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Dorset’s Treasure House – Dorset County Museum

Peter Booton takes a look behind the scenes at Dorset County Museum.

On the floor of the Victorian Hall is a Roman mosaic pavement from Durngate Street

On the floor of the Victorian Hall is a Roman mosaic pavement from Durngate Street

Dorset County Museum and Library was founded on 15 October 1845 for the purpose of saving and protecting the natural history and archaeology of Dorset at a time when important historic sites such as Roman Poundbury and Maumbury Rings were threatened by industrial progress. Instrumental in its development were the Dorset dialect poet William Barnes and the vicar of Fordington, Reverend Henry Moule, whose son Henry Joseph Moule later became the museum’s first curator in 1883.
Housed initially in rented premises on the south side of High West Street where Judge Jeffreys held the infamous ‘bloody assizes’ following the Monmouth Rebellion, the museum later moved to Trinity Street before occupying the former Old George Inn on High West Street. In 1883 it moved again, this time to a purpose-built gothic style building, and its present location, in High West Street. Subsequent improvements to the museum include the building of a new Natural History gallery in 1952, the addition of an extension in 1973 to house a multipurpose gallery and conservation laboratory, and the creation of a new, award-winning Archaeology Gallery in 1984. Since then, with financial assistance from the Heritage Lottery Fund, more new galleries have been added: the Writers Dorset Gallery opened in 1997, the Dorchester Gallery in 2003 and the Jurassic Coast Gallery in 2006.
Financial support also comes from Dorset County Council and West Dorset District Council. Dorset County Museum is an independent museum and educational charity owned and managed by the Dorset Natural History and Archaeological Society (DNHAS) which has around 2000 members. Its mission is; ‘The acquisition, preservation, conservation, exhibition and development of all collections of archaeology, natural history, literature, music, fine art and local history relating to the County of Dorset, and the advancement of education in all these areas for the general benefit of the public.’ The Members’ Library at the front of the museum building contains some 30,000 items of local interest and is available for the use of DNHAS members.

The DNHAS Members’ Library

The DNHAS Members’ Library

There are currently more than four million items in accession records, of which 1.5% are on display. The museum has four full-time and six part-time members of staff but relies very much on the invaluable assistance of around 200 dedicated and knowledgeable volunteers, many of whom have specialist skills. The Director in overall charge of the museum is Jon Murden. Collections Manager Jenny Cripps and Assistant Collections Manager Helen Sergeant are responsible for all the Collections, each of which has its own team of volunteers.
A visit to the County Museum is a must for anyone interested in Dorset and among the wealth of objects on display there is plenty to suit all ages. One of the most popular galleries is the Jurassic Coast Gallery, a 185 million year ‘walk through time’, which employs child-friendly interactive displays to chart 95 miles of the World Heritage Coast between Exmouth in Devon and Old Harry Rocks in Dorset. Marvel too at the huge fossilised skull of a Pliosaur, two flying Pterosaurs and a dinosaur’s massive footprints set in stone. At the heart of the original museum building is the Victorian Hall with its splendid ornate cast iron arches and charming rose window. This is the Dorchester Gallery containing a rich variety of items relating to the social history of Dorset people, as well as paintings, furniture and ceramics. On its floor is a Roman mosaic pavement from Dorchester’s Durngate Street.

Main staircase leading to the Dorchester Gallery in the Victorian Hall

Main staircase leading to the Dorchester Gallery in the Victorian Hall

There are numerous more items relating to the social history of Dorset stored in the former hayloft of the Old George Inn, towards the rear of the museum, which is not accessible to visitors. Among the various objects that catch the eye here are a collection of decorated truncheons, war-time gas masks, early television receivers, old biscuit tins, Victorian prams and, amazingly, a bone saw used by the royal surgeon to King Edward VII, Sir Frederick Treves, who was born in Dorchester in 1853.
A small, private staircase in a corner of the Victorian Hall leads to a series of rooms once occupied by a caretaker of the museum. The rooms now serve as stores for furniture, metalwork, maps and plans and a digitisation studio. As its name suggests, the metalwork store contains all manner of metal items ranging from guns and swords to coffin nails and Roman boot studs. The former caretaker’s lodgings are also home to the Thomas Hardy Society office, where its members meet, and the Thomas Hardy Archive where a plethora of Hardy family related items are stored, including eight volumes of collected letters, programmes for Hardy plays, manuscripts and books. So valuable is the archive that is has earned UNESCO ‘Memory of the World’ status. Two further rooms in this part of the museum building contain items relating to other famous Dorset writers, namely William Barnes, Sylvia Townsend Warner and her lover Valentine Ackland, and the various authors in the Powys family.
Away from the museum’s public areas there is a veritable maze of rooms which are used mainly as offices and stores. A number of the offices are above a shop adjoining the museum. I was fortunate to be given a guided tour of the public galleries as well as the private areas by David Ashford, a most knowledgeable volunteer and a member of the DNHAS, whose specialist interest is archaeology and general research. During our tour ‘behind the scenes’ we visited part of an adjoining house which had been bequeathed to the museum by long-term members of the DNHAS, William Abbott Butcher and his wife Sylvia. For a while it had been used as a laboratory extension where freeze drying and X-rays were carried out, but in 2012/13 the rooms were refurbished and now house the Dorset Photographic Archive and the Geology Store. The photographic archive contains many thousands of photographs of Dorset people, places and events, notably including the work of two 19th century Dorchester photographers, John Pouncy and Walter Pouncy. There is a huge collection of local postcards, too, amongst which is a voluminous album of Weymouth postcards that has kept museum staff and volunteers busy for the past two years, explains Valerie Dicker the curator of the photographic archive.

