Phone box time machines – the UK’s smallest museums?

Telephone boxes across the UK have become defunct as so many people have acquired mobile phones. According to British Telecom, almost half of the phone boxes in the UK have been removed, but thousands more remain. In response to the decline in phone box use BT established a scheme, ‘Adopt a Kiosk’, that allows communities to keep their old red phone boxes. As time has passed, some of these boxes have been transformed into museums.

As I wrote in a previous blog, one of these telephone box museums is in Warley, West Yorkshire, and was featured on television. Run by the Warley Community Association, the box displays objects in its windows and has information panels inside.

Railways are a common theme of museums (there are over a hundred in the UK), and there is a phone box museum on this theme too. The Compton Down Railway Museum is sited at the Talyllyn Steam Railway and records the history of a miniature garden railway built by the enthusiast Peter Jones. The railway was rescued and became the Llechfan Garden Railway in the hostel at Twywn, the main station on the Talyllyn line.

Don’t confuse Talyllyn Railway in North Wales with Talyllyn Junction, which is in South Wales, near Brecon. There was a railway station at Talyllyn Junction, opened in 1863, but it closed in 1962. The small hamlet has a telephone box which has been refurbished by local volunteers and now features display boards about the area.

(The section on the phone box starts at 4:35.)

In another part of Wales, a telephone box houses a museum devoted to a photographer. Tom Mathias lived in Cilgerran, Pembrokeshire and documented life in his local area. His negatives were dumped in an outbuilding after he died in 1940, before being rediscovered by another photographer in the 1970s. The box stands just fifty metres from the house where Mathias lived.

Standing on a street in the Wirral, the last phone box in this list displays very few objects as it is devoted to a single pop song. It commemorates the band Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark and their 1980 hit ‘Red Frame White Light’. The song was written about the phone box, which the band members used as their office as they did not have phones in their homes. After the box was removed by the local council a local fan managed to have it reinstated, repainted and decorated with artwork. Now a framed copy of the single is on display in the box, together with the lyrics of the song.

Update

After I published this post a reader got in touch to point out that there is another redundant phone box with local history information, which opened in January 2021. It’s in Burntisland, Fife, and the phone box displays timelines of Burntisland’s history.

Life as a research assistant

I work part-time as a research assistant for the Mapping Museums project at Birkbeck. My main job is maintaining the project’s database of over four thousand museums – but what does that involve? I’ve written a short piece about the work of data collection, data checking, and some of the ways in which the long list of museums is still growing. You can read it here.

At the Shell Museum

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.

Numerous cardboard boxes filled with small shells

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.

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 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)