Hidden Treasure Trail 3 - The People's Museum In The South West

| 15 May 2006
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Welcome to the Hidden Treasure Trails on the 24 Hour Museum, exploring the hidden treasures of the People’s Museum.

The BBC2 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!

The 24 Hour Museum is revisiting the featured venues and more, taking another look at amazing artefacts on show near you, in region-by-region trails. Read on to discover some of the southwest's rich collections and surprising finds – we hope it inspires you to get out there and visit them for yourself.

The south-west’s museums and galleries are full of hidden treasures. Visitors can explore Brunel’s legacy on the original ss Great Britain in Bristol and see how the crew and passengers lived on board. The city’s importance as a port can also be discovered at the Bristol Industrial Museum with its many transport exhibits, dockers’ artefacts and the story of the slave trade.

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery features a slice across history, from the dinosaurs to the area’s Roman connections. The story of Britain’s imperial past and its legacy is examined at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum.

The Science Museum’s outpost at Wroughton in Somerset contains some of its largest objects, including a huge Fleet Street printing press and ERNIE, the premium bonds computer.

photo of a 19th century handwritten diary with a diagram of part of a ship on one page

Gold seeker Alan Gilmour's diary of his 1852 voyage on ss Great Britain. Courtesy ss Great Britain

Many of the South West’s attractions are in Bristol, the area’s largest city and port. The has been recently restored and is now sealed in its dry dock there by a visually impressive glass ‘sea’, covered in an insulating layer of water.

Designed by pioneering engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel, she was the biggest ship in the world when launched in 1843. Brunel's toolkit has made it into the short-list for the People's Museum. The ship's combination of iron hull and screw propeller made her the forerunner of all modern shipping, transforming international passenger travel and paving the way for mass emigration.

She originally served as an ocean liner, later becoming a cargo ship, troop transporter and finally a floating warehouse in the Falkland Islands, from where she was salvaged and returned to Bristol in 1970.

photo of some rusting funnel shaped urinals

The crew heads on ss Great Britain. Courtesy ss Great Britain

On board ships, crew toilets are known as ‘heads’ and on the ss Great Britain the crew’s comfort came second to that of the passengers. While the paying travellers could make use of one of the 26 flushing and fashionably decorated ‘water closets’, the crew had to make do with a rather simpler affair – look at the picture to see why.

Not all passengers travelled in luxury, however. The lowest class of accommodation was called the ‘Steerage’, and the diary of Alan Gilmour, a gold seeker who sailed on the ship to Australia in 1852, has helped in the reconstruction of this area of the ship.

There are many other artefacts on board, including a gold ring belonging to Charles Chaplin, who became the ship’s captain in 1873. He was elevated to command when his personal friend and superior officer Captain Gray disappeared in mid-Atlantic. His death was presumed a suicide and Chapman accepted the vacant position of command.

The worn inscription on the inner circumference of the ring reads “[C] Chapm from A.J.Johnson” and it is thought that a grateful passenger must have presented it.

photo of a gold ring with a stone mounted on it.

Captain Chapman's ring. Courtesy ss Great Britain

is in the city’s Floating Harbour in an old transit shed that was used for imported goods. The museum focuses on the port of Bristol, its varied industries and the story of the slave trade that helped to fund its industrial expansion and wealth - an anti-slavery cameo is in the list of nominees for the People's Museum.

A docker’s ‘black book’ shows how labour was organised at the port in the 1920s. The Bristol Port Labour Committee started issuing black-coloured registrations books for dockers, which were the men’s passport to work. The hordes of dockers would thrust out their black books towards the employers in the hope that they would be picked for work that day.

This ad hoc distribution of work led to a phrase still in common usage. Dockers carried hooks to impale the bales they carried and making them easier to transport. Once all the work for the day had been given out the remaining unlucky men would be told to ‘sling your hook’ – put it over your shoulder and leave.

black and white photo of a crowd of men thrusting small books to suited men on a platform

Who would have to sling their hook? Dockers in Bristol. Courtesy Bristol Industrial Museum

The museum also has many transport exhibits, including the Bristol Sycamore HR14 – the first British-designed helicopter to get off the ground and fly. In the 1950s Sycamore crews helped to pioneer many of the helicopter techniques commonly used today in air-sea rescue and troop transport work.

A very different type of transport is the humble caravan, with The Wanderer, the world’s first holiday caravan, standing testament to the changing face of leisure. The Wanderer was built in 1883 and began a trend that would develop into the luxurious motor homes of today.

black and white photo of a horse drawn coach

The Wanderer. Courtesy Bristol Industrial Museum

Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery has a wonderfully diverse range of things to see and is located in a handsome baroque building. Exhibits range from dinosaurs to Roman artefacts to art from the old masters and more contemporary works. Its Bristol Boxkite aircraft is up for the vote at the People's Museum.

