Serendipities of online community

The many-headed monster blog, run by a group of academic historians, has been publishing a series on the best way to build communities online. Under the tag #SchOnline, the posts have covered teaching, conferences, online meetings, and more.

As part of the series I wrote about the benefits of Twitter and blogs, based on some of my recent experiences of doing research online.

The whole series is well worth reading – the contents page is here: https://manyheadedmonster.wordpress.com/2020/07/22/schonline-scholarly-communities-online/

Closing the Bakelite Museum

The Bakelite Museum opened in 1985 in London, moved to Somerset in the mid 1990s, and closed in 2018 when the lease expired. A new film by Fiona Candlin and the Derek Jarman Lab documents the museum and its process of closing.

Small museums often close leaving very few traces behind them, sometimes as little as a few entries in old guidebooks. But recording them more fully has great historical value. As Fiona writes:

It is important to document micromuseums because they often embody the concerns of specific groups at particular times and in particular places. Understanding what those concerns are is a means of understanding what people cared about. And it is important because micromuseums often construct exhibitions that have no obvious counterparts in major museums. The Bakelite Museum was a case in point because many of the artefacts were organised to create surreal juxtapositions or visual jokes. Tiny plastic living room furniture that was made for a doll’s house, including a television set, was placed on top of a television set, a dentist’s case of plastic false teeth and a clock embedded in a plastic ostrich with bendy legs were placed on a Bakelite coffin to form a memento mori, and wooden shoe-trees surrounded an electric heater evoking images of footwear being kicked off and feet warmed. 

The full feature on the film is on the Derek Jarman Lab’s website.

Types of museum closure

I’ve written a blog for the Mapping Museums project on types of museum closure. It’s the first published product of my ongoing PhD research. As I write in the blog:

Not all museums close in the same way. My own research into museum closure in the UK over the last sixty years shows that there are different types of museum closure, and some have more impact: they are more final than others.

Read the whole piece here: http://blogs.bbk.ac.uk/mapping-museums/2020/04/29/types-of-museum-closure/

The Barnes Museum of Cinematography

John Barnes was a noted film historian, who opened the Barnes Museum of Cinematography in St Ives in Cornwall in 1963, together with his wife Carmen. It was one of the first film museums, and the first in Britain. Thousands visited each year, and it attracted scholars from across the world.

The museum displayed a collection that John had acquired with his twin brother William over many years. The Barnes brothers tried to persuade public bodies in England to set up a permanent museum to house the collection, but were unsuccessful. A plan to move the museum’s collection to London also came to nothing, and the museum closed in 1986. The collections were dispersed, many of them to other museums. Objects from the era before cinema, including magic lantern slides, went to the Museo Nazionale del Cinema in Turin. The parts of the early cinema collection that related especially to England went to Hove Museum and Art Gallery where they are still on display.

This film is a tour of the museum, from the entrance door covered in photographs by Eadweard Muybridge to the most modern exhibit – a 1918 cinema projector. In between, Barnes demonstrates early moving image devices such as a thaumatrope and a praxinoscope, ‘What the butler saw’ machines, and early cinema cameras.

John Barnes was born in 1920 and died in 2008. He and his brother had started making films when still teenagers. You can watch one of them, about farming in Kent in the 1930s, on the British Film Institute Player.

A museum window at Leicester Square tube station

A museum display case in the rotunda in the ticket hall at Leicester Square tube station. Two cases show museum objects and signs

Travellers passing through Leicester Square underground station in 1938 would have been able to see a museum exhibit. The Victoria and Albert Museum arranged three cases in the rotunda in the centre of the ticket hall, changing the exhibits occasionally. Although the items were not labelled individually, each case had a general caption with adverts for the museum and its evening opening times. Leicester Square was a busy tube station, with 1 million passengers a year, although eighty years later that figure seems relatively low. In 2017 the station had 36.7 million passengers. Anyone prompted to visit the museum by the exhibit would have had an easy journey along the Piccadilly line to South Kensington.

