Saturday, 20 June 2015

Hands on ....but not at Bromley Museum

This week I spent a thoroughly absorbing morning at Bethlem Museum of the Mind visiting both the Gallery and Museum which had a "hands on" experience with items from the Bethlem  collection. I would describe the many items displayed as relatively easy to work out through to complete mysteries.
It is worth bearing in mind that the the archive is from the oldest psychiatric hospital in the world and therefore objects which remain unclassified and mysterious can come from eighteenth or twentieth century use.
This was also an opportunity for me to meet the wonderful Renia Jenkins who had set visitors the challenges. Some of the items took me back to my childhood early memories. I soon recognised a familiar small object and recalled my grandmother in Staffordshire who cooked on a black lead range with a kettle suspended over the open grate and three ovens;one was a slow oven which cooked rice pudding,another was the bread oven and this is where I learned to bake. The third oven was for roasting etc. Of course the lead range the precursor of the beloved Aga cooker (on which my mother worked as a housekeeper) needed to be black leaded regularly and there at Bethlem was Zebra which my grandmother used! I began to think of the Lambeth site of the hospital and of the kitchen and laundry for the hospital.
As well as some scientific items one a mysterious glass measuring jar marked in both different spoon sizes and liquid measures. The glass was however not open at the top and possessed a shoulder and angled opening. Renia said that this had bemused dispensing chemist historians and the purpose remains a mystery. A fascinating object and I wondered roughly what period the manufactured glass had come from. My memory of Bethlem's apothecary until the Asylum reforms at Lambeth in the 1850's had me wondering who had used the measuring device. An intriguing conundrum and it was a lesson in the challenge of catalogue descriptions for such artefacts.
Renia had another challenge in the shape of a cast iron object with 4 clearly constructed holes for fixing either vertically or horizontally. A plain functional hinged handle opened around three different diameter openings. As I handled the object it felt natural for me for this object to be mounted vertically somewhere as the handles seem inclined to hang and form a closure. The black painted cast iron was decorated with a foliage pattern. A true mystery of the kind that you keep turning over in your mind.
When I returned online I emailed a USA based genealogist who I knew had knowledge of Pennsylvania cast iron manufactured savings boxes and other items and gave a verbal description of the Bethlem object. I was delighted with the response as I was able to pass on to Renia what the mystery item was.
 This item is more elaborate than the simpler Bethlem version whose handle was plain cast iron. The catalogue description of the cast iron Crimpier was as follows
American, 19th century figural crimpier or flutter in the form of three footed foliage base with hinged top, upon which is winding snake with head raised and acting as handle; opens to reveal 4 graduated vertically fluted cylinders, in old, if not original black paint; cast intaglio mark on base J. Monis Co./Phil.; 10" long x 5.4" wide x 3.25" high.
The Bethlem item is therefore from the laundry of the hospital and was designed to hold 3 sizes of cast iron rollers for use in ironing collars. It's date and manufacture are not known. What was not present at Bethlem was the other parts of the equipment which would have been heated in a fire and then the roller would have gained heat from the roller base. The roller would be tested on paper for sufficient heat to perform the ironing function.
Renia has contacted me since my visit and found herself "grateful cross and delighted" at my finding what this mystery object was for. My first point in this blog is to emphasise that I was a member of the public offered a hands on experience by Bethlem Museum and that this is the very essence of museum collections that something historical which is not recognised or understood by the present generation has value in describing the social history of earlier generations. In over 6 decades of life I am still learning about my forebears through the opportunites to handle and visit artefacts in collections and what a collection Bethlem possesses!
Which brings me to a second point the sad subject of Bromley Museum. Prolific blogger and museum volunteer Tincture of Museum has described the decision of councillors on the Executive this month to close Bromley Museum from 1 October 2015 see Bromley Museum Lost
The Bromley Museum service has offered artefacts to 60 schools in the large London borough who are required within the National Curriculum to study various periods of history. The strength of Bromley Museum has been the work of its Education officer (soon to be redundant) in providing museum based activities during school holidays and hands on experience in schools and Museum. Those elected councillors who have ended the Museum have denied access to the collections by learners of all ages but have certainly disadvantaged the rising generation of Bromley Residents.
Bromley proposes to offer two display spaces in the Central Libray although there will be no curator. Bromley Central Library is a building which has been underfunded for decades. It's external cladding of small tiles tinkles down due to weather erosion onto the Neuwied way entrance to Libray and Churchill Theatre as well as flat roofs. The fourth floor toilets have an airlock that is audible throughout all public floors of the building but councillors who demonstrably cannot distinguish between the disciplines of Archival collection and storage and curation of artefects are offering a "new and exciting" display of museum artefacts in the Library on two different floors.
As a daily researcher in the Archival material it does appear that this display is a cosmetic attempt at hiding a dogma of cutting jobs and services. Housing the John Lubbock Collection on the second floor of the building displaces other services offered and is not the most frequented area of the Library building so footfall is likely to be diminished. The Archives and Local Studies staff are committed to providing an excellent service to researchers in maps and document collections. They do not have the time or experience to answer visitors questions about The Lubbock commissioned paintings about the Paleolithic and Neolithic periods and artefacts. Staff cannot at present keep pace with tasks involved in acquisitions so the notion of dealing with museum artefacts is unreal. They do help many to locate council minutes electoral registrations at addresses, house histories, legal searches of archival material and image collections as well as service the large family history research and local history projects.
This blog has been long enough but to hear an elected councillor express that the nationally and internationally significant John Lubbock Collection including the Ernest Griset paintings commissioned by Sir John Lubbock are of little local interest (or apparent value) is lamentable. Lubbock was born and lived  at High Elms in Downe and the collection was at High Elms until surviving the fire which destroyed the house. It is subject to a deed of Covenant loaned to the public of Bromley for public display. It remains to be seen how dogma from local councillors pursuing an austerity programme will deprive local people of the collection. It is ignorance and inability to master a brief that leads a member of a council executive to voice the opinion that Sir John Lubbock 1st Lord Avebury 1834-1913 did not live at High Elms for long. There can be no dialogue with such councillors on the value of history in educating all. I would suggest that a visit to the National School at Downe (now Downe Village Hall) might be a starting point in the reeducation of Bromley Councillors.
I am grateful for the volunteers at Bromley Museum like Tincture of Museum for their contributions to the service.
 © Henry Mantell Downe Online Parish Clerk 2015