Many museums are closed at the moment due to the ongoing pandemic, and I hadn’t called in advance to check whether the Shell Museum would be open. So when I arrived half an hour after opening time to find the doors locked, I wasn’t sure whether I would be able to visit. But a minute or two after I rang the doorbell, the curator emerged from their house opposite and opened up for me, their first visitor of the day.
The Shell Museum was built in 1915 by Sir Alfred Jodrell and stands in its own grounds below the village church in Glandford, Norfolk. The building is a single room with a high ceiling, filled with light from high windows. Scallop shells decorate the pale green woodwork around the windows and walls. The collection is mainly arranged in wood and glass cases and includes shells of all sizes, decorative objects made from shells, and all kinds of other objects, some more closely related to the museum’s theme than others.
There are shells piled on dishes, shells gathered in warped and faded cardboard boxes, and shells arranged in roughly geometric patterns. Large shells serve as bowls, filled with smaller specimens, and bell jars contain arrangements of shells, corals, seahorses and dried fish. Some of the arrangements are highly elaborate, such as a lady standing under a tree-like profusion of different species of flower, all made of shells of different sizes and colours. There are humorous touches too, like the puffer fish with stuck-on goggly eyes.
Jodrell built the museum to house his own collection of shells, which he acquired over some sixty years. The collection has been added to many times since then, and labels mark the generosity of numerous donors. The labels are a refreshing change from those found in larger museums. Some are printed, in numerous different fonts, other labels are typed, and many have been written by hand. The handwritten labels give an especially strong impression of a museum looked after by many people in its hundred-plus years. Some labels identify the shells and others acknowledge donors, but many of the shells are not labelled at all. The museum never feels very scientific in its display, and the shelves without labels contribute to the overall impression of the place: objects displayed primarily for their visual appeal.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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 RoyalArchitectural Museum, and opened in its new premises in 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]
In one corner of the churchyard of St George in the East, Stepney, stands a forlorn brick building. Its roof timbers have collapsed, and the doors and windows are boarded up. Many walk past on their way across the churchyard but few give the derelict ruin a glance. Trees have taken root within the structure and perhaps this is appropriate, for at one time this small building was a nature study museum.
It was originally built in 1877 as a mortuary chapel, a place to store bodies before burial. Between 1884 and 1900, over a hundred bodies a year were brought to the chapel, and in some years more than two hundred.
In 1892 the Whitechapel Municipal Museum opened in a room in the newly established public library on Whitechapel Road. The museum benefited from a substantial donation from the Reverend Daniel Greatorex, vicar of St Paul’s Whitechapel. Greatorex had travelled widely, visiting the USA, Canada, the Middle East and Australia. During his travels he collected weapons, wood carvings, and a wide variety of animal specimens including snakes, turtles, and the jaws of a great white shark. This collection formed the nucleus of the museum, which changed its name to Stepney Borough Museum in 1903.
In the meantime the use of mortuaries had declined, and in 1904 the chapel at St George’s was converted into a Nature Study Museum and opened on 3rd June.
It was a branch of the Stepney Museum, initiated by Kate Marion Hall, curator at Stepney, and Claude Hinscliffe, co-curate of St George’s. Part of Greatorex’s collection was moved to the new museum, which became part zoo, part museum, as live exhibits were added.
Alongside the more traditional exhibits of stuffed birds, butterflies, and moths were live sea anemones, tropical and fresh water fish, frogs, toads, newts, and salamanders. One of the birds was an Indian Bee-eater found in a tea barge in the nearby St Katherine’s Dock. The museum also featured a monkey, although this had a tendency to bite visitors and staff. Outside were wild flower gardens, including a beehive with a glass wall, viewable from inside the museum. According to Arthur Mee’s London, this was the first municipal beehive: “We may watch them at work behind glass, and see them gathering honey from the bed of wild flowers planted every year”. The museum was intended to give those living in the city an experience of the natural world.
It was certainly popular. Up to a thousand people a day reputedly visited during the summer months, with seventy people at a time filling the small room. But war interrupted and then caused the museum’s demise. It was boarded up during the First World War, and re-opened in 1920. After the Second World War began it became difficult to get new live specimens, and many children had been evacuated to the countryside. The museum closed for the last time on 10th March 1942, and the remaining exhibits were transferred to the Stepney museum.
The churchyard gardens were restored in 2007–8 but the building was left untouched. A number of plans for new uses – none of them for a museum – have so far come to nothing. So the building remains derelict, the sign on the lintel a fading reminder of one of London’s unusual small museums.
Archival photographs courtesy of St George in the East; other photos by the author.