Other museums also had ‘shop windows’ at this time. Some had external windows on the street, including the Royal United Services Institution museum in Whitehall, and the Bowes Museum in Barnard Castle had a display in a nearby hotel. Doncaster museum took a similar approach to the V&A, with a display at the city’s railway station. And the practice continues today. The radio museum in Kouvola, Finland, has a display in the town’s railway station, in the underpass between platforms. Just a few of its extensive collection of radios feature in a case with an advert for the museum and its neighbour, the Miljöö museum.

Display case for the Miljöö museum and radio museum in Kouvola railway station, Finland. Three radios displayed in front of a poster for the museums.
Radios on shelves at the Kouvola radio museum
Radios at the Kouvola radio museum

The V&A no longer displays exhibits at Leicester Square – the cases may only have been there for a year. Nowadays the rotunda is an information point.

Rotunda in Leicester Square station ticket hall in 2019. A map, and information displays.

The first six months of a PhD

I’m almost halfway through the first year of a projected three-year PhD. The subject of my research is museums in the UK that have closed since 1960. I’ll be looking at why they closed and how those museums were valued by staff, visitors, and other interested parties.

The first part of a PhD is usually a literature review, which involves reading as much as possible that’s relevant to what I’m studying, and I’m in the thick of that at the moment. So far I’ve looked at around 90 books, articles, reports, and other publications. I make notes on what I read, and then write drafts to summarise the topics and questions that come up. That’s resulted in writing over 50,000 words of notes and drafts since October. Eventually, what I write at this stage will probably get boiled down into a chapter of the final PhD thesis.

My work takes me to quite a few libraries. I’m based at Birkbeck, and I’ve also spent time in the libraries at nearby Senate House and SOAS, as well as the British Library and the rather beautiful National Art Library at the V&A. But mini-libraries can also develop on your desk while you work. Here’s a glimpse of what’s on my desk at the moment.

A pile of academic books and papers on a desk

The smallest museum in the UK?

Last year Fiona Candlin proposed a number of candidates for the smallest museum in the UK. Size could be measured by visitor numbers, income, staff numbers, the floor space of the museum, or indeed the size of the collection. By the last criterion, Fiona identified a likely candidate in the Alfred Corry Museum in Southwold, which contains just a single object – a lifeboat. But another museum contains no objects at all. It has no staff, and has a floor area of just 18 square metres. This is the Raisbeck Dame School House in Cumbria.

Warley Musem

Yet it seems that the smallest museum – classified by floor space – may be elsewhere. In the village of Warley, West Yorkshire, is a telephone box which has been converted to a museum. Warley Museum opened in 2016, and was recently featured in the BBC programme Monkman & Seagull’s Genius Guide to Britain. Seagull correctly identifies the phone box as a K6 model, designed by Giles Gilbert Scott. The K6 measures 91 cm on each side, making it about 0.8 square metres inside. Monkman and Seagull manage to squeeze into the museum together, although the space would be more comfortable for just one visitor at a time. The tiny museum contains a display of objects, viewable from inside and outside the box, and an information panel highlighting notable people from the village. Surely this is the leading candidate for the smallest museum in the UK.

Image via Warley Community Association

An online museum of sounds

Another online museum that’s come to my attention is Conserve the Sound. It aims to preserve sounds that are vanishing from our lives. So far the sounds are mostly of objects: telephones, walkman cassette players, typewriters, and many more. I particularly enjoyed the sound of the heavy keyboard of Apple’s old tangerine iBook, circa 1999. Laptop keyboards have come a long way since then.

(Via Kottke)

The Web Design Museum

The first website was launched on 6th August 1991 by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN. Websites were text-only to begin with, but it wasn’t long before they started to use graphics. The Web Design Museum collects examples of designs from 1995 onwards. 

CNN's home page in 1995
CNN’s home page in 1995. “Access the news by computer 24 hours a day”

 

You can browse by year, category, and style, as well as looking at timelines to see how the design of well-known websites such as Apple have changed over the years.

Apple's home page in 1998
Apple’s home page in 1998

Apple Home Page in 2017
Apple’s home page in 2017

The Web Design Museum doesn’t have any museum websites yet, so I took a look at one example in the Internet Archive: the British Museum. Its site started at an academic domain (british-museum.ac.uk, now defunct) before moving to its current address.

British Museum home page in 1998
British Museum home page in 1998

British Museum home page in 2018
British Museum home page in 2018

See also: Can a website be a museum?

