The Simple Things
Who doesn’t enjoy the quirks of an independent museum? They alone celebrate aspects of life that other institutions may choose to pass over. This series asks curators of the UK’s most unusual galleries and collections to share their highlights and take you on a private tour, and perhaps persuade you to visit in person… PATRICK COOK THE BAKELITE MUSEUM WILLITON, SOMERSET
It isn’t hard to understand the appeal of always chasing the latest technology. The thrill of the new and all that. But there’s nothing discerning about repeatedly replacing what you’ve got with a younger model. Certainly, no one ever mistook it for romance. No, the romantic life is to eschew age and fashion and make choices based on genuine connection. Consider the tale of a young lad in the 1960s: “I was on a paper round and saw a radio in the shop. The shopkeeper said ‘Oh, you don’t want that, it’s Bakelite, you want one of these nice veneered walnut ones’. He was adamant.”
And he was wrong. Patrick Cook wanted Bakelite. Almost half a century later, that hasn’t changed. He has a few more Bakelite radios these days. Them, and gramophone horns, irons, telephones, cooking ranges, picnic hampers, those hooded salon hairdryers that made it look like old ladies were being beamed to another planet as they were having their rinses done, and a few thousand other artefacts that comprise the Bakelite Museum. What was the appeal? “It was associated with the Depression: dull, miserable, dark, smelly material. It was the underdog.” And while first generation Bakelite was indeed “thick and treacly,” it was not without beauty, as some early bowls evince. “Look at these rich autumnal colours, burgundies, greens. Once they’re polished, you can almost look into them.”
Bakelite was patented in 1907 by a BelgianAmerican chemist called Leo Baekeland. Inexpensive, non-flammable, mouldable – it was revolutionary. “Baekeland described it as ‘the material of a thousand uses’, which was an understatement. It changed lives. If we hadn’t got it, things would still be made in wood, china, metal – it enabled luxury products to become everyday items.”
Trained at art college under Peter Blake, Patrick exhibited his nascent Bakelite collection at London’s ICA in the early 70s – “a parody of a museum with despised and unliked objects” – before opening a museum proper and becoming recognised as the material’s foremost expert: exhibitions at the V& A and the Science Museum, books, radio and TV appearances.
In 1995, he headed west to the Somerset village of Williton and arranged his collection amid an altogether earlier example of cutting edge technology: a watermill. “I much prefer rustic,” says Patrick. “My drawings are to do with things that are overgrown. When I go to
“Donations are out of control. You wake sometimes and there’s a hairdryer on the doorstep”
shows, I’m drawn to vintage cars that have gone a little bit rusty, not gleaming.” So it is that radios sit on the mill’s original cogs, heaters only partially obscure the hopper where grain fed to grindstone, and charm emanates from a scarcely smaller collection of nooks and crannies.
Today, exhibits include other vintage plastics: vulcanite, celluloid, shellac, and so forth. It is, says Patrick, “the antidote to modern museums. I purposely under-curate. It’s patchy on the labels. I don’t want people going round reading them and not looking at the objects. I went to see the Georgia O’Keeffe exhibition at Tate Modern. Great show, but people were going round photographing the labels and not standing back. You end up with a facsimile of the real thing, but you’ve lost the point.
“Museums are over-designed. Objects are removed so that you’re presented with one object and one story. If you go to a gallery like [Bristol’s] Arnolfini, it’s so minimal it almost bores you to tears. Space says an awful lot about the product, and I’ve done the opposite. I’m saying, ‘Actually, this is not so important, because I’ve crammed them all together’. The risky thing is tactility – people touching things, and they drop. I probably lose about 2% a year.” Happily, at least as a far as everyday ware is concerned, Patrick isn’t lacking for replacements. “Donations are out of control. You wake sometimes and there’s a hairdryer on the doorstep, an electric fire. More bizarrely, you go to the museum and people have moved things, put objects in, occasionally with a label. It’s genuinely the people’s museum.”
Just occasionally, you sense, he’d be happy if the people would keep it. “Other work – painting, sculpting – has been put aside. The museum has taken all my time away.” His partner Imogen is away acting in London when we call, and there’s a lot to do. While we’re sitting over an unhurried pot of tea in the courtyard, Patrick is routinely getting up to warmly welcome visitors, and once we’re away there’ll be donations to clean and tearoom scones to bake. Back in the 1990s, he invented the vehicle sitting next to us – something he hoped would be his salvation. Teardrop shaped, silver, the pod caravan is brilliant in its own right. “I’d work here until four or five o’clock, then go to my workshop and work until midnight making those to pay for the museum, but it didn’t add up.” He made 70 before selling the business seven years ago.
And yet. Bakelite was Patrick’s first love and, misgivings aside, it will surely be his last. Witness his evident delight when we pick out a model of a 1920s land speed record holding car. “A lot of people bypass what I’m really proud of. It cost a lot of money. I gauge everything by how many cream teas and scones I sell – that was probably 48 scones. That’s why the everyday is good, because the landmarks are really special.” bakelitemuseum.net