Small town museums, or museums of small towns?

Today we escaped the hustle and bustle of big city (ok, Leicester) life, and headed down to the pretty little town of Market Harborough, in search of charity bookshops, cake and the wonders of its local museum. Harborough Museum was full of visitors having a great time – kids (ok, and some grown-ups) dressing up and exploring baskets of toys, and lots of people reading finding out about local life and the history of the town. But it did make me wonder: why do small town museums focus almost universally on their local area?

Now, I’m no expert on the history of museums, so I’m sure there will be lots of people out there who can correct me on this. But I was under the impression that museums, and the collections they originated from, came about because of an interest in the wider world. This may have been due to an individual’s interest in ‘the exotic', or it may have been because a group, such as a Lit and Phil Society, had an educational agenda. For example, Leicester’s New Walk Museum has, amongst other things, an Ancient Egypt collection, German Expressionist art, and Natural History from around the globe.

Were these collections of not from round here things only ever found in bigger city museums? Have the small town museums always been concerned with charting their own history, and nothing beyond? Or was there some point in the 20th Century when these small town museums (or maybe the town Councils that ran them) decided that anything that wasn’t directly connected to their own locale was outside of their ‘collections policy’ and must therefore (rather sinisterly, in the museum parlance) be disposed of?

It’s not that I have anything against finding out about a town’s history. Harborough Museum has recently done a fantastic job of displaying the Hallaton Treasure, a haul of Roman coins found by a metal detectorist in Leicestershire in 2000. The exhibition was nicely done and interesting, and we had fun trying on replica Roman helmets. And of course, looking back at times past is certainly a way of stepping outside of the here and now.

Or at least a way of stepping outside of the ‘now’. But these small museums rarely step outside of the ‘here’. Maybe there isn’t the physical space, but it does give the impression that they simply aren’t interested. There’s so much world out there; why should these museums be so concerned with navel gazing? Are people in small towns so lacking in a sense of self that they need this historical reassurance, and nothing else? Don’t they, and their children, deserve to find out about the world beyond the green belt? Or do we now think that all of this can be done through TV, the internet, and foreign holidays, and that these museums should only be concerned with a narrowly geographical focus on history?

I know now is probably not the time to be calling for massive change to small town museums. Heaven knows, with all the funding cuts, they have enough to deal with. But in the longer term I’d love to see them just show a little bit more excitement and interest in the world outside. I want to go to one of these museums and be genuinely surprised by what I find there, and to feel like that museum has actually expanded my own world.

Just because a museum is named after a town, it doesn’t mean that that town needs to be the only subject in the museum. Does it? Surely it should be a museum for the town, as well as a museum of the town. Or are there lots of smaller museums out there that manage this, and I’ve just not been to them? Come on, prove me wrong!

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