Mummies and Teddies – Dorchester’s museums
Dorchester has an unparalleled selection of heritage collections. Joël Lacey looks around the town's military museum and five other collections
Published in March ’13
Where might one find Adolf Hitler’s desk, terracotta warriors made in China, Howard Carter piercing Tutankhamun’s tomb and the country’s first museum to feature a ‘feely box’? The answer, surprisingly enough, is not in South Kensington, nor even in London, but rather all the aforementioned are to be found right here in Dorset; to be more precise, all of these exhibits can be found in the county town of Dorchester.
Many know that Dorset has the world’s premier tank collection at Bovington and that Dorchester has a Roman town house and its associated exhibition within the excellent Dorset County Museum, but the town has a spread of other unique visitor attractions that sometimes do not get the full publicity they warrant.
One which is surprisingly overlooked, ironically so in fact given that its roof offers panoramic views over Dorchester, is the museum based in the town’s Keep. Recently renamed The Keep Military Museum of Devon and Dorset, it is the spiritual and curatorial home of the regiments of Devon and Dorset, the Rifles, the Dorset militia, the county’s Volunteer Artillery and the Dorset Yeomanry. Appropriately enough, the curator of the Keep is Colin Parr MBE, who spent 45 years in the British Army and was the first person to be recruited to the Dorset Yeomanry when it was reconstituted in the modern era in 1997.
The Keep itself was originally the gatehouse for the Depot Barracks of the Dorsetshire Regiment as well as the county armoury. This was at a time when the Militia could still be called out by the Lord Lieutenant to quell unrest in the county – at one incident, the mounted militia brought order to Sherborne by charging the rioters and, in order to teach a lesson rather than cause carnage, ‘only’ hit the rioters with the flats of their swords.
The Keep was completed in 1879 and had a magazine to store explosives (still recognisable today from the fact that its ceiling is domed to attenuate the effects of an explosion) and had cells for regimental miscreants, one of which – the cells that is – is still retained as part of the museum with a rather understated but still profoundly affecting exhibit on the efficacy of various disciplinary methods used by the Army, including the cat o’ nine tails.
Over the Keep’s three floors, the museum explores the various regiments’ engagements from the earliest days of their existence to key engagements. For instance, there is the last cavalry charge by a regional Yeomanry, at Agagia – or Aqqaqia, depending on the transliteration used – where Ja’far Pasha Al Askari (who was later Minister of Defence and twice Prime Minister of the British-created mandate of Iraq) was captured. A few years after his capture, he returned to dine with the officers of the regiment, so there were clearly no hard feelings.
The Keep’s displays are a mix of interactive and illustrative (there are some touch-screen displays with lots more information, but also a large number of paddles that carry further details of displays’ elements by means of reference numbers). This system allows very large numbers of artefacts to be displayed without the visitor being overwhelmed by boards of text, but giving them the option of finding out more by using either the touch-screens, where available, or paddles. There is also a dressing-up area for the kids, a shooting range, drawers full of further artefacts, an immense amount of silverware in the form of medals, hardware (from field guns to the German Army’s infamous Great War butcher bayonets) and an astonishing collection of uniforms, letters and personal effects from soldiers who served with the various regiments over the centuries.
This last element gives us an insight into another, perhaps even more important element of the museum’s work: its research and behind the scenes history section. There is a diligent volunteer group researching the activities of the Devon and Dorsets in World War 1; according to Colin Parr, fully 80 per cent of the enquiries the museum receives are related to the Great War.
The museum covers everything from the two World Wars (whence Hitler’s desk from his Berlin Chancery), to the lesser-known conflicts of the last 300 years, from the Empire, Napoleonic and New World battles, to putting down the Mau Mau rebellion, to Malaya and Korea.
It is a compelling collection, and one whose central role in charting the role of local military units will be even more important over the next five years as the 14-18 conflict is memorialised and at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness. The museum is keen to hear anyone whose relatives served with the Devon and Dorset regiments in World War 1, ahead of next year’s centenary.
