Southwold’s se­cret

Mu­seum of the Year

EADT Suffolk - - Inside -

“ARE YOU OPEN TOMORROW?” en­quires a gen­tle­man by the door most ur­gently, wide-eyed and some­what breath­less from a close and ap­par­ently all-too-swift en­counter with both Lu­cilla and Princess Au­gusta, not to men­tion an eel spear, scup­pit, grap­nel, and cham­ber-pot which prob­a­bly did its duty dur­ing the great 17th cen­tury Bat­tle of Sole Bay. “We’re off in a cou­ple of days and just didn’t know you were here,” he ad­mits. With a word of con­fir­ma­tion and warm Suf­folk smile from Sue, the stew­ard, the ‘holdee’ maker dis­ap­pears. Back tomorrow? Maybe. Or maybe not. Well, prob­a­bly . . . if it rains.

It’s just not cricket that Southwold’s min­i­mas­ter­piece of a mu­seum is all too of­ten rel­e­gated to the po­si­tion of wet-weather friend. Only an ice-cream lick or two away from the seafront, sort of sand­wiched along Vic­to­ria Street be­tween those sec­u­lar places on any Southwold pil­grim­age – Ad­nams café­s­tore and those easy-to-graze-in shops – and tucked away op­po­site that favourite take­away fish ‘n’ chips feast­ing spot, Bartholomew’s Green, it’s a great place for lo­cals and vis­i­tors to pop in and snack on of an af­ter­noon. For what­ever the weather, this tardis-like trea­sure house of­fers a re­ally rich taste of Southwold for free. And it has some­thing on its vast menu to de­light ev­ery­one, at every level.


Be­low the black leather mariner’s hat and neat rows of words and framed pic­tures colour­ing Southwold fish­ing times past, an in­quis­i­tive young vis­i­tor, fresh from ‘catch­ing a tale’, puts down her rod and takes up the in­vi­ta­tion to ‘ex­plore’, gen­tly pulling at a huge nar­row draw in the big cab­i­net. Lit­tle eyes dart, try­ing to make sense of the strange scis­sors, boxes and bits of white china. “Look Mum, look! It’s Mr Punch!” she squeals in de­light at her very own dis­cov­ery. Lit­tle mat­ter that an­other clay pipe bowl, darker,

frosted with white paint and swiftly de­clared to be ‘Santa’, is re­ally Napoleon III. It’s lit­tle things which cap­ture the imag­i­na­tion here and their care­ful group­ing which makes the con­nec­tions and tells fas­ci­nat­ing of sto­ries.

“There’s al­ways some­thing to learn here, al­ways,” en­thuses mu­seum cu­ra­tor, Jan Hol­loway, un­doubt­edly re­fer­ring to her­self just as much as any vis­i­tor. En route to the chil­dren’s spe­cial trea­sure lock­ers and in­ter­ac­tive learn­ing sta­tion lo­cated just a few paces away at the other end of the mu­seum, she points out the dress­ing-up cup­board com­plete with lit­tle army jack­ets and ser­vant smocks and shares how their Suf­folk Mu­seum of the Year ti­tle came hard on the heels of a spe­cial award for fam­ily-friendly dis­plays. No won­der the team – every mem­ber a vol­un­teer - is as pleased as punch.

“Every­thing is so well pre­sented here, be­cause we all care about it,” ex­plains Si­mon Lof­tus, his voice so gen­tle, pas­sion­ate and truly sin­cere. For years, the em­i­nent author and slightly Bo­hemian Southwold fig­ure­head for­merly of Ad­nams chair fame was the mu­seum’s pres­i­dent, very much get­ting ‘hands on’ with the re­or­gan­i­sa­tion and re­fur­bish­ment, and en­cour­ag­ing Jan from part-time stew­ard into her role as cu­ra­tor.

Nowa­days he humbly likes to re­fer to him­self as “just her as­sis­tant”, although stand­ing in front of the dis­play cab­i­nets, with eyes all a-twin­kle like the prover­bial kid in a sweet shop, it’s clear that he’s still here 100% in spirit. “My grand­daugh­ters helped set out some of the things,” he shares, point­ing to the tiny painted an­i­mals pro­cess­ing out of an ark. “It needed lit­tle fin­gers.” He smiles, then goes on to tell the story of his own hand­i­work, open­ing up and re­work­ing the Vic­to­rian doll’s house to make it more ac­ces­si­ble.”


