Examining the Water End replica site. © Textile Conservation Centre
Open up the floorboards of your house, and what would you find? Dust? Mice? Or a 17th century whalebone stomacher? Hidden House History, a touring exhibition currently at Eastleigh Museum until March 4 2006, explores the curious history of deliberately hidden objects in houses.
Some of the odder items discovered behind walls, up chimneys or under floorboards include clothes, shoes, dried cats, horse skulls, bottles and charms. According to Dinah Eastop, Senior Lecturer at the Textile Conservation Centre, deliberately concealing clothes and other objects in buildings has been a tradition in Britain since the Middle Ages.
“Nobody knows for sure, because there are no records, but we think the objects were hidden to protect homes against malevolent forces," she explained. "But it’s complex. People hid things to say ‘I was here’, or to ward off witchcraft, or as an offering to local spirits.”
The Ripley Cache. © HCCMAS
Hidden House History centres around three major finds, known as caches, which have been displayed in recreations of their original hiding places. The show is interactive, so that you can discover for yourself the thrill of lifting the floorboards or peeling back the plaster to reveal a pair of 17th century stays.
The objects tended to be hidden in similar places, particularly around openings like doors, windows and chimneys. “There was considerable anxiety associated with points of entrance, and we think the objects were hidden to protect against anything coming in,” Eastop added.
As well as the caches, the exhibition brings together some of the historic objects that have been found over the years, complete with replicas for dressing up in. Children can try a replica of a 16th century boy’s blue wool doublet or a copy of the rare ‘Lucy Locket’ tie-on pocket.
Exploring under the floorboards. © Textile Conservation Centre
The exhibition has been produced in collaboration with the Deliberately Concealed Garments Project, based at the Textile Conservation Centre at Winchester School of Art. The project aims to locate, document and research finds, as well as increasing the number of finds by raising awareness of concealment practices.
As Dinah Eastop explained, “These are a very special class of objects. They are both historically significant and in a poor state of repair. Due to the nature of the circumstances in which finds happen, they can easily end up on a builder’s skip. We wanted to raise awareness about the practice, and to start a debate about what should happen to the objects.”
Examining the doublet replica. © Textile Conservation Centre
While some people will bring their finds to a museum, others throw them away, or feel superstitious about removing them from their original hiding place. Joyce Maynard, who found the Nether Wallop cache displayed in the exhibition, believes that the objects are just too important to be kept hidden.
"We did read that some people are worried about moving the objects they find, because they were put there to keep bad vibes away. We have never had any problems with this. If someone can make use of them then that is far more sensible and it would be an awful waste to leave them here."
The exhibition is proving popular with children, as well as with a more unusual category of museum visitors. According to Dinah Eastop, builders have been flocking to the show. Since builders are responsible for most of the finds, it is only to be hoped that ever more caches will come to light.
Olivia Laing is the 24 Hour Museum Renaissance Student Writer in the South East region. Renaissance is the groundbreaking initiative to transform England's regional museums, led by MLA, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council.