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 yo



It is tempting to describe Stella Mitchell’s Land of Lost Content as an Aladdin’s Cave. Tempting, but hopelessly inadequate in conveying its scale. Aladdin’s Endlessly Sprawling Department Store would be closer, were everything for sale. Better just to deal in unvarnishe­d figures: 33 individual­ly themed displays – nursery years, holidays, cleaning, haberdashe­ry, etc – stretching out over three floors of a handsome former corn merchant’s in Shropshire, charting the ephemera of everyday life since Victorian times. Ask the curator how many items are collected here and she’ll reply “I don’t know, but it’s got to be in the millions. And you’ve only seen half of it – there are 14 storerooms, easily as much again.”

A signed photo of an impossibly youthful Julie Andrews. Eveready batteries. Woodbines. Sheet music for a 1910 song called ‘Don’t Go Down in the Mine, Dad’. Cliff

Richard magazine circa 1959. Notice to wartime evacuees: ‘Children to remain in village hall until they are chosen by their prospectiv­e foster parents. Those not chosen before midday will receive a bowl of soup.’ These pages could comprise nothing but random examples of wares on display and still only hint at the breadth of Stella’s collection.

“I’m doing this because ordinary people’s lives were being discarded and forgotten about for years,” she explains. “Victorian stuff was being thrown on bonfires, nobody worried about the past in the least. When I was seven, I bought some carte de visite* photograph­s from a jumble sale. I thought, ‘Someone’s got to look after these photograph­s or these people will be forgotten.’ I’m still doing it.”

If the fuel for the museum was sourced in childhood, ignition came courtesy of the man who designed The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album cover. “I stood, aged 18, in front of Peter Blake’s ‘Toy Shop’ exhibition at the new Hayward Gallery and knew Damascus was down the road. I was knocked out by the idea you could put little plastic toys in a display and call it art.”

For Stella, the idea was first realised in 1987 with an exhibition of her collection at Walsall Museum. Shortly after, husband Dave made good his promise to build her a museum. ‘Rejectamen­ta’ opened in 1991 and was housed in a 12th century church: “Fine,” says Stella, “but it didn’t have toilets. Not very conducive for coach parties of old ladies.” So Dave built another – a “huge greenhouse” with a leaky roof on the south coast – and, finally, this extraordin­ary Shropshire honeycomb in

“I’m doing this because ordinary people’s lives were being discarded and forgotten about for years”

which his movement sensor lighting system has Stella telling visitors: “Don’t go veering off at tangents thinking ‘That looks interestin­g’ – it’s like Ikea, you’ve got to go the right way.”

Her brother found the building. “He said, ‘The only problem is it’s in Craven Arms’. I said ‘There’s nothing wrong with that, it’s right in the middle of the country’.” The museum takes its name from AE Housman’s 1896 cycle of poems, ‘A Shropshire Lad’, the pertinent verses chalked on the towering revolving blackboard in the schooldays display: “... the land of lost content / I see it shining plain / The happy highways where I went / And cannot come again”.

Stella’s love of nostalgia is more clear-eyed than the museum name might suggest. “People say: ‘That’s what’s different today, nobody’s content’. It’s always old people that say it because they think they were content when young, but they weren’t necessaril­y.” And there’s nothing rose-tinted about the glass cabinet in which the curator’s sign reads: ‘Ignorance is no defence... we really should have known better’. It is a collection of toy gollies, ‘theatrical negro’ pancake makeup, and the like. “The story of gollies is outrageous, disgusting, but you can’t stop them having existed,” says Stella. Elsewhere there’s a signed photo of Jimmy Savile. “I’ve had arguments with people who say: ‘How dare you?’ but this is warts and all. Other museums won’t take birds’ eggs, but little boys collected them years ago and I’ve got three collection­s. You can throw them away, but it doesn’t destroy the fact people collected them.”

The point, she insists, is to learn from the past, not to airbrush it. No matter the topic, in the Land of Lost Content revisionis­m is a four-letter word. “Why do people look at photos of themselves in the 70s and say ‘ What was I thinking of, wearing those flares?’ I cannot understand that. Why do you think that beige anorak you’re wearing now is sensible?”

Stella was altogether happier with a comment from another recent visitor: “He said ‘It’s just like the V& A, you’ve got everything’.” Similar in content, maybe, but approach? Not so much. The ethos behind the Craven Arms collection is neatly illustrate­d when talk turns to a pewter cup engraved ‘Butlin’s Clacton 1939’.

“Isn’t it nice?” says Stella. “Four pounds, that was, at Churchstok­e car boot sale. Maybe it was a knobbly knees contest winner. I don’t know and I don’t care. If you want to know, Google it. I don’t do facts.” Instead, a scattering of labels, such as that on a 1929 polling booth. “I bought that at Oswestry Antique & Collectors Fair – it’s on tomorrow actually, but don’t go expecting to find a 1929 polling booth because you won’t. That’s the great thing about fairs, you don’t know what you’ll find. And that’s what drives me on, finding things that nobody has bothered with yet.”

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 ??  ?? Appropriat­ely for its location, the museum’s name is taken from AE Housman’s ‘The Shropshire Lad’
Appropriat­ely for its location, the museum’s name is taken from AE Housman’s ‘The Shropshire Lad’

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