Wednesday, September 01, 2010

Wisbech & Fenland Museum

click photos to enlarge
The Victorians got museums right - pack them to the rafters with a wide variety of interesting stuff, add labels and brief explanatory texts, and leave the rest to the visitor. Many of today's museums have departed drastically from this idea, and seem to have taken the photographs of living rooms and kitchens in Homes and Gardens as their inspiration. All the clutter is removed and a few objets d'art are carefully placed amongst the seating. The "less is more" philosophy prevails. But the fact is, as far as museums go, less is a bore.

Sometimes today the emphasis is on "interpretation". In museums that favour this approach a visit is akin to going to church, with curators and historians in the role of the priesthood handing down to the laity the one and undivided truth about the past. Gone is any idea that a museum displays artefacts that prompt wonder and interest in the visitor such that they are inspired to go off and learn more for themselves. Other museums succumb to the audio-visual or "interactive" approach, with video presentations, historical games and puzzles, buttons to press and flashing lights for the correct answer. The idea behind this is the patronising thought that today's generation can only be attracted to what a museum offers by giving them something of what they already consume through TV and computers. Lincolnshire has a number of museums that feature some or all of these principles.

Consequently, it was with a sense of increasing delight that, a few weeks ago, I explored the museum at Wisbech in Cambridgeshire. As I passed beyond the entrance foyer it immediately became apparent that not only in the range of its content, but in presentation too, it was still a Victorian museum. The building opened in 1847, its initial collection having come from the town's Literary and Museum Societies. Since then it has, in the words of its website, "continued to grow, but the essence of the Museum remains virtually unchanged." It is, to quote again from its own publicity, "a treasure house of rare and unusual artefacts, illuminating history, both local and worldwide, recent and ancient." In other words, a wonderful Victorian museum from which a more recent small room with white walls, very little content and a couple of new "historical games" for children couldn't detract.

The display cases with stuffed birds took me back to my childhood visits to the Yorkshire Museum in York. The very large collection there, many displayed in diorama settings as at Wisbech, was a source of endless fascination for me. I didn't, at that young age, think about the Victorian collectors and the hundreds of rarities that were shot for display purposes. The young birdwatcher in me simply gazed with fascination at species that I'd never seen, and couldn't imagine ever seeing.

photograph and text (c) T. Boughen

Camera: Lumix LX3
Mode: Aperture Priority
Focal Length: 5.1mm (24mm/35mm equiv.)
F No: f2
Shutter Speed: 1/30
ISO: 125
Exposure Compensation: -0.66 EV
Image Stabilisation: On