a vendor of fossils, making her name with a series of extraordinary finds, including an ichthyosaur skeleton when she was only 12. Anning’s sales were not just to visitors and local school children – although they bought from her shop too – but to the metropolitan geological elites, like Henry de la BecheWilliam Buckland and Richard Owen. These and many other visiting geologists were shown around the beaches, learnt the tricks of the trade and gained from the knowledge of Miss Anning.

Of the three main museum visits we made, perhaps the most disappointing was the Dinosaur Museum in Dorchester. To be fair, we visited on a very wet Easter Monday with a ton of other kids and parents, but its rather Jurassic Park-style flyers and fairly hefty entry price led us to hope for more than a series of rather disorganised rooms with dog-eared labels and interpretation panels in various styles crowding the walls. There were useful attempts to reach a range of learning styles – lift-up things, feel-inside things, listen-to-things, films, computer displays – but it felt a little as if each new idea was thrown into the mix, lacking a sense of general approach or coherence. The same was true for real fossils, replicas and models, meaning that the most important artefacts could get completely lost. A quieter day, or a more organised visit, might, of course, do a great deal more with everything that was there.

On the same wet day we also took in the local history-focused Bridport Museum. This was bound to be a winner for me as it told the story of Bridport’s rope and net-making industries (in which my grandfather had worked for decades), although it was, perhaps, a little too book-on-the-wall, text-panel heavy. The main gallery was, however, complimented by a newer display focusing on oral history. The small room of fossils worked for my son – some touching allowed, but an uncluttered and impressive display. Upstairs, small collections of flint tools and Roman artefacts gave a sense of the long history of the area. Slightly randomly, the neighbouring rooms included local sporting activities, coastal erosion and costume but, I guess, this the the eclectic joy of a local history collection and small museum. The bonus was that it was all free – which meant, in fact, that we came back for a second visit.

My favourite visit, perhaps predictably, was to the Lyme Regis Museum. It is a wonderfully eccentric building, in a lovely town, with fantastic links to science, art and literature. The quality of displays is reflected in the website, which allows a full tour of the galleries. It is, as it always has been, largely volunteer-run but the more-than-100-year history of the place, and the interest of both visitors and locals in Lyme, its landscape and history, have created a lovely museum experience. As their website says, “Our collections are unusually rich for a small museum and we have a lot of good stories to tell”. Three stories stick with me. One, of course, is Mary Anning’s life, work, collections and connections (you’ve got to love a table made of fossilised poo – thanks Miss A and Dr Buckland!), another is part of the museum’s own history, with its curator John Fowles, author of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, and, finally, there was a display relating to shipwreck and rescue, which brought home the ordinary danger of living with the sea.

The success of the Lyme museum was, above all, ensured by the quality of the collections. However, one of the standout exhibits was actually an interactive display for children called the Cabinet of Curiosities, borrowed from the Jurassic Coast World Heritage Site. This could not have worked had there been more than about three children trying to use it together, but with space and time to explore, it was great fun with a huge amount of interest literally packed into a box. You can get some idea of it from the website of the artist-designers. And as you can see here, it certainly attracted  those of the right height:

It had drawers to open, small fossils to look at with small magnifying glasses, things to look at from below, geological layers to manipulate, a geological timeline running all round the exterior, a kind of monster-dinosaur and mirrors mirage inside the box and, my favourite part, a little theatre showing an animated film about the faking of fossils in the 19th century:

It goes to show what good imagination and research can achieve in a very small space. It was definitely not just for kids, although the size and height – and the ability to get underneath it – certainly made them feel it was designed especially for them. Geological collecting perhaps lends itself particularly well to the cabinet conceit, but I suspect that it would be a fun, and probably useful, exercise to think about how any topic  might be presented in a similar way. Every home/museum/school should have one!

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5 thoughts on “Dorset’s cabinets of curiosity

    • It’s the only way I know how to do holidays! As a child, most of our family holidays were based around the churches, monuments, museums and sites my medievalist art historian father wanted to see. But I take it at a much easier pace – three museums in five days is nothing! My dad managed at least three visits per day.

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