The Dinosaur Museum was opened in June 1984, but its genesis was a year earlier when, according to Tim Batty of World Heritage, which runs a collection of five exhibitions and museums in Dorchester, ‘a group of us who had worked in museums for a number of years, decided we would do something different.’ Hard as it is to remember what most museums were like thirty years ago, it is worth pointing to how different the Dinosaur Museum was from the ‘hands-off’, ‘keep out’ philosophy of museums of the era. ‘We were the first museum in the country to have a “feely box”,’ Tim recalls. The museum covers a range of topics from, naturally enough for a Dorset museum, fossils and Mary Anning, to science’s continually evolving understanding of dinosaurs. With scale and life-sized recreations of dinosaurs, interactive elements and information boards, the Dinosaur Museum tries to thread the needle of having something for pretty much all ages. Given the limited amount of floor-space, it contains an impressive amount of material… and there’s a friendly triceratops outside to welcome visitors too.
Our next heritage stop deals with a topic which, ninety years ago and again forty-odd years ago, was very much at the forefront of the nation’s consciousness: the treasures of Tutankhamun’s tomb. The Tutankhamun Exhibition opened its doors in Dorchester in April 1987, set within a church that started life in Wareham, before being taken down, brick-by-brick, and being rebuilt in Dorchester.
The Tutankhamun Exhibition looks at the long process Howard Carter went through to find, and then get permission to open, the boy-king’s tomb and features a 3D reconstruction of his head, facsimiles of some of the treasures and a soundscape tableau of the moment when Carter, Lord Carnarvon and the latter’s daughter first looked inside the tomb. There are some wonderful black and white images of the expedition party. All the reproduction artefacts are made using the same methods as would have been the original and where, for example, elements of inlaid precious stones were missing from the originals when extracted from the tomb, so too the facsimiles miss these elements. There will always no doubt be some debate about the relative merits of having the priceless originals, as opposed to aesthetically identical reproductions, but there’s no doubt one can get a lot closer to the ones in Dorchester than those of the famous 1972 British Museum exhibition. Upstairs from Tutankhamun is the Mummies exhibition; it’s a small additional, related exhibit, in which one can find recreations of mummifications of humans and sacred animals and descriptions of the methods used to mummify them.
Still on the theme of internationally famous heritage artefacts is the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors, which opened in April 1989, but which had been a touring exhibition in venues as different as Hampton Court, the Channel Islands and the Tithe Barn at Abbotsbury, before finding a permanent home.
Featuring warriors made on site (in Xian, Shaanxi province, China, that is) with the ancient moulds of the first Emperor’s ersatz army, albeit rather fewer of them than the 8000 at the Chinese site, the museum explores the history of the Qin period, when Qin Shi Huang combined China into a single nation, along with details of the nearby Qin Necropolis and the hundreds of thousands who worked on its construction.
A rather different take on the anthropomorphosis of inanimate objects comes in the form of the human-scale occupiers of The Teddy Bear Museum, which opened in July 1995. Set against the backdrop of an Edwardian home, the museum looks at the development of the Teddy Bear, from its christening from a cartoon of an incident when Theodore Roosevelt declined to shoot a small bear when hunting, through the evolution of famous bears (Pooh, Rupert, Paddington and Fozzie, to name but a few) to the range of commercially produced bears and how their faces and styling has changed from an original 1906 bear to the present day.
All in all there is an eclectic mix of options for the visitor looking to while away some time in Dorchester. It is fair to say, in fact, that nowhere else in the country can such a broad mix of topics be addressed within such a short walk of one another.
- For details of the locations and opening times of all Dorset’s museums, visit www.dorsetmuseums.co.uk
- For more information on the Keep, visit www.keepmilitarymuseum.org or call 01305 264066.
- For details of the Dinosaur Museum, call 01305 269880 or visit www.dinosaurmuseum.com
- Details of the Tuntankhamun Exhibition on 01305 269880 or at www.tutankhamunexhibition.co.uk
- Visit www.teddybearmuseum.com or call 01305 266040 for opening times and other information
- For details of the Mummies Exhibition, call 01305 269741 or visit www.mummiesexhibition.com
- For details of the Museum of the Terracotta Warriors, call 01305 266040 or visit www.terracottawarriors.co.uk