Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Eccentric Curator

A friend of mine, with whom I used to work, once passed a fun afternoon by philosophising about what job we would all do in a parallel universe. You weren't allowed to pick your own - it was what management peeps call a process of '360 degree evaluation'. We weren't being lazy whilst we should've been working neither, honest Guv- it was what pedagogical peeps call 'an exercise in creative critical thinking'.

I'm at a historical building and looking eccentric. That's why this picture is here-
Not a random, honest!
 I was deemed an ideal curator of one of those strange, quirky museums that you pop into because it is raining and end up fascinated by. Words such as 'perky' and 'eccentric' were banded about, as well as 'font of bizarre information'. All correct. When I was little I made a little museum in the home corner of my classroom (I was allowed/encouraged to do this, one of the few enjoyable activities apart from pond-dipping and reading Village-With-Three-Corners permitted at primary school) and we played 'school trip'. I even set out little benches in rows and made a vending machine out of an old cardboard box (me and junk modelling again, innit). It was my museum and I put stuff I liked in it, namely: a record-breaking collection of 372 Pannini Care-Bear stickers (on loan: my twin sis), a snow-globe from Woolacombe Sands Holiday Park in Devon (it's still there! The camp, not the globe. I drove past it on the way to a wedding!), a dead stag beetle, a photo of me and my 'BFF' receiving our Blue Peter Badges (yeeh-haw, in your FACE non badge holders), a creepy china doll and a fancy bit of origami my cousin gave me.

When I was a child I curated like a child, and now I am a (wo)man I must put childish curating behind me. Which strange real-life museum could I sneak into and ruffle up a bit? Let's visit a few of my favourites...

The Booth Museum Of Natural History Brighton.

What to see there: dead things. Nicely arranged.

I love this one, it even has the word 'quirky' in the opening paragraph of its official website. Edward Booth loved birds (the flying type), and wished dearly to educate the people of Brighton about both what our native species looked like and how their unique habitats shaped their tiny lives. Unfortunately for the birds, this was 1874, and David Attenborough wasn't born yet, nor the BBC Natural History unit established. Mr Booth's preferred method was to go out like some well intentioned avian serial killer and pop a cap in the tail of at least one bird from every species (no matter how rare) in the British Isles. The birdy remains were stuffed and displayed in dioramas, painstakingly detailed and accurate in every respect. They remain unchanged (a specific request in Edward Booth's will) in the museum, displayed floor-to-ceiling in what is now not only an ornithological museum but also a fascinating time-capsule for those interested in how community education and museums have changed over the decades.

This case contains 'A Pair Of Bearded Tits (Immature)' Not sure if the last bit is
a label or aimed at my reaction...

Since the turn of the century, the museum has been a 'natural history' one, and houses minerals, butterflies, plant samples, microscope slides and a few fossils too. With the exception of the central section (a modern 'mock up' of his study- or perhaps, a diorama?) the layout is amazingly authentic. If you go to their website you can view their collections, but nothing really beats the experience of walking around those high-stacked dioramas in the dimly lit main gallery- next time you're in Brighton, tear yourself away from the Lanes (North or South) and take a stroll down to Booth's.

Dennis Severs' House, London

What to see there: don't just see, experience...(x-files music)

18, Folgate Street. You are instructed to be silent in here. It's a house, on each floor the 'spell' of a different time (between 1724 and 1914) is built up through sight, sound and smell. So much more than a reconstruction, the focus here is to immerse you in the lives of the mysterious spectral inhabitants (you hear them, but never quite see them... and things move when no visitors are in the room). Snide, passive aggressive notes either remind you how to behave or make you very aware that this museum abhors order and modern professionalism; it is full of irritable and impoverished ghosts, all whispering 'this house is ours' like in that film 'The Others'. Some of the rooms are deliberately scented with urine. There's a real cat running around.

Dennis Severs created this work of art (a painting come alive) whilst he actually lived here. It's all as it was when he was alive. He bought the house for a pittance when the area was rough and down-and-out, and was struck by the descent of this worthy silk-merchant's house over the centuries. So he turned the house into its own story. I'd recommend coming here alone or with one like-minded friend- and linger away from larger tour groups- they are right about the silence.

