27: Struggling for a strapline: A Place for Learning

There was a time when museums sat quietly in the centre of their town, opening their doors to welcome the occasional researcher or local enthusiast.  Now we are part of the local tourism industry, as well as a resource for local people, and we see our role as supporting well-being and identity as well as learning.  How can we make this clear to  potential visitors googling for things to do?  We need a good “strapline”.

Here in Barnstaple, the North Devon Athenaeum started life as quite an academic institution, open to all but mostly used by the upper middle classes or those seeking to “better themselves”.  William Frederick Rock, the founder, encouraged promising individuals like the postman poet, Edward Capern, to make use of its books, but the “good behaviour” was expected.  He specifically refused to have a Ladies’ Room as he felt it would end up as a place for gossip and interviewing servants – so you can see that even the higher classes could not be relied upon to behave appropriately!


The Athenaeum was a refounding of the Barnstaple Literary and Scientific Institute – a membership organisation including the local vicars, doctors, lawyers and other professional men, who met to broaden their knowledge of the latest discoveries.  The collections they accumulated include phrenological heads (for reading bumps to discover people’s characters).  They also donated the collections they themselves made as amateur geologists, naturalists and archaeologists, so that the museum now holds many thousands of important rocks, flowers and insects from our local area.

By the time I joined the (now council-run) museum in 1990 museum knew that we must be all about learning – but not just in the sense of the “Learned Gentlemen” who founded the Literary and Scientific Institute.  While we still have professional geologists and archaeologists visiting and consulting our collections,  learning now is for everyone, from the early years on as well as academics.  The National Curriculum, which came into schools in September 1989 seemed to open up all kinds of opportunities, especially around the Second World War and Victorians Life, both areas where museums often have lots of “stuff”.  For the last 30 years we have both gone out to schools and also invited learners of all ages into the museum, with play days and other learning activities often spilling out onto the Square.

Our new building will give us a space big enough to work with a whole call of schoolchildren at the same time, and with new resources an activities we will be an even bigger and better place for learning.

And that includes for “Learned Gentlemen”.

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