The unbearable flatness of the present

What shocked me about Yeovil was that the town had no museum open to the public. The Museum of South Somerset closed about ten years ago and its collections were put into store, available for inspection on request but not to the casual visitor. I could not imagine that this would still be the case ten years later but it is so. It’s depressing that a town of 45,000 people, large by Somerset standards, should have so little interest in its history (that sentence requires unpacking, of course, – who has so little interest, which politicians, which sections of the population and what history?).

With tough government cuts to local government finance, the ruling local politicians clearly did not regard the history of the town as so important as to spare it from the axe. And lean local government, doing what it is bound to do by statute and leaving other responsibilities to the private sector has been the spirit of the age. I’ve not been aware either of popular unrest at the lack of a museum. although I’m sure that I’m not alone in deploring it.

Museums haven’t disappeared altogether – there is a motor museum at Sparkford not far away, a museum on the history of the naval air force at the Yeovilton air base. And various museums of rural life and those attached to country houses such as Montacute. But these are private businesses, perhaps of good quality but giving only a partial, specialised view of the past. However, they seem to thrive and to have captured the public’s interest in the way that the public local museum’s dutiful plod from the artefacts of pre-history through the various local industries does not. The development reminds me of the waning and disappearance of the old department stores and their replacement by small specialized shops.

Even the museums that are open worry about lack of interest in their collections and how to increase footfall (and revenue). It’s not hard to understand the temptation to attract the public by more aggressive marketing and to make the museum into entertainment. But I think this road is full of pitfalls and I don’t like it. The chatty circulars even from the venerable British Library make me cringe. I hope very much that the wonderful Victorian room at the Dorset County Museum in Dorchester with Thomas Hardy’s study will survive the makeover. But reading about the tour of Dippy the Dinosaur while the museum was otherwise closed and looking at the bookshop, a shadow of its former self, with a justified selection of Hardy’s novels on display together with  a heap of anywhere items, doesn’t make me feel optimistic. Hopefully, it will be better when the Covid-delayed move back is completed.

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