Goodbye (for now) Undersea World…


We’re coming to the end of two weeks clearing the parts of the museum that are going to be affected by the building works for the extension.  We’re not changing many of the displays, but providing a proper kitchen for the tea-room means that our “back-office” downstairs is moving into the room occupied, until last week, by the Undersea World.  We have taken out the animals and birds for re-use in the new Undersea World.

jerry undersea
Jerry Lee and the electricians from S&H Ilfracombe who installed the lighting effects in the Undersea World

The Undersea World was the brainchild of our previous Manager, Jerry Lee, who was a natural history curator who had previously worked at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum in Exeter.  It was based around the important leatherback turtle that washed up on Abbotsham Beach, and designed to highlight the importance of the UK’s first statutory marine reserve established around Lundy Island in 1986.

The animals and birds (and fish) displayed in the Undersea World are all local specimens, found in Devon.  Where possible, they were prepared by local taxidermist Paul Rose – the young grey seal found at Woolacombe, the gannets and gulls were prepared in this way.  After about 20 years on display these are now very dusty, and we will be training our collections care volunteers to clean them up a bit.

The fish and other mammals in the display are casts of real animals found locally.  Some, including the small fish, are made of plaster.  Others, like the adult and young porpoises from Northam Burrows, are resin copies made from the real animals that were washed up.  Porpoises and dolphins are regularly found around North Devon’s coast, and have to be reported to the Cetacean Stranding Investigation Program (CSIP) at the Natural History Museum, which investigates the reasons for their deaths.

The leatherback turtle itself was not a suitable specimen for either casting or stuffing.  It was already beginning to decompose when it was picked up by the RAF helicopter and it soon became apparent that the “leather” shell would not retain its dimensions as the flesh rotted down.  Fortunately, the museum team was boosted at the time the gallery was being constructed by a group of unemployed Community Action volunteers, including a glassmaker named Sarah Montague, who was up to the challenge of creating a measured reconstruction from the carcass.

Jerry and the rest of the volunteers built an underwater world from old display plinths, expanding spray foam, and hardboard with seaweed cut from sheet tin, bubblewrap and polythene.  We added a “submarine” corridor made of hardboard with mint imperials for rivets, and wonderful underwater photographs from Dr. Ann Allan.  With some cunning lighting from S&H in Ilfracombe and Paul Rose’s taxidermy, plus some whale sounds, our Undersea World came into being.

For 20 years the gallery has served us well, with only minor breakdowns and occasional anxieties about fire hazards.  Soon we will be starting to build the Undersea World Mark 2, with designer Jeff Bellingham and lots of help from Paula Ferris and the Coastwise group.  We hope it will be just as atmospheric and educational as Jerry’s original display.

Seven days to go….

It’s May 1st and we are counting down to the closing of the museum next week.  On May 7th we will be having a little farewell party to say goodbye to some of the volunteers and visitors we may not see again for some time.  We’re hoping many people will come and visit us at the Pop-Up, but its undeniable that Barnstaple will be without a proper museum for the next year or so.  I think it’s the first time since the museum opened in 1989 that we have been closed for more than a week.


I’ve been thinking back to when I first came to the museum.  It must have been in October or November 1990 when I came for my interview for the new post of Assistant Curator (Documentation).  It was a 3 1/2 year contract, on something like £7,000 a year (quite good in those days), and I was fresh out of university, having just completed my Masters degree in Museum Studies at Leicester.  My dissertation was about representations of the Roman Army in museums and featured a great life size figure, from Biggar Museum, of a Roman soldier holding a severed British head, which I thought gave a better idea of occupation than the usual baths and villas view of the Romans.  He’s probably not on display any more.

Anyway, the Romans weren’t going to help me much in North Devon, which at that time seemed to have been completely ignored by them.  I drove down to Barnstaple in my pink 1968 Triumph Herald convertible for two days of interviews and tests.  I was interviewed by Peter Boyd, the Museums Officer, who looked exactly like Charles Darwin (he later developed a career giving lectures about Darwin), plus Tom Barwise, head of car parks and many other things, and Rosemarie Pitts, the Arts Officer.  Tom warned me that people who come to North Devon often never leave, and predicted that I might fall into that group.  I’m beginning to realise now that he may have been right.

Of course, back in 1990 there was no internet, and almost no computers, so my knowledge of North Devon was very sketchy.  Careers in museums were not as fashionable as they are now, so my group of graduates were lucky that there were some jobs around – but not enough that you could pick and choose!  I had interviews in Luton, Devizes and Glasgow as well as here in Barnstaple, but I think it’s safe to say I got the right job.  I wouldn’t swap this museum for any other.


The Journey Begins

Welcome to my new blog.  On such a lovely sunny day it feels a bit strange to be thinking about packing up and closing the Museum rather than working on a new exhibition for the summer season. But this is not a normal year – 30 years after the museum opened (and nearly 29 since I started working here) we are about to embark on the massive project that will transform our Museum into a much bigger and better building.

We are, after all, bursting at the seams!

museum done 2

The Long Bridge Wing Extension will increase our public floor area by a massive 70%, giving us a better tea-room and shop, a learning room, and a lift to the First Floor.  We will have two new temporary exhibition galleries, and a new Social History Gallery that will enable us to get many more of our objects out of storage.  We are collecting stories, images and ideas from people around North Devon to help us create this new display (and we’re already a little worried it won’t be big enough).

In this blog I will be keeping you up to date with the progress of the project, explaining some of the things we do and sharing some of the excitements and frustrations that will no doubt emerge as the work progresses.  I hope you enjoy it.