(via Kottke)

The Royal Architectural Museum

The story of the Royal Architectural Museum, which was dogged by financial difficulties and had to move premises twice in the span of fifty years before closing at the start of the 20th century.

Since 1844 British architects had been calling for a collection of national antiquities. In 1851 George Gilbert Scott wrote to The Builder with a plan for a Government funded ‘Public Museum of Mediaeval Art’ and emphasised the necessity of such a museum for the Gothic revival, then the dominant architectural style. (One of Scott’s best-known buildings is the Midland Grand Hotel, the frontage of St Pancras Station. Another example of the style is Pugin and Barry’s Houses of Parliament.) Scott had been prompted to write partly because of the impending sale of the architect Lewis Cottingham’s Museum of Mediaeval Art. At the time there were three main collections of architectural casts in London: John Soane’s museum, another at RIBA, and the Government’s Design School Museum at Somerset House, founded in 1837. The latter museum was in disarray by the late 1840s.

The Architectural museum in Cannon Row, Westminster
The Architectural Museum in Cannon Row, Westminster, c. 1852–7

The aim of a new collection was to reinvigorate the practice of Gothic stone carving by making sure that art workers had access to good quality examples. In 1852 rooms were taken above horse stables at a wharf along Cannon Row in Westminster and the museum opened that August. The museum included a school, run by Charles Bruce Allen, but it had only eleven students in 1853. The school closed temporarily in 1854 due to freezing conditions, before being closed down completely due to a lack of funds. In the meantime more rooms had been taken to house the growing collection. By 1855 the collection included more than 6,500 objects including 3,500 casts and 1,500 brass rubbings.

The museum faced financial problems including rent increases and the withdrawal of a Board of Trade grant, but it was offered rent-free space at the new South Kensington Museum (which later became the Victoria & Albert Museum). In 1857 the Architectural Museum was moved to first-floor galleries at Kensington. Still under financial pressure, the museum attempted to renew its Government grant. This was met with a counter-offer that the museum lend its collection to the South Kensington Museum and relinquish control. Although the museum’s committee initially rejected this proposal, they eventually relented and loaned the collection to the host museum in 1860-1. But it soon became clear that the collection was being neglected, and disagreements between the South Kensington Museum and the Architectural Museum led to a search for new premises.

The Architectural museum at South Kensington Museum
The Architectural museum at South Kensington Museum, c. 1857

It was offered a site in Bowling Street (Tufton Street from 1870), a return to Westminster not far from where it had begun. Donations of money, materials, and labour made the new building affordable, and the project was given a fillip by Queen Victoria’s agreement to extend royal patronage. The museum became the Royal Architectural Museum, and opened in its new premises in July 1869.

Interior of the Royal Architectural Museum at Tufton Street, Westminster
Interior of the Royal Architectural Museum at Tufton Street, 1872

The Royal Architectural Museum in Tufton Street, Westminster
The Royal Architectural Museum in Tufton Street, Westminster, as shown in The Builder, 24 July 1869

Continuing its original educational purpose, a school for architectural drawing was opened in 1870. As before the intended beneficiaries were art workers and lectures were arranged to encourage their attendance. Money continued to be a problem for the museum but the school did well, taking over the whole of the top floor in the 1880s. With about two hundred students the school was effectively subsidising the museum and changed its name to Westminster School of Art in 1890.

The building and collections were taken over by the Architectural Association in 1902, giving them new premises for a tiny fraction of the estimated cost of a new building elsewhere. But the collections were neglected. Architectural tastes had changed and the Association wanted more space, so the casts were transferred to the South Kensington Museum or dispersed elsewhere. Having occupied three different locations and weathered continuous financial pressures, the museum had closed for good.

In 1916 the building was taken over by the National Library for the Blind, then demolished in 1935 for new headquarters. Much of the museum’s collections remain in the V&A, identified on their labels as gifts of the Architectural Association. 

Images copyright Victoria and Albert Museum, except the exterior drawing of the Museum from The Builder (vol 27, no.1381, 24 July 1869, p.587). [view at archive.org]

This article is indebted to research by Edward Bottoms (https://doi.org/10.1093/jhc/fhm006)