My Girl and I spent a couple of hours at the North Somerset Museum in Burlington Street today. The museum that the council is proposing to relocate from one of the oldest buildings in Central Weston to the Winter Gardens on the Sea Front. The museum whose potential closure is causing outrage among the local community, who have taken it upon themselves to organise protest meetings, petitions, colouring competitions and a Facebook group with hundreds of followers in a bid to halt these plans.
I haven’t yet met one person in this town who would like the move to go ahead, even if many of us didn’t manage to get to last Saturday’s 10:30 am meeting, organised by The Civic Centre, Friends of North Somerset Museum and the newly-formed Mums for the Museum, at the Blakehay Theatre. The place was packed, thankfully, so maybe we weren’t missed as much as our guilt at not being there might have indicated.
I’d rather not see the museum be ripped from its prime central position in a quiet street close to the train station and the 20 minute commute to Bristol to be dumped onto the struggling Winter Gardens bang on top of the beach, the Phenomenon-that-is-the-Grand Pier, the Wheel, the Sovereign shopping centre, the pubs and the restaurants, where everything cultural (ha!) would then be huddled together.
But I can see why the council might want to, aside from the immediate cash such a project might bring in.
See, what you have to ask yourself is … is Weston a seaside resort or a dormitory town? And is there room for both? If everything touristy was placed in the same square mile, could that free the rest of the town up for the locals?
No, you say, the museum is for locals. Yeah, I know, we are local and like I said, we were there today. I’ve got an annual membership (£4.50 per visit or £10 a year) because it’s a great place to go for someone with a three year old who loves to dress up and draw.
The first time I took the Celestial One to Burlington Street, her reaction was, to me, unexpected. It was among the most excited I have ever seen her: she’d visited once with pre-school and I think the place reminded her of her relationship with her pals. Poor, poor only child. She darted around, diving in the ‘cave’ (a tent) and pulling on the ladybird costume.
Today, her third visit, we stayed for an hour and a half. We had planned on having lunch at the Museum Café but I hadn’t realised that they only serve drinks and cake, so that’s what we had, with no protestations whatsoever from her, unsurprisingly. She was disappointed that the covered pond in the miniscule courtyard wasn’t a trampoline. She’d smelled lavender and rosemary before (I’m so boring!). She liked the magnets, not dissimilar from what we’ve got on our own fridge. Didn’t bother to dress up this time but she did find a pair of cat’s ears identical to the ones she wears every single day at pre-school, so much so that the staff say they’ve forgotten how she looks without them. She did a bit of brass rubbing. I played my role, explaining how the kitchen in Clara’s Cottage differed from our modern one, informing her that bears used to live by us in the quarry, pointing out that melted bin from the burnt out Grand Pier and showing her how to rub herbs and then sniff her fingers – again!
I showed her a photo of Anchor Head, taken back in the early twentieth century.
“Look, Lestie! Where’s that?”
“Weston-super-Mare,” she replied, barely humouring me.
“Yes, it’s where we climb the rocks, isn’t it?”
Not listening, lalalala, she skips off. The “Laughing Man” amusement machine she loved, she says, but she looked totally freaked out to me. She didn’t want to go on Sophia, the mechanical seaside horse, did that last time. She tried her hand at Punch and Judy but her monkey and polar bear puppets at home are easier to manoeuvre.
“I don’t like this game. I want to go to the library.”
And that might well be the problem with this museum as it stands, if there is one. It’s not big enough. As a social historian by trade, I’ve been to countless museums as a leisure pursuit but also as a researcher and I’m of the opinion that, where possible, museums and libraries should be in the same spot. Actually it’s difficult to believe that the museum only moved to Burlington Street 37 years ago: up until then it was squished into the our little library in Waterloo Street. This is one of the reasons that I don’t understand the sentimentality of keeping the museum where it is: it’s been there for a shorter time than I’ve been alive, though I am turning into a bit of a museum piece myself, it could be said. I do happen to think that the Gaslight is a fine building but North Somerset Council might need to consider buying up the rest of the street so it can expand.
Living in Weston-super-Mare is a bit like living in the States; its known history is limited. It’s a new town, built on the English Nineteenth Century love affair with the seaside and all the health giving properties the salty air was thought to offer. Apart from the natural history of the area, a couple of medieval churches and Priory, a scattering of Roman Villas and a most probably extremely rich but unknown ‘Iron-age’ history, there’s not much to shout about. If the history of Weston belongs to tourism, should we let tourism have the museum?
And as for the facilities at the museum itself - what about interactivity? I’ve listed some of the activities available but there might be an explanation as to why the clientele is limited to young families and pensioners (today, the only other browsers were a mum, her toddler and two people in their 70s and, last time we were there, two middle class boys with their mother). Where are the computers; that’s what kids want, isn’t it? That’s the way the world is going, for right or wrong. Celebrate Clara’s cottage but supplement her heritage with a sophisticated virtual world. Keep the amusements but compare and contrast them to World of Warcraft (or something less violent). I find it astonishing that, in 2010, our museum does not yet have its own independent website and still comes under the umbrella of North Somerset Council’s webpages, which are basic in the extreme.
My Girl is only three and she’ll get years out of the place yet and mostly it will be up to me to make it fun for her. And I might have to.