Marvellous Micromuseums

According to new research from the Mapping Museums project at Birkbeck University, the museum sector in the UK has more than tripled in size with a growing number of museums since 1960. The project created the most comprehensive database of museums in the UK ever developed, providing a rich resource for further research and analysis. The report accompanying the dataset also suggested a large increase in the number of small museums that have less than 10,000 visitors per year. As of 2017, they found that 56% of all museums recorded were small museums, representing 374% growth since 1960, which is nearly three times the growth rate of any other size category. Furthermore, the report noted a ‘surge’ in local history museums, rising from 181 in 1960 to 751 in 2017, an increase of over 300%.

Many of these new museums are what Fiona Candlin (who also led the Mapping Museums project) defines as ‘micromuseums’, which she wrote about in her book of the same name. While the definition has flexible boundaries, these museums are characterised by being generally volunteer managed, having limited opening hours, and very limited financial resources. They are often still materially led by their founders. Finally, they are typically, but not necessarily, unaccredited (have not formally met specific sector standards for museums), and lie outside the regulated, financed, and supported museum sector.

From a resource perspective, it seems intuitive that larger museums ought to be better able to keep object histories connected to their objects than these micromuseums. Large museums are usually accredited, and thus, they have more funding with multiple trained staff who have specific expertise, work regular, full-time hours, and use modern collection databases that can store detailed object records. Micromuseums only sometimes have databases, and if they do, often have volunteers managing records on an ad hoc basis. Many micromuseums have no formal collection database at all. However, our research found that micromuseums were able to retain deep and complex object histories attached to their collection far in excess of larger museums. Our specific research area was three medium and six micromuseums of local history in the area of East Anglia, UK.

Jeyes Museum, Earls Barton, Northamptonshire, UK

Although the larger museums in our sample had more robust, modern cataloguing systems and processes, they also generally had longer and more disjointed histories with a variety of curators, curatorial priorities, mergers and acquisitions, etc., making object histories more fragmented. Despite their professional experience, information seemed to seep out at every stage between the initial donation, securing accompanying history at the point of accession, and then recording it fully in the database. The much simpler staffing structure of the micromuseums seemed to lend a distinct advantage in securing object histories. Often, the curator was the person who met the donor, was then responsible for accessioning, managing the database, putting the objects on display, and labelling them. The depth of knowledge of micromuseum curators meant that connections could more easily be made and did not depend on the sophistication designed into a database, just a good memory.

But so far, this has all been very introspective. To turn a collection into a museum, you want visitors. Why do people visit museums? There have been many general and specific surveys of visitor motivation ranging from tourism organisations to institutions themselves, though the cost of such surveys tend to limit data to the larger national organisations or museums. However, a sense of place, of authenticity, and the opportunity to engage emotions seem to be repeating motifs in what visitors value in their engagement with heritage.

If we combine our understanding of the micromuseum’s ability to preserve a rich object history with the visitors’ appetite for a sense of place, authenticity, and emotional engagement, then micromuseums have enormous potential, despite their ‘amateur’ status.

Cobbler's Awl, Ashdon Village Museum

Here’s how this potential could play out. Take one of the simplest of tools – a cobbler’s awl. It is a simple wooden handle with a short, metal spike on the end, designed for punching holes into leather for stitching. Historically, they would have been very common, multi-purpose tools used not only by cobblers, but saddlers, and which also existed in many household tool boxes. Many local history museums will have awls, usually un-named in tool collections. But here’s what Ashdon Village Museum in Essex, one of our favourite micromuseums, can tell you about their awl.

This awl was owned by Reuben William (Geezer) Ford who was born in Ashdon in 1876. As a very young man Reuben joined the army. When he returned to Ashdon he became a farm labourer and married an Ashdon girl. However, he remained on the ‘Reserve List’ and so in 1914, at the outbreak of WWI, he was immediately called up even though he was aged 38. Reuben was badly wounded in the war. He was invalided out of the army but was unable to do his previous job as a farm labourer on the family farm. He was given some training as a cobbler to enable him to make a living and he returned to Ashdon as the village cobbler. The museum not only has his awl, they have many of the tools he used in his trade. They also have a copy of his Army Invalid Certificate, the Red Cross cup he was given when convalescing and various family photographs.

Cobbler's exhibit

With that information delivered through effective interpretation, Ashdon’s awl is much more than its materiality. In the case of an awl without a connection with a past person, the visitor must trust that the tool is from that place, but can only be told the facts of an awl’s function. But this awl can be authentically attached to Ashdon as a place, and an Ashdon resident as an artefact of a rich human experience. It can tell a story about Ashdon as a place and community, the work opportunities it provided, its response to villagers in need, and attachments to many wider family networks. It reveals layers of authenticity about the object, and it has the potential to engage the visitor’s emotions with the challenges Geezer faced in life. This ability to link the simplest of tools, an awl, to the life of Geezer Ford, gives the visitor, according to their own life-experience, the opportunity of a deeper, emotional connection with the past as a result of being able to relate to the human element of the object. A simple tool without its own history cannot release these emotions.

In a post-Brexit, post-Covid world where we are all reconsidering our relationships with our local community, how we overcome societal-level changes, and how we identify ourselves, micromuseums of local history have a role to play. They can provide us with an invaluable reference point as to what a sense of place and a community looks and feels like. They can explain to us how the same problems and challenges of life have been resolved time and time again and how local communities have coped with great upheavals, and they can ground us in the certainty that our forebears led lives that lived, loved, and laughed in equal measure to our own. Micromuseums of local history represent the grass roots of the museum sector and the largest type of museum in the UK by size and subject, and as such, they deserve our support and attention.

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Rachel Hooper

Rachel was a mature student on the MPhil in Heritage Studies at Cambridge University, where she benefitted from a legacy-funded scholarship from Ashdon Village Museum, a micromuseum in Essex, UK. Following the course, she joined up with fellow student Victoria to develop Marvellous Micromuseums. This is an organisation designed to support the tiniest of museums to improve their governance and business sustainability, and to help them access some of the techniques and resources usually only available to larger museums.