Thursday 27 January 2022

The Museum Rebellion


The Museum Rebellion

by Jane Spirit

breakfast tea 

When the postman handed George a bumper clutch of Christmas cards that morning, he decided to take them through with his cup of tea to the sitting room to enjoy its view over his small, well-ordered garden. Here he could settle comfortably to enjoy opening his post with its usual images of festive robins, reindeer and holly sent by the usual people. Only one card caught his particular attention. It featured a snowy photograph of a building that was both picturesque and so familiar to him that he scarcely needed to read its caption: ‘Appletree House: formerly Lemton Museum’.

He paused, ruminating about the time he had spent as the rather quaint sounding ‘Lemton Museum Supervisor’. This had been the role into which George, an amateur but avid local historian, had stepped so appropriately after retiring from his office job. The five or so years that followed had been happy ones for him. The post had provided a pleasant structure to his days, a small stipend and, most importantly, autonomy. The committee had allowed him free rein over the running of the museum and supervision of its volunteers. There had been quite a few of those over the years, but only three remained by 1999; Betty, a retired teacher with a keen eye for arranging the displays; Sarah a postgraduate student who was fascinated by handling the smaller objects and then Barney who had been an affable type, particularly good with families who visited the place.

George would not have called himself a stickler, but he had been happy to be known for the thoroughness with which he approached the task of managing the museum.  It was not that he had inflated ideas about the place. The museum was nothing special in the grand scheme of heritage collections. It had no one single item of outstanding archaeological, historical, or artistic interest, nor had it been founded to house the bequest of some eccentric local donor. On the other hand, the place always rewarded those who took the trouble to explore its inner recesses by pulling the dangling light cords to illuminate a glorious mishmash of contents. George thought fondly again of the Turkish rug, a souvenir from some distant Eastern trip undertaken by a Victorian son and heir; of the Edwardian man trap happily donated by the family of a local belligerent farmer, and of the 1960s orange nylon dress discovered in a wardrobe by some rootling executor in the early 1990s. For George the joy of the place lay in the discovery of its hidden connections and patterns. The rug, the mantrap and the dress for example had all come from different offshoots of the Newlove family whose various descendants still lived in the town.

By now George had finished his tea, but he sat on musing. He watched several blue tits landing on the wooden bird table half-way down the garden as he rehearsed the rhythm of the museum year in his mind. In the darkening days of November once the winter closed sign was on the door, he and his volunteers would enact the annual ritual of draping the larger objects, display cases and shelves with their dust sheets. The funereal atmosphere created was simply a prelude to that magical moment in spring when he would sanction the raising of the sheets and conjure afresh the objects for the wonderment of potential visitors.

The exceptional two-day millennial celebratory opening had been entirely his idea. He had been determined to create a small exhibition in the entrance foyer that would be both educational and entertaining enough to entice in passers-by. He had moved his carefully chosen pieces to the front of the museum, set them on their stands and placed the appropriate information cards beside them. Then he had wafted the dust covers gently over each exhibit in readiness for their unveiling on New Years’ Day. He recalled that, as was customary he had politely ignored all suggestions and offers of help from Betty, Sarah and Barney. It had felt, he supposed, as if the display should be his responsibility alone … the glorious culmination of his second career.

He wondered afterwards quite why he had found himself returning to the museum on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve to peek at the exhibition again. He supposed that he must have felt a little nervous about the whole thing.  Lifting the first dust sheet he had smiled at the reassuring sight of the 1900 child’s shoe that he had placed perfectly flat on its grey podium. Then he realised that the shoe was now mounted at a jaunty angle with the heel raised upwards on a bright yellow silk covered plinth. Its instep had been adorned with the tiny red Victorian bow that belonged in one of the locked display cabinet drawers. Next to his information card there was now a large multicoloured stack of paper sheets. These were headed ‘Children’s quiz’. George had felt dizzy with confusion, but he had maintained an outward calm as he lifted off each sheet in turn to examine what lay beneath. Every item of his display had been modified in some way; there were bright blue quiz numbers standing upright against each object and each was now exhibited in a different position or against a different background colour. Distributed across the main objects were unexpectedly intriguing smaller items, enhancing the whole effect.

George was dumbfounded. He was also defeated. He had no time to reverse the tweaks. Perhaps even more importantly when he stood back to take in the whole display, he could see that the new version was indeed much better than his original. He knew immediately that the volunteers had put him firmly in his place. Methodically he put back the covers, turned off the lights, locked the doors and went home. He stayed there on New Year’s Day, claiming that he had gone down with something and would be too ill to inaugurate the exhibition. He did not confront Betty, or Sarah or Barney. Citing ill - health he resigned from the museum with immediate effect. Within a year the museum had been closed, the building sold, and its contents transferred to permanent storage in a portacabin beside the new community hall. Things settled down.

George stood up at last and carefully arranged his newly received cards on the sideboard. He moved on slowly, into the kitchen, turning on the radio to distract himself. Then, all of a sudden, he found himself chuckling at the ludicrous nature of the events he had set off all those years ago. He laughed out loud remembering how his pride had made him complicit in the situation when he was congratulated on the little millennial display at his hastily arranged leaving drinks. He had only smiled serenely across the room in the direction of the exhibition’s actual curators who had all avoided eye contact with him and with each other. Their small conspiracy at his expense had been the stuff of comedy, not tragedy, he saw that now. George hummed happily to himself as he picked up the bag of sunflower seeds from the window ledge and set out to replenish the bird table. After that he thought he would enjoy a little walk into town, perhaps taking in Appletree House on his way, if the weather stayed fine.

About the author

Jane Spirit lives in Suffolk and has written academic articles and edited academic books from time to time, but has only recently ventured into writing fiction


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