Where in the south of England can you find an Egyptian mummy, a Viking sword, Concorde, 30 vintage London buses? Or experience life as a “Tramp Master” in an old Workhouse, or soak up the atmosphere at the world’s first purpose-built motor racing circuit? Well, a visit to the county of Surrey would provide you with all these and much, much more.
There are over 40 museums and galleries in Surrey, as well as the Archive of the Year award-winning Surrey History Centre, all squeezed into 640 square miles of wooded countryside. The vast majority of these organisations are run by hard-working, dedicated volunteers who do an amazing job with little or no funding. It is a challenging situation to be in, competing for visitors not only with each other but with the big London museum and other large visitor attractions such amusement parks. Because Surrey families can so easily get into town and spend a whole day in just one of the South Kensington treasure houses, it is easy to overlook the wonders on your own doorstep.
Many of the county’s museums are in the most amazing buildings which are a delight to visit in their own right. Whether it be Ash Museum in a cemetery chapel, or Chobham Museum in a converted public convenience, to the 17th century Guildford House Gallery or The Spike 19th century workhouse, they are all outstanding buildings. Step inside any one of these and you step into a world of past pleasures and changing stories.
The museums and galleries within Surrey have, for many years, worked together in partnership to offer each other help and support, to promote the work that we do and to provide advocacy when necessary. To this end, every summer, there is a Surrey Museums trail promoting the museums with themed exhibitions and events. It is a real celebration of the work that these diverse institutions do in their respective communities. It showcases what they are about and why they matter to their locality. Museums bring people together, helping them relate to others through a shared experience. They entertain and inform in equal measure, and the Surrey Museums Partnership is a celebration of all this and so much.
The challenge of local history museums has always been how to curate and display on a local level whilst appealing to a wider audience, but the stories played out through the lives of past local residents is one that echoes across all lives. Whilst a volunteer run museum might not have the polished glamour and the glitz, nor the budget, of a blockbuster exhibition at a national institution, there is a charm, dedication and above all a deep-rooted passion that is evident in all they do that is often only found in the smaller, bijoux museums.
So I urge you all, whatever country you are in, or whatever county you’re visiting, to make the effort to see some of the unsung heroes of the museum world and in doing so discover the real history of the country and its people.
More information about the Surrey Museums Partnership and the museums it represents can be found at www.surreymuseums.org.uk