Preserved plant in the Herbarium of JC Mansel-Pleydell

Preserved plant in the Herbarium of JC Mansel-Pleydell

More of the museum’s collections are stored away from the main building in premises nearby. The rooms of two houses in Colliton Street are used to store art, natural history items and costumes and textiles. A significant part of the natural history archive is the collection of plants amassed by John Clavell Mansel-Pleydell (1817-1902) who bequeathed his Herbarium to Dorset County Museum in 1902. Mansel-Pleydell published the first collected natural history for the county of Dorset and was president of the Dorset Natural History and Antiquarian Field Club, forerunner of the DNHAS. Each of the many boxes in which his collection of dried plants is stored is accurately labelled with its contents. Although many of the plants named would only be recognised by an expert some, such as lobelia, Erica, azalea, rhododendron and lichens, are familiar and say much for the breadth of this fine collection.

Bond ‘stump-work’ box embroidered with the figures of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza

Bond ‘stump-work’ box embroidered with the figures of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza

Helen Sergeant explains the contents of the Costume and Textiles archive, where row upon row of protectively covered clothes-racks hang with all manner of costumes, ranging from military uniforms and ladies‘ capes, to smock frocks and christening gowns. In an adjoining room, wooden cabinets with shallow drawers are filled with beautiful beaded accessories and the colourful banners of Friendly Societies and Trade Unions, all carefully wrapped in acid-free tissue. Amongst all the finery here, the most impressive item is a ‘stump-work’ box which was donated to the museum by the Bond family of Tyneham. On the lid of the box the stump-work (raised embroidery that gives a three-dimensional effect) portrays the figures of Charles II and Catherine of Braganza and is embellished with metal threads and pearls.
The archaeological archive is housed in the former Parish Church of All Saints on High East Street, the premises being leased from West Dorset District Council. Its interior is full of racks of boxes supported by a scaffolding framework. Among the numerous finds from all over the county stored here are human and animal bones from Poundbury, stone from Maiden Castle – in boxes clearly labelled with the weight of the contents, Romano-British pottery discovered at Stoke Abbott and a 14th-century jug found at Sherborne Castle. Volunteer Robert Lancaster is involved with a number of personal research projects, one of which is an excavation at Broadmayne that yielded a Samian bowl dating from the 2nd century. Other members of the team at the archaeological store are reconstructing 18th-century pottery items found at Dorchester.

Horse tassels with true Dorset colours in the Social History store

Horse tassels with true Dorset colours in the Social History store

Of much concern at the County Museum are the wholly unsuitable conditions for proper long-term storage of items in buildings which were never intended for such a purpose. However, there are now ambitious plans to expand and renovate the Grade II listed museum building which will mean new galleries can be created for Art, Natural History and Costume and Textiles, as well as a new custom-built exhibition space on the site of the former crafts market in Colliton Street. The Collections Discovery Centre project, as it is known, will also provide new facilities for display, education and research, in addition to 1500 square metres of purpose-designed, world-class storage for the reserve collections. At present, the former Reverend John White’s rectory in Colliton Street is also being used for storage, but as part of the project this historic building will be returned to public use as an education centre and visitor attraction in its own right. Funding for the Museum Development Appeal is currently underway, with a target of £100,000.
Dorset County Museum regularly hosts various special events throughout the year and of particular note in 2015 is an exhibition on the work of John Craxton (1922-2009) who is considered to be one of the most interesting and individual British artists of the 20th century. Entitled ‘A Poetic Eye: John Craxton on Cranborne Chase and Crete’, the exhibition runs from 28 March to 19 September.
Anyone keen to take a look ‘behind the scenes’ too, can join a guided ‘Tour of the Stores’ which take place occasionally during the summer months (advertised on the museum’s website) and visits the archaeological store in All Saints Church and, providing group sizes are small, also the art, textiles and geology stores. ◗
❱ www.dorsetcountymuseum.org

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