Joël Lacey visits the museum celebrating life in the town and surrounding villages of Beaminster
Published in July ’16
In these days of austerity, it is not an uncommon thing to come across an institution now run by volunteers, but in the case of Beaminster museum, it has ever been thus. Even during the eight years leading up to the official opening on 28 March 1998, the Beaminster Museum Trust committee members have done what they do for the love of it.
Visiting on one of their regular admin days, when it seems that dozens of volunteers are there, the museum is a hive of activity. After a certain amount of self-deprecatory modesty, most are reluctantly herded into position for a group photograph. Although the headcount in the picture appears to be nineteen, two of those are mannequins from the ‘Life below stairs’ exhibition, in the centre of which the group has assembled.
This, like the other summer exhibition – ‘Census’ – had just been completed by the time we visited and the process for deciding on and then researching, writing and finally mounting a temporary exhibition is that wonderful combination of the individual and the collective that signifies teamwork done well. The process is that someone comes up with an idea for an exhibition, it is discussed and approved and then a researcher goes off and finds out as much as possible about the subject as possible. Almost inevitably, this is much more than can be fitted into the temporary exhibition, but then there is also the question of how the museum interprets the information and presents it to the audience, which could be anything from a local schoolchild, to an eighty-year-old visiting the area for the first time. One can write down information and, whilst there is still a place for the sheer volume of information that can be transmitted by an A4 sheet of carefully researched material, the days of museums only being static exhibits accompanied by small labels are long gone.
Some of the work that the volunteers do to contextualise an exhibit is quite subtle, some of it more obvious. In the below stair exhibition, for example, the obvious part might be the two mannequins dressed as housemaids in a below-stairs kitchen. But to give that kitchen its believability factor, there is crockery and cutlery, now esoteric kitchen appliances that will trigger the vague memory of the eighty-year-old visitor and pique the interest of the eight-year-old. Often it is more subtle still; in order to imbue a small section of a former Methodist chapel with the sense of being a stately home, a stone wall with an arch leading to a walled kitchen garden has been painted on the angle in an otherwise redundant corner of the exhibition.
It’s a subtle cue that the visitor’s subconscious picks up and whilst, in and of itself, it doesn’t do anything to improve one’s understanding of life below stairs, the implicit grandeur created by the image then contrasts with the hours of work that a typical housemaid would have to do before even being able to eat breakfast. The crockery that is on display all around the mock kitchen is perfect for the period that the museum is trying to portray, but in order to display it, a group of people had to do what the museum is best at doing – begging, borrowing and stealing and then making do and mending. In this case, the base of a dresser was obtained from an auction house, and then the top of the dresser was made from MDF and then stained to match the base.
Another feature of the below stairs exhibition is the napkin folding, where anyone can learn to fold napkins in particular forms. It’s a section ostensibly there to improve younger visitors’ enjoyment of the exhibit, but it has, Dorset Life is happy to confirm, a universal appeal.
One of the great buzzwords in multi-media publishing is ‘curated content’, where the idea is that people want to read the stuff they want to read about, but they want someone else to put it together. In many ways, this idea comes from museums and their temporary exhibitions.
To use a different simile, the museum is like a restaurant that has to cater to those only coming through its doors once, who want staple fare (the history of the local community) and also to the regular visitor, who wants some variety in their diet.
The future plans for the museum are exciting. There is an area behind the museum that is neither use nor ornament at the moment, so the plan is to get permission for a two-storey extension to the museum which would give more storage space and more exhibition space. This would also allow it to improve its access to upstairs. Whilst the chapel may have been bought for a then nominal sum in the 1990s, the Methodist Chapel was not built then, and the world has moved on an enormous amount since its original construction.
As with exhibitions, the decision as to what the museum will acquire and what it will accept as a donation is done by a voluntary committee. One volunteer told me (with extremely good grace it must be said) that he’d offered some material to the museum, which had informed him after the accession committee had met that his offerings were not required. Part of the discipline in not merely accepting everything that is donated is simply because there is a finite amount of room in (and behind the scenes of) the museum.
In terms of the permanent exhibitions at the museum, there are a whole host. There’s a permanent version of last year’s World War 1 exhibition, which also includes the local flying hero William Barnard Rhodes Moorhouse, VC of Parnham House; there’s a rural life exhibition which includes local inventions like the dairy house roof cutter for improved ventilation, there is an extensive fossil collection for use with and by local schools and then there’s an exhibit about the schools themselves. A point well worth making is that while there is obviously a good deal about the town of Beaminster, in its position as a market town, it was also the hub for a whole group of villages, hamlets and farmsteads and the museum is at pains to point out that this is a celebration of all the local lives, not just the ones in the town.
The town itself has had quite a collection of local industry over the years, from heavy engineering, to being the birthplace of Henry the vacuum cleaner, and home to the UK’s first Fairtrade tea company. But more than anything, the museum is a celebration of the people from in and around Beaminster.
The volunteers who help with the genealogical researches of locals also have an extensive local library and some recorded social history that is evolving all the time too. The constant feeling one has on visiting the museum is that of things changing whilst in their essence remaining recognisably the same.
It is an elegant trick to pull off, to forever put more and more temporary exhibitions into the museum that then turn into permanent ones, without it seeming overcrowded and interpreting the past from millions of years ago to ten years ago in a way that will appeal to all the ages.
The visitors’ book contains a comment that the Beaminster museum is the best they [the visitor] had ever visited. That would be an impressive recommendation for a fully staffed museum; for Beaminster it is just what the volunteers do.
Beaminster Museum, Whitcombe Road, Beaminster, DT8 3NB
Opening times: Tuesdays, Thursdays, Saturdays and Bank holidays 10.30-4.00; Sundays 2.00-4.30. For more details please visit www.beaminstermuseum.wordpress.com or call 01308 863623 (answerphone message).