Pubs and supermarkets host museum's Kentish Delights as touring campaign begins in county

By Ben Miller | Updated: 10 September 2010
A close-up photo of an old rollerboot
Historic roller boots from the Herne Bay Museum form one of the Kentish Delights
It's not every day you find a Wetherspoon pub sneaking an entire opera house into its dining area. The mid-afternoon lunchers at the one in Tunbridge Wells certainly seem blissfully unaware of the rows of seating above their heads, where photographers are watching looped films of bygone Kent on a big screen courtesy of the South East Film Archive.

On the stage beneath, guests are eyeing up brimming jam jars supplied by members of the Women’s Institute, laid out alongside a paddle used to stir the confection in ancient times procured from Sittingbourne Heritage Museum. Local sausages and ales are being passed around, and a folk band sparks up to play an ode.

We’re here for the launch of Kentish Delights, a franchise working with 34 museums across the county to take a raft of objects to "unusual" venues. Having sampled the local delicacies, we’re led down the rainy street outside by a pair of comic female thespians who could pass for a conjoined Pippi Longstocking hybrid.

A few doors down, they invite us into a trailer resembling a cross between a mobile library and a magic bus, offering videos, brochures and tactile insights into the huge number of heritage sites coursing through the vast local region.

A photo of a mobile van with people inside
A trailer will tour Kent as part of the campaign
Further downtown, in the old shopping alleys of the Pantiles, a set of cases stand innocuously at the end of a small shopping centre, holding curiosities including a portrait of Sir William Courtenay, a 19th century protagonist whose claim to be the immortal King of Jerusalem may go some way to explaining why he was known as Mad Tom.

The piece is one of dozens of exhibits scattered in unsuspecting locations throughout the Garden of England, accompanied by a glossy A4 celeb-style magazine positioning them as gossip material.

"If you've got someone inside a museum and you've captured their eye, then you've done your job," explains Polly Harknett, one of the curators of the project. "It's totally different here – this project is about the first stage of engagement, breaking down the barriers of museums.

A photo of a cartoon inside a display case
The campaign takes museum favourites into commercial spaces
"The type of person who might read a celebrity magazine might not correlate with the sort of person who would go to a museum.

"Some people might be slightly embarrassed about picking up these magazines, but there's no shame in this one."

The brief, she says, was to reach "non-users" of museums, taking to local supermarkets and boozers in a bid to earn mass appeal. Initiated by Tunbridge Wells Museum, the plan started out as a typical scheme to fill empty shops with art and artefacts, but branched out after that was considered too restrictive.

A photo of a case holding exhibits
Mad Tom takes to a shopping centre
"What we wanted to do was to take the cases to places where people already spend their leisure time or go to anyway," says Harknett. Distracting shoppers is no easy task. "When you're competing in a commercial environment you have to really look at the way the objects are displayed and what’s going to make people look at them. As soon as you put a label next to an object it's going to put people off," points out co-curator Suzie Plumb.

"We've had a hell of a lot of goodwill from people, they've been really up for it. While we've been installing this week we've had loads of people coming up to ask what we're doing, because it's so odd to see a museum case going up in their local pub. It's an opportunity for us to be vocal about these lovely objects."

Where opera in a budget alehouse was unexpected, a set of Anglo-Saxon neckbeads and cartoons of Spitfires by Vic Reeves seem positively apparitional inside the unassuming Duke of York pub.

A photo of a bird
A Sandwich Tern courtesy of Canterbury Museums Group
"We tried to be very non-museum like," says Harknett. "We know it's offputting to go up to a case and have wordy labels next to objects, so why not put them in a celebrity gossip magazine and let them tell their stories in the same way the latest story on Jordan is told?"

Part of it is about testing the water. "We need to start looking at whether it works. This project is a great way of generating discussion within the museum profession about the way forward and what we might like to try in the future."

Initially running until February next year, the campaign marks the results of fruitful negotiations with everyone from Gillingham Football Club to local Gurkha communities.

"There'll be a reaction to it of 'you're dumbing down' and 'how can you take that object and put it there?'" accepts Plumb.

"But I think museums have to do this – this is the way forward, we have to get out to the people. If we can make their day a little bit brighter by putting a museum case out and exposing them to something they wouldn't normally see, it’s going to be a success."

Watch Polly Harknett and Sue Plumb introduce the collection:

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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