The Romans famously settled at Bath, where they built their magnificent bath house, but there are many other important sites in the region and the museum is lucky enough to have some fine examples from these.

The pagan temple at Nettleton Shrub was primarily dedicated to the god Apollo Cunomaglos, the ‘Hound Prince’, and although it was used for about 300 years is now little known to the public.

photo of a gold ornament featuring a face

Votive mask from the City Museum. Courtesy Bristol City Museum and Art Gallery

A thin bronze votive face mask from the site shows the face of Apollo and was an offering to the god from a man called Decimus from more than 1,600 years ago. His name can be seen pricked out in the metal and finds like this have helped to show the development of Romano-British life and worship before the spread of Christianity across the Roman Empire.

There are also many examples of the region’s later social history. Rammohun (or Ram Mohan) Roy was a social and religious reformer best known for his attempts to abolish the Hindu funerary custom of sati, where widows would sacrifice themselves on the flaming pyres of their husbands.

Born in Bengal in 1772, Rammohan travelled to Britain as an ambassador and died in Bristol in 1833, where his portrait hangs in the city art gallery. He is buried at nearby Arnos Vale Cemetery.

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum opened in 2002 as the first major institution to look at the history and legacy of Britain’s empire. It is located in Bristol at Isambard Kingdom Brunel’s 19th century Temple Meads railway station. A slave festival doll from its collection is up for nomination to the People's Museum.

oil painting of a procession with elephants before an Indian palace

Delhi Durbar oil painting. Courtesy British Empire and Commonwealth Museum

The museum’s first acquisition was a 1907 oil painting of Delhi Durbar - it measures roughly four metres by three making it the museum’s largest item as well. A Durbar is an Indian ceremony, and the painting depicts one in 1902 to celebrate King Edward VII’s accession to the throne and proclamation as Emperor of India.

The Durbar saw the Duke and Duchess of Connaught and Lord and Lady Curzon at the head of a procession of elephants, followed by several Indian prices.

Other rare items at the museum include shell money from the Solomon Islands in the South Pacific and a whalebone corset of the type worn by virtually all women in Victorian times.

photo of an orange vehicle with caterpillar tracks

The 1955 Tucker Sno-Cat took a momentous journey and now lives at the Science Museum stores in Wroughton. Courtesy the Science Museum Wroughton

There are plenty of other fascinating spots in the region, not just in Bristol. One of these is the Science Museum’s outpost at Wroughton. It’s the store for large objects from the museum’s national collection and takes up five hangars, covering everything from aerospace to early computers.

There are about 18,000 objects at the site, which opens on selected dates during the summer months, when curators delve into the stores with visitors to reveal some of the fascinating items within. See www.sciencemuseum.org.uk/wroughton/diary.asp for details.

The heaviest object in the Science Museum’s collection is part of the last surviving Fleet Street printing press, built in 1934 and finally dismantled in1999.

Originally weighing 140 tonnes, about a third of it survives in the stores where it was reassembled in 2001. Interestingly, staff at the stores discovered a ‘time capsule’ of papers in one of its legs, which is on show next to the press itself.

photo of a large printing press

The last Fleet Street printing press. Courtesy the Science Museum Wroughton

From Fleet Street to the South Pole – the stores contain the 1955 Tucker Sno-Cat, used in the first motorised crossing of Antarctica, which is one of the People's Museum hopefuls. This vehicle made the journey with three others and arrived at Scott Base on March 2 1958 after a journey of 2,158 miles.

Another new innovation from the 1950s was ERNIE, which was to become a household name and synonymous with the Premium Bonds draws. For most British people ERNIE, the Electronic Random Number Indicator Equipment, was the first computer they had ever heard of.

ERNIE weighed about 1,500 kg and was developed from Colossus, the first digital, electronic computer used for code breaking at Bletchley Park during the Second World War.

More museums and more fascinating objects to be found in the South West...

Other venues in the south-west worth making a beeline for include the North Somerset Museum. Among its many displays is one that shows what a trip to the dentist would have been like in 1900.

The region’s seafaring traditions are explored at several venues like the North Devon Maritime Museum and the National Maritime Museum Cornwall.

Further down the coast, Tate St Ives occupies a gorgeous seaside position and runs the nearby Barbara Hepworth Museum and Sculpture Garden. Artworks from the world-famous St Ives School can be found in the gallery along with regularly changing displays of challenging modern and contemporary art.

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 the 24 Hour Museum with support from the Foyle Foundation.

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