In our search for a “strapline” we have realised that providing opportunities for learning is not our only role, and certainly not what makes us unique. Museums are primarily about real physical things, and as the world becomes more and more digital, so that even once-sacred family photograph albums are few and far between, it is the physical collections that remain our main reason for existence.
We have many thousands of “things” in the museum, although our acquisition policy makes sure we do not take in everything that comes our way. We focus on North Devon, promising to look after those bits and pieces of our natural and human history that make our area special for ever. For ever is a very long time.
Some years ago, as museums struggled to make themselves appealing and relevant to all kinds of visitors there was a realisation that we have not always used our collections as well as we might have done. In particular, children were often ill-served by unwelcoming buildings with most of the collections shut away behind glass. Often there were either no explanations or too much.
In 1998 John Pearce wrote a book consolidating some of the recent changes in museums, which introduced the idea that we should become Centres for Curiosity and Imagination. He asked “When is a museum not a museum?” And answered, “When it’s a Children’s Discovery Centre, Imaginarium, Wonder Workshop, Exploratory, a Please Touch Gallery, or a Discovery Factory”. Family friendly displays are now the norm in most museums, and children are at the heart of our activity programmes, especially in a tourist area like North Devon where it occasionally rains during the summer months.
Our new extension will include elements in the displays that engage people who might prefer to learn from films or audio, and opportunities to touch and handle some of our objects. We will try to go a bit further than just creating quizzes and games that keep the kids quiet, and pose questions that open up new thoughts and conversations.
We are still a treasure house of objects – things used and made by North Devon people over the last 500 years, as well as plants, animals and fossils from our beautiful natural environment. And these things can stimulate Curiosity and Imagination in people of all ages. Increasingly, artists are exploring museum collections to inspire their work.
Sometimes it’s hard to see the individual trees in a forest, but we need to make space for individual visitors to make connections with individual objects. It may be a Brannam vase in our Art Pottery gallery that will inspire a future potter, or a butterfly in a cabinet that provokes someone into a lifetime of care for their environment. It is the curiosity our collections spark that sometimes can change peoples’ lives.