Museum of the Year
“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.
PLEASED AS PUNCH
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.”
EVERY INCH A SUCCESS
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
Simon, Sue and curator Jan Holloway
A clay pipe - Santa or Napoleon