Night Fever at Cambridge Museum of Technology: Culture24 on the road for Museums at Night 2009

By Rosie Clarke in Cambridge | 17 January 2009
a man dressed as a vicar gesticulating from a pulpit

(Above) Fire and brimstone from the pulpit. © Rosie Clarke / Culture24

Culture24 reporters have been hitting the road this weekend to report on Museums at Night events right across the UK. Here Rosie Clarke encounters some horribly disfigured characters looming out of the dark corners of Cambridge Museum of Technology in a story of medical innovators from the past.

Makeup artist Natalie Barden dabbed at my face, giving me hollow eyes and seaming one cheek with a piratical scar. Next to us, families listened to social historian Becky Proctor’s presentation on how Victorians dealt with cholera, but the children repeatedly peeked around in ghoulish fascination at my hideous visage.

“We can’t ever really know how filthy it really was then. We take so much for granted: baths, running water, clean clothes, even soap,” explained Becky, introducing the 'disease map' used to plot the spread of cholera around infected water pumps.

a young woman and young girl pulling faces at the camera

Rosie Clarke and Alys Chaffey-Ferdin (7) in ghoulish cholera-victim makeup. Photo © Culture24

Enthusiast John Connett, a former software engineer now part of the team of ten regulars who maintain the engines, showed me around the old pumping station that houses the museum. His particular pride are the only two working Hathorne Davey steam engines in the world.

For organiser Mark Palmer the night was a chance to show off the special qualities of the museum. “This place is fabulously atmospheric at night,” he told me. “Normally we only see that when we stay late working on the engines - it’s really lovely to share it.”

a trio of people in Victorian costumes

Victorians welcomed visitors to the event at the Pumping station. © Rosie Clarke

As dusk fell, the museum became the stage for Victorian re-enacters who explained the story of cholera through drama. A chorus of whispers filled the vast engine hall: “Death! Disease! Plague! Cholera!”

a group of people looking down from a gallery

Taking it all in from the gallery. © Rosie Clarke / Culture24

We met a member of the Sanitary Committee in a rusty velvet top hat and tweed frock coat, collecting money to buy flannel vests for the poor.

He interrogated local widow Mrs Layton about her husband’s death from the disease, which she attributed to evil omens: “An owl ‘ooted and swept low the week before he died!” she lamented.

a woman applying make up to a child

Natalie Barden creates ghoulish cholera-victim face paint. © Rosie Clarke / Culture24

Moving through different halls as the scenes unfolded, reluctant churchgoers were chastised by a brilliantined, fire-and-brimstone vicar popping up above us with a roar of “Sinners!” that made everyone jump. Finally, a polluted water pump was dramatically unmasked as the source of the disease.

Feedback - how was it for you?

a young family of boys and girls

Alessio Verrecchia (front left), aged 12, from Cambridge: “I’d give it ten out of ten, because I really love diseases and the 19th century. At Museums at Night in future I’d like to see more about global warming, futuristic alternative energies and what’s going to happen in the future!”

a young woman in a red coat

Rosy Hunt, 26, from Cambridge, leader of the 23rd Cambridge Brownies: “This is the first Museums at Night event I’ve been to, and I’m really enjoying it. The presentation was interesting and the role play was delivered with panache and enthusiasm. It was fun!”

a man with short hair

Neil Christie, 34, from Cambridge: “I got a message on Facebook about this and I thought, that’s something different from going to the pub, which I normally do.”

Over 150 museums and galleries across the UK took part in Museums at Night 2009, which ran from May 15 - May 17. We hope next year's event will be even bigger and better, so watch out for news of Museums at Night 2010 on Culture24!

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