Micromuseology

The cornice Museum web jpg

The Cornice Museum of Ornamental Plasterwork, Peebles.

Rocketlauncher lurgan history museum web jpg

Deactivated  RPG7 Rocket-propelled grenade launcher as used by the IRA. Lurgan History Museum.

Colbost Croft Museum web jpg

Colbost Croft Museum and ticket office, Skye.

During the 1970s and 1980s around sixteen hundred new museums opened in the United Kingdom. Reflecting upon these fledgling organisations, Kenneth Hudson, the author of several comprehensive guidebooks to museums, remarked that the majority had three traits in common: they were small, they were financially independent of the state, and they concentrated on single subjects or themes that fell outside the academic disciplines. Whereas traditional institutions had titles such as the Montreal Museum of Fine Art or the National Ethnographical Museum, these new foundations were called the Gas Museum or the European Museum of Asparagus. For Hudson, this development was so significant that it amounted to ‘a revolution—the word is not an exaggeration—in museum philosophy and its practical application’.

Although small independent single-subject museums—which I have dubbed micromuseums—certainly transformed the sector, I do not share Hudson’s view that they revolutionised ‘museum philosophy’, or museology as it is commonly known. Indeed, it is striking how little attention micromuseums have attracted from academics. During the 1980s and 1990s, they were treated as symptoms of wider social trends and individual organisations were not discussed in any detail. More recently, a few scholars have written about micromuseums in relation to themes of community, but discussions about curation, the idea of the museum, its architecture, and audiences invariably concentrate on large institutions. This research therefore started with the question: could the study of micromuseums ‘revolutionise’ museology?

At the beginning of my Leverhulme Fellowship, I hired a campervan and drove from London to Yorkshire, up the east coast of Scotland, across to Skye and then travelled by ferry to Ireland, before returning via Wales. Along the way, I visited micromuseums that are dedicated to subjects as diverse as the eighteenth-century novelist Lawrence Sterne, Victorian science, ornamental plasterwork, vintage wirelesses, crofts, and the Irish Republican Army. These collections are located in their owners’ homes, in converted shops, cottages, and on business premises. Some were packed with objects, whereas others had scant displays. Labelling or wall texts were marked by their absence, but in each case a member of staff supplied information or responded to enquiries. Visitors arrived, as did fellow enthusiasts, friends, and the curators’ families. Tours segued into other topics and staff variously chatted about subjects as diverse as conceptual art, school teaching, animals falling into lime-pits, Solway Firth, the pros and cons of living in Skye, having famous children, and miscarriages of justice. Cigarettes were lit and food consumed, sometimes over the museum cases.

Few of the venues I visited comply with basic professional standards of collections care, display, or interpretation. Nonetheless, these small-scale ventures are repositories of knowledge and sites of do-it-yourself innovation. Visiting them can be a funny, genuinely participative, surprising, or challenging experience. Taking them seriously potentially changes accepted conventions of what museums are, what they do, and who runs them. 

Dr Fiona Candlin
Birkbeck, University of London