And it’s ac­ces­si­bil­ity that has to be the key to the suc­cess of this mini-mu­seum. Over the years, the lit­tle Dutch gabled weaver’s cot­tage has been slightly ex­tended, even tak­ing over a car­pen­ter’s work­shop, but it is still tiny. With space so valu­able, every inch is home to in­trigu­ing arte­facts and ex­pla­na­tions, from stuffed bit­terns hid­ing in reedbeds up by the rafters and 19th cen­tury ship fig­ure­heads (that’s Lu­cilla and Princess Au­gusta!) look­ing down from on high, to stoneware ale bot­tles and a badger at floor level, plus a mighty Tu­dor canon rar­ity and frag­ments of Southwold’s doomed nar­row-gauge rail­way line. Even the mu­seum’s most prized ex­hibits - the long­est, best-pre­served Vik­ing war­ship steer­ing oars in the world – are some­how

most com­fort­ably ac­com­mo­dated. Mag­i­cally, every­thing has room to breathe, both in its own right, as well as in all-im­por­tant as­so­ci­a­tion with other ex­hibits. There’s even al­ways ad­e­quate space for the clear­est of ex­pla­na­tions. What’s more, the place feels light, bright, invit­ing and far from clut­tered, even though it’s full to the brim.


“When I took over as pres­i­dent six years ago, there was loads of stuff in the dirty, dark cel­lar of the Town Hall,” re­veals Si­mon, about the then ‘re­serve’ col­lec­tion, do­nated items which rarely saw the light of day due to lack of dis­play space. “We dis­cov­ered such trea­sures and the last thing we wanted was to have them all hid­den away.”

Group­ing arte­facts un­der head­line top­ics, work­ing out what might be of in­ter­est to both lo­cal and less lo­cal vis­i­tors, bring­ing items to­gether to tell Southwold’s sto­ries and make them all the more vivid and mem­o­rable – the prepa­ra­tion re­quired so the trea­sure trove could take its place in the mu­seum was a con­sid­er­able task.

Cab­i­nets of space-sav­ing pull-out dis­play draws al­lowed many smaller ex­hibits to be brought to­gether for vis­i­tors to make com­par­isons - rows of right royal coronation and an­niver­sary cups or the tini­est of trin­kets like an or­nately en­graved 10th cen­tury late Saxon clip, a glit­ter­ing 17th cen­tury gilt pen­dant, a me­dieval bronze but­ton in the shape of a heart. And with each draw tak­ing four weeks to cu­rate, it’s cer­tainly a true labour of love for Jan, Si­mon and the team.

But what’s also great about Southwold Mu­seum is all the think­ing out­side the dif­fer­ent boxes which de­liv­ers real vis­i­torex­hibit in­ter­ac­tion. Which is the more cap­ti­vat­ing fact about the beau­ti­ful 15th cen­tury, carved wooden an­gel – that it sur­vived the Ref­or­ma­tion, or that it was found stashed away in a green bin bag on the top of a vestry wardrobe? The life-size left hand made of lead is def­i­nitely a bit sin­is­ter. Me­dieval? Ro­man? Out to pro­tect against evil spir­its? Some sort of sig­nal or of­fer­ing? You de­cide.

The sinker stone which kept smug­gled casks of brandy bob­bing just be­neath the sur­face surely has tales to tell and the grotesque witch bot­tles too, once har­bour­ing grisly con­tents like pins, toe­nails, hair and who knows what else. But were they for curse or cure? Fi­nally, a lit­tle cup­board door down by the fos­sil dis­plays, ar­rests at­ten­tion with the words: ‘Ac­ci­dent or Mur­der?’ Dare to look in­side to dis­cover a flint ar­row­head lodged in hu­man ver­te­brae. Sober­ing stuff, but don’t worry dis­plays about Southwold’s brew­ing history are only a step away.

Once you start look­ing, there’s so much more lurk­ing in this lit­tle mu­seum than meets the eye. Dis­cover the long life against all odds of lifeboat hero, Sam May. See the fleets in bat­tle at Sole Bay in one fine con­tem­po­rary draw­ing and read the 1653 let­ter that paints a shock­ing pic­ture of sick and wounded mariners pulling heavy on Southwold’s purse strings. Learn of but­ter­flies, bad bailiffs, the Blyth nav­i­ga­tion, the great fire, non­con­formist con­gre­ga­tions, civic pomp and all its eye-open­ing cir­cum­stances, beach com­pa­nies, smug­glers, pi­rates, Scot­tish fisher-girls, goat cart rides and grand ho­tels. The digi­tised photo archives un­lock all sorts of se­crets and the stew­ards have their own memories to share. Love Southwold? Then make time for Southwold Mu­seum. It’s just like the town it­self – a spe­cial sort of place that you’ll want to share, again and again.

One time pres­i­dent Si­mon Lof­tus lends a hand at Southwold Mu­seum

Southwold rope maker

Southwold pump

Si­mon, Sue and cu­ra­tor Jan Hol­loway

A clay pipe - Santa or Napoleon

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