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In praise of “small museums”

Editorial from "The Guardian" newspaper 8/6/2024 praising "small museums"

Have you heard the one about the museum of cuckoo clocks that may have to be wound up unless the two brothers who founded it 34 years ago can find someone to keep it ticking when they retire? Or the Musical Museum, set up in 1963 by an electrical engineer with a passion for the history of recorded sound, where you can listen to self-playing violins, and dip into one of the world’s largest collections of piano rolls? Or the UK’s newest natural history museum, at whose 2022 opening the ribbon was cut with the claw of a baryonyx – a large carnivorous dinosaur? They are located respectively in Cheshire, Brentford and Sheffield.

Of the 2,500 museums estimated to exist around the UK, the great national institutions take all the air, with their blockbuster shows and their rows over fundingrestitution of plundered treasures and – in the case of the British Museum – alleged thefts. Scepticism about their scale and their colonising impulses goes back to their earliest days, with the writer GK Chesterton opining: “The Museum is not meant either for the wanderer to see by accident or for the pilgrim to see with awe. It is meant for the mere slave of a routine of self-education to stuff himself with every sort of incongruous intellectual food in one indigestible meal.”

But there are hundreds of smaller ones, often founded and endowed by enthusiasts – from John Soane in the 18th century to Cuckooland’s Roman and Maz Piekarski today – that make an incalculable contribution to cultural life without any danger of bringing on an attack of intellectual collywobbles. For those financed through local authorities, the past decade and a half has been brutal, with spending on England’s museums and galleries falling by more than a third, even before the recent spate of bankruptcies. Yet collecting is a basic human instinct, and the will to share and maintain collections is strong.

The Musical Museum is a case in point. It was founded in an abandoned church by Frank Holland to house his growing collection of instruments, and he sold his house to endow it. Though it has since moved to a new building, thanks to a heritage lottery grant, it has otherwise always been self-financing. It has its own YouTube channel on which it streams concerts on the Mighty Wurlitzer in its 250-seater theatre. But as Mr Holland’s legacy ran dry, and its business plan was decimated by the Covid pandemic, the museum had to lay off staff and cut opening hours. Volunteers rolled up their sleeves and responded by launching a 60th anniversary appeal. It’s a measure of the affection in which it is held that it is on the point of reaching its target.

This is a story that will ring bells with many small museums. They embody many different enthusiasms, from pens (Birmingham) to dog collars (Kent) and lawnmowers (Southport). But if proof of living value were needed, one of their number, London’s Foundling Museum, provided it two years ago when it gathered together 59 people from all walks of life who had spent their early lives in care, for a historic photograph. Such institutions are labours of love. They are also statements of what individuals or communities want to save of, and for, themselves – and the work they will put into preserving it. They are the stories of what we have been and who we are.

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