Hidden Treasure Trail 4 - The People's Museum In The East Of England

By Caroline Lewis | 15 May 2006
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Welcome to the Hidden Treasure Trails on Culture24, exploring the hidden treasures of the People’s Museum.

The BBC TV series People’s Museum explores the most fascinating objects on show at museums all over the country and asks the viewer to vote for their favourites - what they would put on display in a museum. A masterful portrait, a scientific first, or perhaps a touching journal? It's up to the people!

Culture24 is revisiting the featured venues and more, taking another look at at some of the amazing artefacts also featured in the People's Museum programme.

We have arranged them into region-by-region trails. Read on to discover some of London’s rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

Many people don’t know how many fascinating treasures are to be found in the east of England’s wealth of museums and galleries – did you know for example that you could find a massive whale skeleton at Cambridge's Museum of Zoology? Also in Cambridge, exploring the Fitzwilliam reveals a large archive of Handel artefacts and rare Roman coins struck by Brutus among its array of art and antiquities.

Norfolk’s Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse makes you glad you never had to step foot in this harsh institution and includes many interesting items of social history. What about the mammoth at Cromer Museum, teapots at Norwich Castle or gladiators in Colchester?

Starting in that well-known seat of study in the East of England, the city of Cambridge, there are two fine university museums.

The Museum of Zoology is within the university Department of Zoology, and the exhibits are used in teaching. Fittingly, it has one of the most significant zoological collections in the world, including fossils, shells, insects and birds from every continent - it's dodo skeleton has made it onto the list of nominees for the People's Museum. Built up largely in the late 19th century the collection represents a key period in the development of modern biology.

black and white photo of a beached whale surrounded by crowds

The beached finback whale at Pevensey in 1865. Courtesy the Museum of Zoology.

The most startling display is the massive skeleton of a finback whale – the second largest living mammal on earth (the blue whale is the largest). Washed up on the Sussex coast at Pevensey in 1865, the Cambridge finback is also one of the largest specimens recorded by man – marvel at all 20 metres (70 feet) of it!

Historically important as well as academically interesting are 12 finches collected from the Galapagos Islands on Darwin’s Beagle voyage. When returned to the UK, they were worked on by the pre-eminent ornithologist John Gould, contributing to the development of Darwin’s theory.

The Fitzwilliam Museum is the University of Cambridge’s art museum, founded with the bequest of the VIIth Viscount Fitzwilliam of Merrion in 1816. Its fine collection takes in antiquities from Ancient Egypt and Greece, sculpture and furniture, coins, manuscripts and paintings. It also contains Isaac Newton's scientific notebook, which is in the running for the People's Museum.

photo of a silver coloured coin featuring two daggers, a helmet and the legend Eid Mar

The Ides of March coin struck by Brutus. Courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Viscount Fitzwilliam was a huge fan of the English composer Handel, organising a festival of his music at Westminster Abbey in 1784. As well as the autographs the Viscount collected, the museum holds a cabinet full of Handel’s manuscripts, including the 1711 opera Rinaldo.

Going back a couple of thousand years and delving into the museum’s coin collection you will find the most famous and rarest of Roman coins. In 43 – 42 BC, Brutus had the Ides of March denarius struck, with two daggers and the words EID MAR on one side around the ‘liberty cap’ given to freed slaves, symbolising how the assassination of would-be king Caesar had freed the Roman people.

Also represented at the Fitzwilliam is the work of Elizabethan portrait painter Nicholas Hilliard, whose miniatures offer an intimate document of faces of the time. He was Elizabeth I’s favourite artist and painted both her and leading figures such as Sir Francis Drake and Sir Walter Raleigh.

small oval portrait of an Elizabethan lady with a lace neck ruff

A miniature by Hilliard of a lady of the Elizabethan court. Courtesy the Fitzwilliam Museum

Deeper in East Anglia, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse takes visitors back to Norfolk of a different age with stories of life on the land and in the harsh conditions of the workhouse. Life might have been difficult in the site’s heyday of the late 19th and early 20th century, but now Gressenhall provides a great outing for families with re-created period cottages, rare breeds for animal-lovers and space for kids to play - its early combine harvester is one of the items to be voted on for the People's Museum.

Among the artefacts collected from all over the region to illustrate life in Norfolk down the ages is a witch bottle from the 17th century. Bottles like this, found near the Tumble Down Dick public house at Woodton, were buried beneath the doors of cottages in the hope they would keep witches from entering. They were usually filled with urine or nail clippings. Whether they were effective, who knows?

photo of a broken ceramic bottle with fragments inside it

The witch bottle at Gressenhall. Courtesy the Museum of Norfolk Life

Punishment for misdemeanors in the workhouse surely had an effect, even if it was only to make an inmate more miserable. There is a log of what happened to individuals who stole food or swore at the Matron in the workhouse punishment book on show at Gressenhall. The sentences range from a day on bread and water to being sent to Norwich prison.

A cheerier exhibit is a classic Burton caravan from 1908 used by circus showmen. The museum doesn’t have much more information on the caravan, so would love to hear more about it from anyone in the know!

photo of a brightly painted caravan

The mysterious Burton circus caravan. Courtesy the Museum of Norfolk Life

Moyse’s Hall Museum at the Market Place in Bury St Edmunds was built in 1180 and helps to trace the history of west Suffolk. Since the closure of the nearby Manor House Museum it has received several new treasures, including the marine chronometer, which is up for voting into the People’s Museum and revolutionised maritime navigation.

One of the first international fashion houses didn’t come from Paris or Milan, but originated in Bourne, Lincolnshire, as the House of Charles Frederick Worth. Worth lived from 1825-1895 and made the shift from the old fashioned dressmaker towards a more modern style of fashion designer.

Worth dressed the rich and famous like the Empress Eugenie and the actress Sarah Bernhardt and the museum has a magnificent court presentation dress, made in about 1895. He was known for removing excessive ruffles and frills and using rich fabrics in simple but flattering outlines.

Another interesting item at the museum is its Mary Beale self-portrait. Beale was the first woman in England to make a successful living as a professional artist and painted many high society portraits in the late 17th century. This portrait made in the mid 1670s places Beale in the pose of Britannia – but instead of a spear she holds a shepherd’s crook, and the surrounding scene is pastoral, not warlike.

painting of a woman in a long dress in a woodland scene holding a shepherds crook

Mary Beale as Britannia. Courtesy St Edmundsbury Heritage Service

More museums with fascinating collections to be found in the East of England...

Head for the north coast of Norfolk and you’ll find Cromer Museum, re-opened in 2005. The museum has a dramatic exhibit to rival Cambridge’s finback whale in the 600,000-year-old West Runton Elephant, a sort of mammoth. Discovered on West Runton beach in the early 1990s, the fossil elephant was pieced together from scattered but well-preserved bones.

Inland, Norwich Castle has the world’s largest collection of ceramic teapots! Numbering almost 3,000, they date back to the 17th century. Walking through the collection is like being transported from the real world to an Alice in Wonderland set.

Luton Museum in Wardown Park recently acquired the Wenlock Jug, beating some of the world’s biggest institutions to bring the royal jug close to its birthplace. This will join the eclectic collection in the middle of Wardown Park covering all sorts of local history.

Further south amongst the vibrant displays of Colchester Castle and Museum stands the Colchester Vase, with scenes of Roman gladiator fighting. Recent excavations of the Roman circus prove that the maker probably created the vase after witnessing the fights.

Click here to go to the BBC People's Museum website and find out more about the featured objects.

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The Hidden Treasure Trails have been produced for The Campaign for Museums by Culture24 with support from the Foyle Foundation.

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