Cornwall museums mine their collections for a History of Cornwall in 100 Objects

By Ralph Gifford | 15 February 2011
photo of a pair of brown leather boots
Croggon Boots for children© Bernie Pettersen
Museums in Cornwall are launching a new programme, A History of Cornwall in 100 Objects, in a bid to unlock the treasures and secrets of the county's past. 

Primarily known as a holiday destination, Cornwall’s history is sometimes forgotten. The aim of this new project is to highlight the county’s heritage by giving people a flavour of the items, people and innovations which have made the region famous.

Off the back of the BBC’s A History of the World television and radio series, three Cornish Museum Development Officers came up with the idea to make a list of 100 objects which represent Cornwall. They include ancient artefacts, fossils, paintings, carvings, a rocket, horse manure, clothing and a steam engine, to mention just few.

photo of a pasty shaped money box with silver coins
Cornish pasty money box© Bernie Pettersen
Jo Mattingly lives in Cornwall’s capital, Truro, and is one of the Development Officers who has helped put the programme together. She explained that many of the objects had fascinating human stories hidden behind them, adding interest and personality to things which at first may seem ordinary. 

“When we first started thinking of ideas we visited a lot of the museums in Cornwall and noticed that there were lots of inventors," she said. "We ran with this theme for a while and it led us into finding more and more items that we think will be of interest.

“We found some objects and just went 'wow'. We have been so surprised by what we have found. 

“Out of the 100 objects, 55 have come from small museums, as well as the larger ones and country homes. By promoting small, voluntary museums we hope to give an overview of Cornish history.”

As you look through the list, some of the objects are quite surprising. One is a fossil fish found in the rocks around Bude - appropriately named the Bude Fossil Fish, it is about the size of a sardine. With its razor sharp, piranha-like teeth, Cornuboniscus Budensis is thought to be around three hundred million years old and is the only specimen in the world. It can be found at the Castle Heritage Centre in Bude.

photo of a black and gold cornish rugby shirt
Cornish Rugby shirt© Bernie Pettersen
Alternatively, in Bodmin Museum, you can find a Belling’s brass lantern clock. Made by the first John Belling in 1753, it was decorated with Cornish tin. The Belling’s name is now known internationally for making kitchen stoves but the clock-making family lived and worked in Bodmin for five generations.

Throughout 2011, the museums of Cornwall, from Land’s End to the Tamar, will be telling the stories of these 100 objects. Along the way it is hoped that visitor numbers will be increased and that people will go back to their homes having learned something about the place they live - or the place they have just been on holiday.

Funding for the project is coming from a number of different sources including The Museums, Libraries and Archives Council and the Museum Development Fund. It is also being looked at by the Social and Economic Sustainability of Museums - an initiative which helps museums find funding and resources.
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