The house is only open on Sundays (£12) and Mondays (£5) and it is advisable to book. They also have twilight sessions for fans of high Gothic!

Sir John Soane's Museum, Lincolns Inn Fields

What to see there: how someone with as much money as taste lived.

This is another glimpse into a past life- a little more organised and a lot more luxe, but an old home nonetheless. Luckily for us, the architect lived there- and worked there. He decided to fill his home with examples for his students to work off (I don't think I'd be up for that, to be honest, but fair play to the old boy) and it morphed into what Britton called an 'Academy Of Architechture'. And the rest, as they say, is history. You don't have to be silent here, and it's free- but the atmosphere is, nonetheless, a bit more rareified than your average public museum.

Gosh, he's starkers!

It's chock-full of all sorts of things from nails and traditional building materials, to early watches, to sculpture and fine art. You literally do not know what is around the next corner- even a touching memorial to his favourite dog has a space. When you go, look carefully through the window in his basement gambling den... you'll get a spooky surprise! I once saw them setting up a wedding reception here and nearly fainted with delight (I'm a bit of a wedding geek as my blog list will reveal) - if you are uber rich and want a small F&F wedding, the room-hire is 5K (having said that... a hotel wedding can be as much... darn, yeah, I'm already married...).

Just a casual supper...
Not obsessing, honest. Look at that ceiling!
The Huntarian, Lincoln's Inn

What to see there: pickled bits of people, old medical torture instruments, inspiring tales...

Bang opposite Sir John Soane's gaffe is the Huntarian. In their FAQs they point out where you can get 'a cup of tea and a bun'. Now that's civilised. It's free with a suggested donation of £3, which I gladly pop in the box.

Even if you haven't heard of it... you have. It's the museum with the pickled two-headed lambs, the terrifying medical knives and other macabre and wonderful treasures. They are held within a crystal gallery- in contrast to my other favourites, the venue here is cool and modern. But the Gothic Victoriana within is every bit as fascinatingly otherworldly as Severs' ghosts or the poor wee Brighton birdies.

Google image The Huntarian- this is mild. There are human versions.

The tallest man alive's skellie- is the other bending down
to make him seem even taller?
In addition to the crystal gallery, there are more thought-provoking exhibitions, such as 'exhibiting difference' and a permanent display of a series of photos in which a soldier with no face (a shrapnel victim from WW2) is gradually, painstakingly reconstructed. The last photograph is of a wedding. His wedding: and he can smile. Bring your tissues, I blubbed when I found it and I'm welling up now.

But I've just scratched the surface. On a weekend, I often pop onto Time Out's 'Unsung Museum' site. Seven pages of the strange, small, unusual and eccentric. More useless information, here I come...


  1. Wow Perdita, this is some post! I loved every minute of reading this, I love museums so this was right up my street. I used to work at Gray's Inn rather than Lincoln's but I know what you mean about the rooms and the atmosphere. It used to give me tingles up my spine thinking that Queen Elizabeth I, Shakespeare and Winston Churchill had all eaten in the Great Hall. Thanks so much for this wonderful post. Oh, and I love the photos too! :-)

  2. Wow, wonderful post - I've never heard of any of these places but I think I'm going to try to visit all of them at some point!

  3. I have been meaning to go to Dennis Severs' House for ages. Totally agree on Sir John Soanes, it is one of my fave small musuems in London. If you haven't been to the Horniman Musuem I think you would like it - down in Forest Hill, it sounds a bit like the Booth x

  4. I've always wanted to go to the Horniman, it might well be my next museum trip!

    It's fab too hear all of you guys love our museum heritage, it's one of my favourite Brit things!

  5. i Love this blog!

    Check out mine

  6. What a corker of a post!!!! I had never heard of Dennis Severs' House before - and now i feel I MUST go there!!

  7. really, really should. It's an amazing experience, half museum and half theatre in a way!

  8. What amazing little finds, shame they are all down South. xxx

  9. VV - try this website, I sometimes use it when travelling at it often as odd and unusual places!


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