We all know the big guns; the British Museum, the Rijksmuseum, the Louvre, the Smithsonian, the Guggenheim and so on. These bustling hubs of historical and artistic scholarship welcome millions of visitors each year and some visitors travel across literal oceans to see the artefacts that have captured their imaginations since childhood. When I travelled to London for a palaeography summer school, I was so excited that Senate House was close enough to the British Museum to allow a trip to see the Rosetta Stone. The story of the stele had enchanted me since I was in primary school – how amazing that a stone once used as building material was the key to deciphering hieroglyphs – and to see it in person was nothing short of magical. However as much as I love the British Museum, this Valentine’s Day I am giving my heart to another. This is a love letter to the small folk museums, heritage museums, maritime museums, agricultural museums and historic houses that bejewel the landscape of the UK.
These museums, which are often run mostly (if not exclusively) by volunteers, welcome guests in the thousands rather than the millions, but this by no means makes them less worthy of praise than their monolith counterparts. In fact, I would argue that they have a massive impact on their communities. Through storytelling, dress up and activity packs, children learn the stories of those who have come before them. Museums allow them to make emotional and empathetic connections to history which could never be gained from a textbook. Events and exhibitions allow families to spend time together and create memories on a budget. For those who have watched their community change over their lifetime, museums and historic buildings provide a chance to reminisce about times gone by and tell their own oral histories. Small museums by their nature are niche, containing a wealth of information on their locale which historians, genealogists, and any interested amateur can get lost in.
On a purely selfish note, Saint Andrews Preservation Trust Museum, ‘my’ little museum, has allowed me to gain invaluable work experience, both as a tour guide and behind the scenes. I have learned how to use Adlib software and helped at Museums at Night events. But more importantly, I have been able to have a lot more access to the inner workings of the museum than I would be afforded at a larger institution. I have met trustees and board members and had unfiltered access to the curator’s extensive knowledge of the industry. I have met the people who have lovingly put exhibits together to pay homage to the town that they have loved and lived in their entire lives. Over the next two months, I will be helping create an exhibition on St Andreans during WWI. This immeasurable fulfillment has come directly from this little museum and those who pour their heart and soul in to its upkeep, and I am so thankful for it.
This Valentine’s Day, send some love to your local historic building or museum for whilst they are little, they are so, so important.