From slums to the Cistern Chapel, toilet history should go down well in Staffordshire for Museums at Night this May
It’s one of the most singular galleries in Britain: populated by pink toilet rolls you can sit on, marked out by cisterns in daisy and avocado patterns, led by commentating rats down sewers and even starring an import from Japan.
Gladstone Pottery Museum’s Flushed with Pride display also has manholes, crayon rubbings, toilet quizzes and a storytelling corner – the lavastory – for kids. Some of it smells pretty bad.
“It’s got lots of books about poo in it, which always goes down well,” says Nerys Williams, of the former Victorian factory in Stoke-on-Trent, failing to resist some of the puns floated in this homage to home comforts.
“It was a massive undertaking to get it all done because nobody had done it before. It was unprecedented, if you like.
“Some of the toilets were acquired, a lot were donated. We had such unusual ones.
“We have a see-through one so you can see what happens when you flush a toilet.
“We’ve got the Thomas Crapper seat.
“We had Laurence Llewelyn Bowen here as part of Celebrity Antiques Roadshow and they were really good fun but they were almost uncontrollable when they were talking about toilets.
“They were very clever, nice guys but it was a hot day and I think they wanted to be off down the pub.
“Eric Knowles came down for Put your Money Where your Mouth Is. He had brought a commode liner which a friend of the museum bought for us. We use it as a handling object for school visits.”
Opened in 1975, this multi-faceted museum has pot-throwing, liquid clay-casting, a Victorian doctor’s house and rooms where you can pick up the phone to hear former Potteries workers discuss Christmas parties and football.
The only site of its kind where almost everything remains complete from its Victorian peak, organisers had to produce an illustrative brochure for the benefit of visitors mistakenly expecting to see everything within an hour. And its huge cobbled courtyard proved perfect for a beer festival.
“That gave us the confidence to think booze and museums do work – people can come for a good night out,” says Williams, looking ahead to a cheeky Museums at Night event including potty-mouthed Modern Toss cartoons loaded with toilet humour, a screening of Carry on at your Convenience and experts ready to lift the lid on sanitation secrets.
“If we carry on like this our non-traditional museum audience will be bigger than our traditional one, I think.
“We like to do different things and to see ourselves as a community venue. For people who think museums aren’t for them, we want them to think there’s something they’ll find interesting and realise that generations ago their family may have worked here and it’s somewhere they can come and enjoy themselves.
“People think of the Potteries as being about cups and bowls and things like that. But it was very much all types of ceramic production.
“I’m looking out of my office window now and I can see huge industrial insulators which are made from ceramics.”
As the creators of the Cistern Chapel, the Modern Toss display “seemed like a bit of a no-brainer”.
“We have a copy of the Periodic Table of Swearing up in our staff kitchen.
“With the only toilet exhibition in the world, we’ve got to have their work here.
“We will either be auctioning, raffling or selling the prints – we haven’t decided yet.”
Museums at Night audiences are in for a shock if they think Crapper, a plumber who introduced the ballcock among his numerous 19th century inventions, is the man behind the flush system.
“He was just the best at marketing and got royal warrants, so he’s the one that was remembered,” points out Williams.
“It was the kind of thing that developed.
“Queen Elizabeth I had the first one [in 1596], but there wasn’t one person who invented the toilet.”
A recreation of a Victorian slum shows the perils still posed by less salubrious facilities, while sticking your hands in some of the giant rolls reveals the corn hubs and oyster shells used to improvise in times of desperation. Surprising and enlightening, toilet roll spindles may never seem the same again.
- Toilets by Twilight takes place on Saturday May 17, 7pm-10.30pm. Tickets £5 (includes wine or soft drink), 1970s fancy dress encouraged. Suitable for over-18s. Telephone 01782 237777 to book.
Hundreds of events take place for Museums at Night between May 15-17 2014. Visit museumsatnight.org.uk and follow the festival on Twitter @MuseumsAtNight.
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