I was reminded recently of the occasion when my son made his Cub Scout promise at our local scout and guide hut. Present at the hut on that evening was an elderly scout master, not so old that he was actually at the first scout camp at Brownsea Island in 1907 but he did have with him a traditional scout hat that was at this almost legendary event. The hat was not a particularly spectacular object in itself. Its importance lay in the fact that it was present at that moment when the scouting movement was born and as a result represented a continuous tradition stretching back well over a century. This set me in mind of the role of objects in representing an event, place, time or even all three.
As I have visited several Essex museums over the last year or so I have become aware of the importance of certain items in their collections in relation to this role which may be described as an ‘evocative object’. So, for example, the Southend Pier Museum has its Toast Rack train carriage which took passengers to the end of the pier from 1890 to 1949 and so represents much of that period of the 20th century when Southend was a leading holiday destination. Likewise at the Boxted Airfield Museum there is part of the fuselage of a B26 Marauder bomber, the plane that was flown by the US Airforce from the base during the Second World War. Indeed, sometimes the museum building itself is the ‘evocative object’ as is shown by the Jaywick Martello Tower constructed in 1809 to defend the Essex Coast from attack by Napoleon’s France.
We are often told that it is audiences that are the most important for museums and it is certainly the case that a museum that does not receive any visitors is not exactly thriving. It is, of course, also essential to think about audience development to ensure that a museum is appealing to each successive generation and will not suddenly find that its audience is no longer visiting because of old age. Much good work is done by colleagues creating enjoyable, inspiring and educational events and activities at museums and out there in the community, but to my mind there has to be an emphasis on collections in all that we do. Without this we are forgetting what makes a museum special, real objects and their stories which have a remarkable power to impact on our lives.
As we start another year still coping with the Covid pandemic and all that it may mean for our activities it is worth reflecting on the ‘evocative objects’ in your collections. Is there one single item, like the scout hat, which has a special meaning for your local community? Does it relate to a famous person or event? Is this person or event still remembered or should it be better remembered? How can you raise its profile in your displays or online? These questions I hope might encourage you to review your collections and avoid the pitfall of familiarity in which we develop a form of ‘blindness’ to the exceptional because we see it every day.
I hope that you and your museum will have a successful 2022. Museums Essex, its trustees and your Museum Development Officer Beth Wilkey are all here to help you and are happy to answer any questions that you may have during the year.
Chair, Museums Essex